Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, affordable housing, labor, and technology.
To foil community pushback over new facilities for people in homelessness, a San Francisco lawmaker wants all neighborhoods to share the responsibility.
Last month, members of San Francisco’s waterfront Embarcadero neighborhood launched an online crowdfunding campaign to stop the city from building a 24-hour support center for homeless residents nearby. Opponents of the facility said that, while they supported addressing homelessness, they feared that the navigation center would usher drug users and crime into the affluent area. Many live in a condo with a rooftop pool overlooking the proposed site. On Nextdoor, one commenter likened the center to a cancer on the community.
The backlash to this NIMBY backlash was swift. “The optics around very wealthy condo owners opposing a place for the very poorest most destitute people to sleep at night … was pretty disgusting,” Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, told CityLab. Almost 2,000 people—including tech magnates Mark Benioff and Jack Dorsey—donated to a rival GoFundMe launched in support of building the navigation center, which has now exceeded its fundraising goal of $175,000.
But the battle over the issue is hardly over. The anti-navigation center GoFundMe has now surpassed its more modest goal of $100,000, netting $2,500 from an anonymous donor just this weekend, and they’re planning on using the money to finance what they expect could be a long legal fight with the city. At a public meeting in early April, San Francisco Mayor London Breed promised to hear the Embarcadero community’s concerns over her plan to construct the center by this summer, but was met with jeers and shouts. This week, Breed proposed a compromise: Rather than installing 200 beds, the center would start with 130 and grow from there. And rather than signing a four-year lease, it would start with a two-year trial.
Now, a proposal introduced by District 6 Supervisor Matt Haney this week is designed to stop decisions like this over who gets shelter—and where—from devolving into endless angry debate. The proposed legislation, called Navigating Homelessness Together, would mandate that every San Francisco district without a navigation center build one within 30 months.
“It is critical that we step up and say we are going to all be part of the solution,” Haney, whose district would host the contested navigation center, told the San Francisco Chronicle. “This is not just talk. This is action. This is commitment.”
The legislation wouldn’t just be a check on communities like the Embarcadero, but on supervisors themselves. “A couple of years ago, many supervisors felt comfortable outrightly saying they would not accept a nav center in their district, whereas now there would be discomfort about saying that publicly,” said Hillary Ronen, the supervisor for District 9 and one of the co-sponsors of the bill. “But even though there’s the professed will to have that happen, it hasn’t happened yet.”
Navigation centers are temporary shelters for unhoused people that, in addition to beds, offer support like substance-abuse treatment and job training. They’re also more permissive than traditional homeless shelters, says Friedenbach: They welcome partners and pets, provide property storage, and allow folks to come and go without curfews.
The legislation wouldn’t entirely eliminate public engagement, nor would it be likely to silence all community pushback over homeless shelters and affordable housing, which can be fierce in San Francisco. At least three community meetings will have to be held before each site is approved, and Haney has not yet outlined enforcement measures for districts that don’t comply.
The law also doesn’t yet address funding for the new shelters, which can cost between $2 and $3 million, or finding ample space for them. Though Breed has been scouring the city for potential navigation center sites as she pursues her plan to build 1,000 new shelter beds by the end of 2020 (including 500 by this summer), she’s found it difficult to secure them, the Chronicle reports.
While it’s designed to short-circuit the kind of community pushback that’s swept the Embarcadero, the legislation also addresses one root of their complaints: that District 6 already bears a disproportionate burden in hosting services supporting the city’s homeless, and that Breed should consider other districts with fewer such resources.
“At this moment, District 6 delivers 75 percent of all the shelter beds in San Francisco, which clearly makes i[t] the most welcoming and responsible district in all of San Francisco, far from being the NIMBYs we’ve been vilified as,” Wallace Lee, one of the self-identified “grassroots organizers” of the GoFundMe movement, told CityLab over email. “The other districts must share in the responsibility of solving the homelessness problem in San Francisco.”
Ronen says she heard a similar argument from constituents when trying to build a navigation center in District 9. “They fought it and said we already provide so many services, why doesn’t some other neighborhood and district take up some of this responsibility?” she said. “I kind of didn’t have a response to that.”
All eight of the navigation centers currently in operation are in Districts 6, 9, and 10. That’s where San Francisco’s homeless population is most heavily concentrated. But there are unhoused and unsheltered residents throughout the city.
“Finally there’s some force behind this rhetoric that everybody has to take responsibility … for helping protect the most vulnerable among us, and working together to make these centers safe for any neighborhood,” said Ronen. “We can’t keep saying that unless we’re really doing that—unless the responsibility is truly shared.”
Embarcadero resident Lee disagrees that a political mandate is the solution, however. “[W]e do not wish on any residential area to go through what we have gone through and see a shelter built without meaningful public consultation.”
Other support for the legislation has trickled in since Haney proposed it: Three district supervisors, including Ronen, have signed on to co-sponsor the measure, and this week, the Chronicle’s editorial board penned an op-ed in support. “This is truly a citywide issue that requires the participation of every district,” they wrote. “Mayor London Breed could make things easier by asking the other supervisors to support this measure.” (Her office did not respond to a request for comment.)
The law won’t be a cure-all. Navigation centers may be vital resources for the city’s homeless residents, but they don’t break cycles of displacement in the community, says Jack Rice, the Coalition on Homelessness’ development director. “Our angle at the Coalition is much more about permanent exits from homelessness than it is about shelter,” he said. According to San Francisco’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, 46 percent of navigation center guests “end[ed] their experience of homelessness” after a stay.
While the rules inside nav centers are more permissive than other shelters, they are also not open to all of the city’s unhoused population: Residents are selected by the city’s Homeless Outreach Team (SFHOT), who work primarily with those who have severe illnesses. “That leaves out a lot of communities and a lot of people with high needs,” said Friedenbach.
But Haney’s legislation fits into a broader push by the city to both support the currently unhoused and address long-term homelessness—and it could help fill in the gaps if other measures are clawed back. Just last week, opponents of Proposition C, a tax on businesses to fund affordable housing and homelessness services, filed court documents to strike it down. Though the measure passed with more than 60 percent of the vote in November—defying criticism both from the mayor and the tech industry—its simple majority wasn’t enough to insulate it from a reversal attempt.