“I don’t want to obsess over one little piece of the system, because navigation centers do not exit people from homelessness, they’re a path towards that.”
— Jeff Kositsky, director of the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, in a 2017 interview with San Francisco Public Press
The recently approved homeless navigation center along San Francisco’s scenic Embarcadero has pitted homeless advocacy groups like The Coalition on Homelessness against the area’s residents. The coalition would like you to believe it’s a battle between rich and poor, housed and unhoused, right and wrong, but it’s far more complex than that. While the coalition has spent years deriding and shaming wealthy “tech bros” for causing gentrification and displacement, they now gleefully accept donations from Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey — the poster bros for the very soapbox on which the coalition stands. In fact, Dorsey fought voraciously against Proposition C, the tax-the-techies to help-the-homeless ballot initiative pushed by the coalition and passed with Benioff’s help. Yet, in a recent tweet to Dorsey, the coalition said his $10,000 donation to their pro-Embarcadero navigation center GoFundMe campaign “almost made up for the fact he didn’t support Prop. C.”
Benioff donated to the fund too (along with several other tech CEOs), which coalition supporters started when another GoFundMe campaign began raising money to stop it. Some in that anti-waterfront camp, chided as rich jerks by the coalition with cartoons in their Street Sheet newspaper and on hand-held signs at neighborhood meetings, work at — you guessed it — Salesforce and Twitter. The coalition and its supporters don’t see the hypocrisy, but the wink-winking and high-fiving between multibillionaire tech moguls and a homeless marketing group known more for media-savvy agitation than actual results, says a lot about where San Francisco is today.
A UNIQUE MODEL THAT DOESN’T WORK
As the coalition patronizes Embarcadero condo owners while flashing cash from their bosses, those condo owners and other residents of District 6 have turned to new supervisor Matt Haney to ask why their neighborhoods must host yet another navigation center. “We agree the navigation center model works,” Haney told KPIX news. “The mayor is for it. The board is for it. Yet we seem to only be building them in one small part of the city.” He’s right on two of his three points: navigation centers are currently in just three of San Francisco’s 11 districts, and the mayor and the board support the model. Haney is wrong, however, when he says the navigation center model works, because the city’s own data says otherwise.
Between March 2015 and February 2019, just 14 percent of people exiting navigation centers found permanent housing. Another 4 percent went to temporary placement, and 28 percent were handed bus tickets through Homeward Bound, which sends homeless individuals to friends and family willing to support them. Since its launch in 2005 by former Mayor Gavin Newsom, some 10,000 people have left this way. Yet more than a decade later, the city still doesn’t measure the program’s effectiveness. In 2017, coalition organizer Kelly Cutler told San Francisco Public Press that many people who use Homeward Bound end up back on San Francisco’s streets. Another 10 percent are asked to leave for violent or other bad behavior, and 14 percent go because their time is up (in 2016, Kositsky imposed a 30-day time limit to free up beds for people coming from encampments cleared by the city). But the largest number — 30 percent of all navigation center clients — leave by choice.
As he prepared for reelection in 2015, the late Mayor Ed Lee announced the creation of San Francisco’s first navigation center, describing it as a pioneering approach to homelessness. Lee saw the center as a transitional stop for three to 10 days before moving on to housing or residential treatment, but it was apparent from the start how incredibly naïve he was. Not that the navigation center model doesn’t have its good points — unlike shelters, people can enter as a group with their friends and partners, and bring their belongings and their pets. But navigation centers also lack structure. For example, there are no curfews or sobriety requirements. One woman told the Marina Times she refused to stay at the Bryant Street navigation center because it was “dangerous, scary, and full of meth heads.” Take a drive past the location and you’ll see what she’s talking about, and what local residents complain about on a daily basis — people slumped in front doing drugs, drinking alcohol, and creating makeshift “chop shops” for stolen bicycles. As of 2017, less than one quarter of the nearly 1,200 people who entered the first two navigation centers had been placed in long-term housing, and more than one quarter became homeless again.
YOU GET A NAVIGATION CENTER, AND YOU GET A NAVIGATION CENTER . . .
Hearing his constituents’ concerns about having navigation centers in only a few neighborhoods, Haney is sponsoring legislation that would put a navigation center in every district that doesn’t currently have one over the next 30 months. That seems fair. I propose putting the District 2 navigation center next to Marc Benioff’s $28 million Pacific Avenue mansion — or maybe right inside it — but I don’t think the folks on nearby Billionaire’s Row would approve. My second choice is Sea Cliff, where Jack Dorsey has a little 2-bedroom, $10 million shack. This way he can glance over and see how that $10,000 donation is being used to help his less fortunate neighbors. I’m sure if Jack is happy to help put a navigation center in other people’s neighborhoods, he’ll be just fine having one in his. If not, the coalition can print up some signs and organize a protest on the beach beneath his house.
In all seriousness, a navigation center in every district is not the answer — the answer is to do away with them all together. With a dismal 14 percent success rate finding clients permanent housing, there’s nowhere to go but up. For decades, the coalition has blamed everyone from wealthy techies to NIMBYs to city officials for the homeless crisis, yet after three decades as the unofficial voice of the homeless the city is in worse shape than ever — so why are we still listening to them?
Let’s look to models that actually help the homeless become productive, responsible, self-sufficient citizens, like Solutions for Change in San Diego, Calif., which has a 93 percent success rate, or Community First Village in Austin, Tex., which has an 86 percent success rate. What do they have in common? Both require homeless clients to be sober and pay their own rent, or they’re out. Both have structured programs and believe in accountability, not handouts. And both use a tough love approach because they actually do love their clients, and want them to succeed.
Until San Francisco moves to a similar model, we can put a navigation center on every corner in every district, inside Twitter’s cafeteria, and at the top of Salesforce Tower and it still won’t make a difference.
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