San Francisco Mayor London Breed made a surprise appearance at a heated community meeting along the city's Embarcadero Wednesday night, where hundreds of residents had gathered to either support or oppose the city's plans for a neighborhood multiservice navigation center for the homeless.
London Breed Booed at Heated Meeting on Proposed Embarcadero Homeless Center
Addressing a packed hall at the Delancey Street Foundation, city officials tried to allay concerns about the mayor's proposal to open the roughly 225-bed navigation center this summer on a nearby public lot on the Embarcadero, emphasizing that it would be a drug-free site with regular police patrols, and that the community would have a say in the design.
Residents who live near the proposed SAFE Navigation Center — which would provide both shelter and rehabilitative services to homeless residents, with the aim of finding permanent housing options — say the city is unfairly targeting their district and rapidly trying to push the plan forward without community input. The shelter, they argue, would compromise the health and safety of the neighborhood.
"To me it’s kinda a fairness issue,” said Jan Duffy, who lives and works blocks from the proposed site. "I have the biggest homeless shelter in the city three blocks from me, as well as another navigation center. And now, my only outdoor space, which is the Embarcadero, is going to have another one."
A rival contingent of attendees — many holding signs reading, "Hate has no home here" and "Being homeless doesn’t mean you matter less" — adamantly defended the planned shelter, and accused opponents of being selfish and not caring about the welfare of the city's homeless population.
"When people's lives are at risk, when people are dying on the streets, and it is a life and death issue, it is very hard for it to not be charged," said April Long, a case manager who works with formerly homeless families.
Tensions came to a head when Breed arrived unexpectedly in the middle of the meeting, and was greeted by boos from members of the contingent opposing the facility.
"Do you want me to talk or not? If you don’t want to hear me, then leave," said Breed, visibly frustrated.
"I’m sorry this issue has divided your community," she added. "My role is to hear all of you today.”
As the project's opponents continued to interrupt her, shouting "We live here," Breed made an effort to continue. "What I am trying to do is to address what we know is the biggest challenge we have in this city," she said. "So on the one hand you can't be upset about homelessness, and then when I propose a real solution that's gonna make a difference, then you're upset about it."
Breed eventually handed over the mic and took a seat for the remainder of the meeting. "I can’t continue, but I will stay and listen to the comments," she said. "The least we could do is show respect for one another.”
The proposed Embarcadero SAFE Navigation Center would be built on the site of Seawall Lot 330, a 2.3-acre parking lot near the intersection of Bryant and Beale streets, across the Embarcadero from Piers 30-32. The parcel is owned by the San Francisco Port Commission, which is tentatively scheduled to vote later this month on leasing the land to the city.
The facility is part of Breed's goal of creating 1,000 new shelter beds by the end of 2020. Breed said she wants to keep the center on the site for four years, but is flexible on the terms of the lease.
San Francisco currently operates six other navigation centers throughout the city.
Although Breed first announced plans for the new navigation center in March, the proposal garnered a flood of attention last week after a group of residents opposing it started an online fundraiser to pay for a potential legal challenge.
Calling themselves “Safe Embarcadero for All,” the loose coalition of residents from Rincon Hill, South Beach and other nearby neighborhoods have already raised more than $90,000 online.
The funds, the group said on its GoFundMe page, will be used exclusively for legal costs necessary to block construction of the proposed navigation center.
"My main concern is safety, not just myself, but my family and other people in the community," said Wallace Lee, one of the group's organizers. "It's really an experiment that the city is putting into a densely populated residential area."
But by Thursday, as funds continued to pour in, a dueling GoFundMe campaign in support of the center was launched by William Fitzgerald, a San Francisco community activist with a history of supporting local homeless causes.
That fundraiser, called SAFER Embarcadero for ALL, eclipsed its rival within 24 hours, and has now raised nearly $165,000, contributed by more than 1,700 people. Among them are several tech giants, including Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, who recently contributed $25,000, as well as Marc Benioff, head of Salesforce, and Twilio chief Jeff Lawson, who both gave $10,000.
The funds will be donated to the Coalition on Homelessness, according to Fitzgerald.
Wednesday night's meeting ended with little resolution or agreement, and a follow-up meeting is scheduled for April 8.
A number of attendees opposed to the facility, like Diem Tran who lives nearby, left early in frustration.
"It just hurts that the mayor showed up but I don’t feel like our voices were heard," she said.
But some people representing opposing sides sat down to talk about the issue after the meeting ended, in an effort to find some common ground.
"My greatest concern is not your feelings," April Long, the case manager, said to neighborhood resident Jan Duffy. "It’s the lives of the people who are sleeping outside every night."
Duffy responded, "That’s reasonable. Just don’t call me a name. Tell me that."