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Neighbors sound off on Mission’s two alternative homeless shelters

Laura Wenus
The exterior of the city's first Navigation Center at 16th and Mission streets

An abandoned industrial building on the southern border of San Francisco’s Mission District is about to become the city’s newest Navigation Center.

It’s at 26th Street and South Van Ness Avenue. The shelter is expected to open this week, and will only be around for an estimated nine months before it’s removed and housing is built on the site.

Neighbors I spoke with generally liked the idea of having a center here. Local resident Marvin Garcia knows the homeless need somewhere to go.

“When I see them, it bothers me. Because I think, 'I wouldn’t want the same,'” he told me in Spanish. “But yes, it’s a very good idea that they do something for them.”

Other people in the area are more critical, as one resident, Noam Szoke, found.

“I had some neighbors put some flyers on my house and on my car, talking about having the Navigation Center is going to cause more trouble,” he said. “I haven’t seen any proof of that.”

Szoke tells me he’s had his car windows smashed twice in two months on this block of Shotwell Street, near 26th Street. But rather than get angry, he sees that as a sign that people need help.

“I think that whoever vandalized my car is possibly the same person who might benefit from having a Navigation Center and get some help, and get off the street, or get whatever they need to help them. So that’s my basic take on it,” he said.

Police say they plan to increase patrols in the neighborhood. The new Navigation Center will also have a private security guard.

Concerns about bringing a new temporary shelter into the neighborhood

Francesca Pastine lives within a block of the project and likes the concept. But she has some concerns. Among them: the center will provide 120 beds, which she estimates is almost as many people as live on the whole block.

She’s done some research, and found a study about the 16th Street Navigation Center. The city Controller’s Office and the nonprofit that run the shelter, Episcopal Community Services, evaluated that Navigation Center’s first year of work. The study indicates that the bigger a shelter gets, the harder it is to funnel clients into housing efficiently. It also noted other limitations.

“Apparently the Navigation Centers are ill equipped, according to the study, to really deal with the population of addiction and mental illness. And because of that, those people fail to go through, and find themselves back in the street and back in tent encampments,” Pastine told me. “So that’s a whole other category, and I think the city has to really come to some hard decisions about that.”

Pastine has been writing almost daily emails to the San Francisco Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing expressing her concerns. A spokesperson responded to her, saying the Navigation Centers offer access to mental health and drug treatment programs to those who need them.

The program is popular among people who are sent there. As far as Betty Cordova is concerned, the shelter is welcome. She's been on the street near the new center for six months on and off, supporting her boyfriend who's homeless.

“I think it's a good thing. I’m gonna check it out, and I know that my boyfriend's thinking about doing it too,” she said. “Before, most shelters and transitional housing, they had a lot of rules and limitations on people. They can’t come and go as they please. You end up staying outside because you don’t want to adhere to the rules that they have. But I think it’s going to be great for this area.”

The Navigation Center is designed to make it easier to get in and get help. That might include assistance getting documents in order, or getting enrolled in public benefits like MediCal, or getting rental subsidies. The new site will also have on-site job training.

Reports from San Francisco’s first Navigation Center

Over at 16th and Mission streets, the city’s first Navigation Center has been up and running for more than two years. Russell Jefferson says he’s been staying there for about a month; before that, he’d been on the street for over fifteen years.

“It helps me stay off the street. I’m not on the streets, and for the things that I needed to do that I wasn’t doing while I was homeless on the streets, I’m afforded the time to do it now, and a little direction as far as going about doing it,” Jefferson told me.

This Navigation Center feels very different from the new site just over a mile south of here. It’s on a busy street that has long attracted people who just hang out. And the area is no stranger to homeless encampments either. Neighbors at local meetings have claimed again and again that they are fed up with the loitering, drug use, and tents.

Cleanliness is a huge concern, especially for business owners like Wesley Brittain, who runs a hotel a few doors down from the shelter. I ask him if the Navigation Center has changed things on Mission Street.

“I think it helped at the beginning,” he said, “because before it was just an empty lot. Those people would hang out there anyway. It was just an empty space, and it would be dirt and rats everywhere at night, because there would be food left over. And so now that’s the only problem: that there’s still some people sitting out there at night. And if people were sitting outside my property at night, I would do something about it.”

The Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing says that the people loitering are not necessarily the people in the shelter. And when I asked around, a lot of people didn’t even know there’s a shelter here.

But Raul Thomas, who lives nearby on 15th Street, knows about the Navigation Center.

“It was kind of tidy today actually,” he told me. When I asked if that wasn’t usually the case, he said, “Well on the street in front of it, it’s not, but I know inside it’s probably very clean. And I’m very glad that it's there, because otherwise there would be that many more people out here on the sidewalks.”

That could change again soon. Like the forthcoming 26th Street Navigation Center, this one is temporary. A huge building full of affordable housing is going to be built where the shelter is now. Once that’s done, the plan will be to send homeless people to the other Navigation Centers elsewhere around the city.

Crosscurrents Housing & Homelessness