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The first look inside San Francisco's radical attempt to end homelessness

March 29 was the last night Delilah Soto slept on the street. She’s a recovering heroin addict who’s been living in a tent in San Francisco’s Mission District with her girlfriend, Rocky Anderson, and their dog Sparta. That night, she learned they had another choice.

Nearby, 1950 Mission St. was dead space. A closed-down school site sitting on premium San Francisco real estate, begging to be repurposed. On March 30, the gates opened on a new pilot program called the “Navigation Center”.

The Navigation Center is a temporary pilot program that the city’s running in collaboration with the nonprofit San Francisco Interfaith Council. They got $3 million from an anonymous donor to test a hunch: that people like Delilah Soto are more likely to make it off the street if they’re allowed to stay with their possessions, partners, and pets.

Expectations are high. Officials say once they’re fully up and running, Navigation Center staff will be able to get people from homeless to housed in just 10 days. And the experiment’s already being heralded as one of the country’s most innovative.

Soto and her partner wanted in on day one. They were told to be in the area of Harrison Street between 14th and 17th streets that morning, so they camped behind the Mission Best Buy with their friends, waiting for the San Francisco Homeless Outreach Team to pick them up. There was a little hitch -- they didn’t make it with the first group -- but city workers came back for them. Soto’s girlfriend heard them first.

“She’s screaming, ‘Baby, baby!’ I think she must have found a rock or something because she likes rocks,” Soto recalls. “And I stuck my head out the tent and she said, 'Pack your stuff. They’re coming to get us.'”

Now they live in a dorm room in one of the Navigation Center’s portable trailers. There are bathrooms, administrative offices, and hangout areas, all surrounded by a metal fence. Even inside, you can hear the traffic from Mission Street. But the walls make a big difference.

“The first day was surreal for me. It was so surreal, you know, all the pretty pictures they have. I didn’t notice them until the second day,” Soto says. She’s been homeless since last July. And those months wore on her.

“It is so hard,” Soto says. “You have to find a place to squat, make sure nobody’s looking, or, if find a restaurant or somewhere [that has] a bathroom, you go in [and] they look at you all crazy. It’s very hard. I peed my pants several times just because I couldn’t find somewhere.”

Auditing success

Each person’s experience at the Navigation Center is being translated into data that the San Francisco Controller’s office tracks in real time. And time is short.

The city’s already planned a separate affordable housing development here, and the center will have to shut down when construction starts. There’s also an election coming up in November, and a mayor eager to address homelessness, which many city residents say is their biggest annoyance and concern.

Community matters

Right now, Soto isn’t worried about any of that. Sparta seems more relaxed too. All the dogs do. Not wanting to separate from companion animals is a big reason some people choose encampments over shelters. People don’t want to leave their pets any more than they want to leave their families.

In the dorm, Soto’s friend Rodney O'Neil and his long-term girlfriend have pushed two twin beds together in the corner. Their pitbull Bubbie sleeps with them. Soto’s bed is a few feet away, about the same as it was when they would all camp together on the street. But she and her girlfriend opted for separate beds.

“We’ve been together eight years,” Soto says. “We know we’re not going anywhere. We don’t have to be all in each other’s face 24/7.”

The Navigation Center isn’t like an on-demand shelter, where once you leave the building, you have to go to the back of the line to get back in. Here, people can claim their own space and come and go as they please. People leave their phones out to charge, along with piles of clothes and sentimental items. They talk about being treated like adults, and appreciating it.

“There was just a sense of relief that people had, going, ‘my things are here, my partner’s here, my dog is here,’ and yet still I can access a range of services,” says Bevan Dufty, who’s spearheading the project for the Mayor’s Office of Housing Opportunity Partnerships and Engagement.

The services he’s talking about include case management, and direct access to benefits. There are at least four agencies on site.

“Getting on general assistance here in San Francisco can take six weeks and four appointments, so we’re going to be able to accomplish that in one week,” Dufty says. “So that’s pretty dramatic.”

The center can accommodate 75 people. Right now there are about 30, half with dogs. The idea of getting all of them from streets to stable housing in 10 days or less isn’t necessarily feasible. People staying at the center say they’re hearing 15 to 30 days is more likely. But Navigation Center director Julie Leadbetter says whether it takes one week or three, drastically changing your life in that short a time is a success.

“Over the course of three days or so you see people really changing their frame of mind and being able to take on these bigger challenges,” she says.

This is what’s happening to Soto. By the ninth day of her stay, she says she feels like a weight has been lifted off her shoulders. And it’s noticeable. Especially to her girlfriend.

“She said, 'You’re starting to look like the woman that I fell in love with back then.' Because I was stressed all the time. I was constantly stressed,” Soto says.

Now, a home is just a piece of paperwork away.

“We need a copy of our domestic partnership paper and that’s it,” Soto says. “That’s the last thing we have to hand in.”

A complex challenge

But there are plenty of people whose exits from the center aren’t in clear sight. There’s a man with advanced stomach cancer; an elderly woman who’d been sleeping on the sidewalk of 16th Street; another woman who used the city’s Homeward Bound program to return to her family in Nebraska, but wound up back in San Francisco. And then there are people like Edward Speller.

“When I was evicted, finally had to actually leave the apartment, I ended up sleeping in a doorway that was three doors down from the building that I lived in,” Speller says.

Speller just turned 52, but he looks older: Homelessness wears on people, causing them to age more quickly than others. Speller says he’s been homeless since 2013, when he lost his apartment because he couldn’t afford to pay rent.

“I can’t even describe it,” he says.

But since he’s been homeless, he’s found a community. And even though he has a bed at the Navigation Center, he returns to Eighth and Market streets every night to open his shop, a blanket on the ground displaying random items that he sells. The center’s meeting his physical needs. But he’s not sure it can meet his emotional ones.

“We try and consider ourselves, those of us who know each other and are in this situation, family,” Speller says. “There are places you can go eat at and shelters you can sleep at, but when it comes to someone really having a heartfelt concern for you, there’s no place to go for that.”

Making it out

Delilah Soto’s friend Rodney O'Neil was the first person in the center, and he already loves it.

“I’m trying to organize a little Friday night movie thing where you can watch movies because a little community, it helps,” he says. “It makes it feel more homey and everything.”

O'Neil’s not going to be the first one out -- someone else was already asked to leave for not following the program -- but it looks like he’s going to be the first one to make it into a home.

His housing came through and by April 22 he expects to be living in an SRO for people on General Assistance, which is all thanks to the help he got at the center. His girlfriend will live in a building down the street. It’s not ideal, but it’s not nothing. Mostly, he’s happy that he’ll have a kitchen again.

“This is a great place,” O'Neil says. “It’s what I thought it was going to be, I just hope it succeeds.”

O'Neil is one success. If the city wants to meet its goals for housing the Mission District’s homeless, there are still hundreds to go.

Two and a half weeks in, the idea of bringing entire encampments into transitional housing together has worked, anecdotally. But when the experiment ends, the numbers will be the story.