Inside San Francisco's Newest, Hotly Contested Navigation Center

1 min
The Embarcadero SAFE Navigation Center at the corner of Embarcadero and Beale streets in San Francisco's South Beach neighborhood. The 200-bed multiservice shelter opened at the end of December. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

On a recent, unusually balmy winter morning, Jerry Womack ambles slowly across the spacious courtyard that separates the dining hall and dormitories of San Francisco’s newest navigation center.

With a back badly hunched from years of hard living on the street, Womack eases himself slowly into one of the colorful chairs spread across the yard and flashes a largely toothless grin.

"This is one of the best places I have ever stayed in since being a homeless person," he said. "The staff here really shows concern about your well-being."

Womack has been living on San Francisco’s streets for the past 10 years, a consequence, he said, of his longtime struggle with drug addiction. About a month ago, the city’s Homeless Outreach Team found him sleeping in a doorway near Van Ness Avenue and Market Street and encouraged him to come here.

"They came back every day for about two or three weeks to check on me," he said. "I didn’t even know this place existed."

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Womack is among the first group of "guests" — as they're called — to stay at the Embarcadero SAFE Navigation Center, a gleaming new multiservice homeless shelter on San Francisco's tourist-heavy Embarcadero. Improbably located in the shadow of a glistening glass condominium at the mouth of Bryant Street, the spacious fenced-in compound of three long fabric tent frames opened at the end of December to much fanfare among city officials, despite fierce opposition from neighbors.

Jerry Womack, among the first 'guests' at the Embarcadero navigation center, says he's been living on the street for 10 years. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

With 200 beds, it's the city's largest navigation center, built from scratch at a cost of nearly $12.5 million. Only about 90 of the beds are currently being used, with plans to ramp up to full capacity by June.

In contrast to most city shelters, navigation centers are open around-the-clock and accommodate families and pets. All guests are brought in by the city's Homeless Outreach Team — they can't just show up on their own. Along with beds, showers and storage bins for personal items, the centers offer a range of supportive services, including medical and mental health care and drug rehabilitation, with the overarching goal of fast-tracking people into stable housing situations.

And similar to the San Francisco's six other navigation centers, the Embarcadero site is designed to be temporary: The city is leasing the primely located lot from the San Francisco Port Commission for two years, with the option to extend for another two if things go smoothly before the site is permanently developed.

Navigation centers are just one of the many strategies the city has deployed — including supportive housing programs and its extensive conventional shelter network — to tackle a seemingly intractable homeless crisis. But despite spending upward of $300 million a year on the issue, the homeless population has continued to grow, topping 8,000 at last count, nearly 5,200 of whom live in unsheltered conditions.

San Francisco unveiled its inaugural navigation center — the first of its kind in the country — in March 2015, shutting it down, as planned, three years later. Of the more than 5,000 homeless residents that have passed through the city's navigation centers, nearly half have been placed in permanent housing or reunified with family or friends, according to the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, which oversees most of the sites.

"We want to have them come in and meet them where they are, help them figure out what their pathway is [to] housing, what their solution to homelessness is and then work with them so that they can stay here while they exit homelessness," said Abigail Stewart-Kahn, director of strategy and external affairs with DHSH. "It's not always perfect, but that is the intent."

The courtyard between the Embarcadero navigation center's two dormitories. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

When Womack arrived at the Embarcadero center nearly two weeks ago, he, like all guests, was scanned with a wand for weapons before being interviewed by a caseworker to determine his specific needs.

At 70, getting back on his feet after a decade on the street means essentially re-enrolling in society, a formidable task that he says case managers here are working to guide him through.

"I don't got no Social Security, I don't have no [public] assistance, I don't even have my ID," Womack said. "I have two meetings today where they're going to take me to get some of these things."

The standard length of stay here is 30 days, but staff insist that residents won't be pushed out unless another shelter bed or housing option is available. The goal, however ambitious, is for these centers to be a springboard out of homelessness.

"We don't want to put people back on the street," said center director Tony Chase of Five Keys, a nonprofit charter school operator contracted by the city to operate the site. "So we always work to have another place for a person to go if they can't stay here."

The campus is spare but cheerful, with scattered plantings and an outdoor patio space. That morning, residents wandered freely around the facility, some resting in one of the two sprawling dormitories or lounging in front of a large flat-screen TV in the dining area. A few used the handful of desktop computers available: one writing what appeared to be computer code.

One of the Embarcadero navigation center's two dormitories, which together offer 200 beds. Unlike most traditional shelters, guests can sleep with their families and bring pets and personal belongings. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The calmness of the space belies the heated community battle that preceded it, and the political capital Mayor London Breed has invested in ensuring its success.

Tensions flared immediately after Breed first proposed the center last March as part of her goal of creating 1,000 new shelter beds by the end of 2020. A group of neighbors, calling themselves Safe Embarcadero for All, quickly mobilized against the project, claiming it would bring blight and crime to a neighborhood that it said didn't have much of a homeless problem to begin with.

Following a monthslong succession of rancorous community meetings that pitted neighbors against homeless advocates and the mayor, the group appealed to the city's Board of Supervisors to block the project. In a last-ditch effort to halt construction, the group then unsuccessfully sued the city, alleging it had failed to get the necessary permissions from the state or conduct appropriate public outreach and environmental review.

As a concession, the city agreed to initially fill only about 50 beds, leaving more than three-quarters of the facility empty, and gradually ramp up to full capacity by June. It also pledged to patrol the surrounding area to keep it clean and free of encampments, and give longtime homeless residents in the vicinity first access to the center.

The covered entrance to the Embarcadero navigation center. All guests have to be brought in by the Homeless Outreach Team — walk-ins aren't allowed. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Stewart-Kahn stressed that nearly all the center's current occupants had been found living on the streets in the surrounding neighborhood, (although that was apparently not the case for Womack), and said concerns that the center would attract homeless people from other areas were unfounded.

“Our experience is that [navigation centers] don't become magnets," Stewart-Kahn said. "You're not allowed to kind of be around the perimeter here. If you're camping outside, it's not going to get you access to the navigation center. And people who are homeless know that."

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But Wallace Lee, who lives a block and a half from the center and leads Safe Embarcadero for All, said that doesn't square with some of the recent changes he's seen in the neighborhood as the center has begun to expand its capacity. That includes a handful of new encampments, the occasional pile of syringes and an increase in the number of "distressed people," he said.

"The idea that there are no additional encampments because of the navigation center is clearly preposterous," Lee said. "To give the people at the navigation center credit, they do respond and come out to clean it. But to pretend the problems aren't there is disingenuous."

At the last monthly neighborhood advisory group meeting in late January, Lee added, city officials even admitted they had reached the "point of diminishing returns" in their outreach efforts in the neighborhood and had started inviting homeless residents in other parts of the city to come here.

"At this point, we want to hold the city accountable to its promises and bring attention to these problems," he said.

Guests use computers provided in the Embarcadero navigation center's lounge and intake area. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

In touring the new facility, it's understandable why some neighbors are concerned about it drawing homeless people from other areas: As shelters go, it's a pretty plum destination, a safe, comfortable refuge from the street, flush with resources and amenities.

“I’ve been eating like a king," said Womack, noting that the kitchen is open 23 hours a day. "Anytime, day or night, you can go in and get yourself something to eat."

There's also a laundry room where residents can drop off bags of dirty clothes and pick them up clean and folded.

"We literally want to treat the guests here like they're coming into a hotel," said Steve Goode, the head of Five Keys. "Because if we don't treat them appropriately and treat them with dignity and respect, offer them something to eat and drink when they come in, they're not going to want to stay here."

Navigation center staff Steve Hawkins (left) and James Bess help fold guests' laundry, a service that's offered daily. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

But that, of course, comes with a hefty price tag. The city spends more than $6 million, on average, to build each of its navigation centers and over $4 million per site on annual operating costs, according to a report by the city's Budget and Legislative Analyst's Office.

Breed and the Department of Homeless and Supportive Housing have both championed navigation centers as an effective way to get people off the streets and into housing and recently proposed opening two new ones at 33 Gough and 888 Post streets. But in an interesting twist, the department balked at "proposed legislation to open eight new centers in the next 2½ years, one in each of districts that don’t currently have any.

All seven navigation centers are clustered in just three of the city's 11 districts, and the plan, introduced by Supervisor Matt Haney, whose district includes the Embarcadero site and two others, is intended to share the burden citywide.

"The proposed ordinance forces time, political capital, financial and personnel resources on expanding one component of our homelessness response,” Stewart-Kahn said at a recent hearing on the measure. “And it does this at the cost of [building more] housing."

Back at the Embarcadero navigation center, resident Joanna Shober said she had been camping near the Ferry Building before she came here.

"I was homeless, living on the street, and I got tired of it," she said. "The first week they opened [the center], they started taking all of my homeless buddies down by the [Ferry Building]. So I know a lot of people here."

Shober said she got laid off from her long-time job about a decade ago and has been living on and off the streets since then. She now works seasonally for the Giants in guest services and as an occasional coat checker during events at the Moscone and Chase centers.

"When I got that job, I tried to pay rent, but I didn't make enough, and I made too much for GA," she said, referring to the state General Assistance Program. "So I got cut off from GA and then I fell behind on rent, and it just spiraled down, and so I ended up on the street again."

Prior to her most recent stint on the street, Shober had stayed for 30 days at the Bayshore Navigation Center — also run by Five Keys — and when no housing materialized was offered a 90-day spot in a traditional shelter.

"[The shelter] was so bad that I actually had to leave," she said. "I said, I'd rather be homeless than be in this place."

Joanna Shober, a guest at the Embarcadero navigation center, said she works three part-time jobs, including guest services for the Giants, but still can't afford to pay rent in the city. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Shober has been impressed with this place so far, she said, and is optimistic things will be different this time around. She is even considering applying for a job here as a homeless ambassador.

"They give you all information of what to do, where to go, who to see," she said.

Homeless people are often given a bad rap, she said, but many just need an opportunity to get back on their feet.

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"I have a problem with people that have not been homeless and then they talk about how bad the homeless are," she said. "There's good homeless people out there. So, you know, they just need to give some people a chance."