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At last, Embarcadero homeless navigation center set to open despite NIMBY outrage

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Game-changing facility will open by year’s end

A tent-like white structure, with tall glass-covered high-rises in the background. Photo by Brock Keeling

Some of San Francisco’s neediest residents will soon live a few yards away from the city’s most expensive housing, despite the earnest efforts of angry condo owners in South Beach.

Mayor London Breed and other city honchos announced Tuesday that the divisive homeless navigation center at Seawall Lot 330—just a skip and a jump from the Bay Bridge along the Embarcadero—had finished construction and is set to open by the end of the year.

The new facility, built on a city-owned parking lot, consists of a cluster of two long tent-like structures that will eventually house up to 200 people at a time. It also comes with one administrative building, private bathrooms and showers, and outdoor tables and benches. The pristine white interiors of the dorms, tightly insulated from the cold and impending drizzle outside, somewhat resemble how we might imagine a moon base in a far-flung Utopian future. And the center’s exterior gate is made up corrugated steel, wood trim, and assorted greenery used for landscaping.

Brown corrugated steel makes up a wall with a steel door.
Embarcadero Street entrance and exit.
Photo by Brock Keeling

Expensive East Cut and South Beach condo buildings, like One Rincon Hill and the Jasper, are visible from the courtyard. Some of the homeowners inside those high-rises spent most of 2019 trying to scuttle the project with protest and a series of lawsuits. But in the end, Breed’s plan outreached the long arm of NIMBYism.

During a press tour of the facilities, the mayor and other lawmakers used the occasion to promote—over and over again—the theme of more housing. “We all know the statistics—more than ever we need housing,” said Breed.

“This is not normal, this is not how it plays out in the rest of the country,” State Senator Scott Wiener said, commenting on both the homeless crisis and local opposition to housing development.

“It’s not rocket science,” said Assemblymember Phil Ting. “Everybody says they are for more housing—in someone else’s neighborhood or city.”

A tent-like interior with a peaked roof, with low beds and cubicles.
One of several tent-like structures.
Photo by Adam Brinklow

The only dissenting voice at Tuesday’s tour was Amy Farah Weiss, a former mayoral candidate who’s now trying to convert a parking lot at 180 Jones into a “stewardship village” for homeless. Weiss attempted to shout down Breed while unfurling plans for the lot development, questioning why City Hall wouldn’t work to develop the site.

When the center opens, it will be the city’s seventh active navigation center. The mayor’s office estimates that it will bring the total of new shelter beds in the city up to 566—out of the 1,000 Breed promised before and during her recent reelection campaign.

The waitlist for a bed in one of the city’s navigation centers is up to 1,200 people. Those who are admitted will stay for 30-day terms, but can renew their residency as many times as they like, so long as they’re pursuing more permanent housing elsewhere.

The Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing reported in 2018 that Navigation Centers placed 57 percent of residents (more than 1,700 people since 2015) in housing.

A tent-like interior with a peaked roof, with low beds and cubicles. Photo by Adam Brinklow

But relatively few Navigation Center guests end up housed in the city, with the most common means of relocation being transportation to housing in another city.

Following Tuesday’s press tour, Supervisor Matt Haney, whose district includes the East Cut, announced he’s drafting a plan alongside other SF lawmakers Hillary Ronen, Shamann Walton, and the newly sworn-in Dean Preston to place at least one new navigation center in each of SF’s 11 districts.

Notably absent from Tuesday’s press tour? Any representatives from the city’s western neighborhoods, which are likewise lacking in shelters and affordable housing.

A gate with a sign reading “Embarcadero Safe Navigation Center.” Photo by Brock Keeling