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Don’t bother building homeless centers in every neighborhood, says SF homeless official

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Would building shelters across the entire city complicate homeless relief?

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

While almost everyone agrees that San Francisco needs more shelters to help deal with San Francisco’s homeless crisis, agreement on where to put them is another matter entirely.

In a NIMBY-versus-city pageant (so typical it’s turning cliche), trying to build new homeless navigation centers in neighborhoods, like the Embarcadero, leads to extensive sturm und drang and costly courtroom battles.

Supervisor Matt Haney decided last year to push back on this perma-conflict with new rules that would require at least one new navigation center in each of the city’s 11 districts—right now they’re concentrated in his district, which spans the Tenderloin, SoMa, South Beach, and East Cut.

At Thursday’s meeting of the city Government Audit and Oversight Committee, an aide for Supervisor Dean Preston (whose District Five covers parts of the Haight and the Western Addition) quoted a Preston statement calling homelessness “the most grotesque symptom of unbridled capitalism” and said that all neighborhoods should to “share the load.”

Supervisor Gordon Mar, who represents the Sunset District, where owners of low-density and expensive single-family homes might dig in their heels over new area shelters, said “a new homeless facility in the Sunset would support our shared goals.”

Every neighborhood suffers from the homeless crisis, Haney’s argument goes, so every neighborhood should be included in the solution. “The beds are almost 100 percent full every night,” said Haney, noting that there was a “clear mandate for citywide solutions.”

Dissent at that hearing came from a surprising place: the very city organs tasked with aiding the homeless.

Abigail Stewart-Kahn, director of strategy and external affairs for the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, told the committee “every neighborhood and every individual here has a part to play” solving the problem.

But when it comes to Haney’s “share the load” plan, Stewart-Kahn said: Don’t bother.

She argues that the push to build more navigation centers starves other parts of the process. The emphasis on getting the shelters into so many specific neighborhoods consumes “time political capital, and resources on expanding one component” of the system.

She thinks the city would be much better off investing in “exits”—i.e., getting shelterless people into real housing and out of the shelter system.

As for building more navigation centers, Stewart-Kahn says more are needed, but that Haney’s rules “would make the process slower and significantly more expensive” than just doing it the way we have thus far.

Haney looked openly amazed at the criticism, responding, “I just can’t accept that we don’t have a need for hundreds of additional navigation center beds.”

But Stewart-Kahn stood her ground, saying that “if we continue to focus on expansion” in this one narrow wayk it will cost the city in the long run.

Supervisor Aaron Peskin, another committee member, also says he doesn’t feel like the mandate “makes sense.”

In the end, a vote on the measure was paused, as Mar, though initially sounding positive, said he needed “more time to engage with stakeholders” and to find out what people want before going ahead with the proposal.

All of this City Hall wrangling has very real consequences for everyday San Franciscans, who not only have to reckon with what kind of changes they want to see on their own block if it might help alleviate SF’s ongoing crisis, but also whether they support the kind of neighborhood resistance that’s likely to manifest.

If Haney’s plan works—right now it has five sponsors—it will would mean that nearly every SF neighborhood will have to wade into this citywide conflict.