Poor folks’ victory: Port Commission unanimously approves Embarcadero navigation center after ‘painful conversation’

The first of San Francisco’s navigation centers opened in the Mission in 2015. Why the outcry over a building where lives are saved? At Mayor Breed’s first meeting with the community over the Embarcadero site for a new center, she was booed down by residents. As Jennifer Friedenbach of the Coalition on Homelessness said Tuesday, “Assuming your child is unsafe, even your pet is unsafe, because they’re merely near a group of poor people is the very definition of class hatred.” – Photo: Judith Calson, SF Public Press

by Sam Moore

The Port Commission voted unanimously on Tuesday, April 23, to allow San Francisco to build a temporary 200-bed SAFE Navigation Center on the Embarcadero, following weeks of heated debate.

The vote approved a memorandum of understanding between the Port and the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing to operate the Navigation Center, which will be the largest in the city, on a portion of Seawall Lot 330 at the Embarcadero and Beale Street. The approval will last for two years, with an opportunity to extend for an additional two years contingent on a reduction in South Beach’s unsheltered homeless population and compliance with the city’s “good neighbor policy.”

SAFE Navigation Centers are temporary residence facilities for those facing homelessness. They have low entry barriers and offer onsite support services, including case management, connection to medical services and pathways to permanent housing. There are currently five Navigation Centers operating in San Francisco.

Tuesday’s Port Commission meeting was the latest of many since Mayor London Breed announced the proposal, written by herself and Supervisor Matt Haney, on March 4. At every meeting, throngs of people from each side of the controversy gathered to express their feelings and concerns regarding the proposed Navigation Center.

The atmosphere was tense, with arguments breaking out prior to the meeting’s start in a crowded overflow room where attendees watched a livestream of the adjoining room’s events on a television. Laura Foote, the executive director of pro-housing group YIMBY, or Yes In My Backyard, said that, while still intense, this meeting was less hostile than previous ones.

“Some of the actual threats of violence that I experienced at previous meetings seem to be a little bit tamped down here,” she said, referring to interactions she’d had with critics of Mayor Breed’s proposal. “At one meeting somebody said to me, ‘I should punch you in the face.’ There was a guy who had a picture of his kids, and was waving it in my face, saying, ‘Their blood will be on your hands.’”

Critics of the proposal, many of whom came to represent the group Safe Embarcadero, held orange signs that read, “Not good for residents, not good for visitors” and “This is San Francisco’s front yard.”

“These signs are so telling of the level of unbridled entitlement the opposition has infused into this debate,” said Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, during public comment. “Assuming your child is unsafe, even your pet is unsafe, because they’re merely near a group of poor people is the very definition of class hatred.”

Some critics took offense at being called hateful, including South Beach resident Nancy Floyd. “My neighbors volunteer at St. Anthony’s,” she said, “so I take great offense to the fact that we are being portrayed as people who hate.” She expressed concerns over the economic factors of building the center, saying that its $36,860 monthly rent is “not fair market value” and that Seawall Lot 330 could easily be sold to a commercial buyer for hundreds of millions.

“This is about people dying, not about your goddamn property values,” said Marnie Regen, director of development and communications at St. Anthony’s.

One resident named Emily, during her public comment, referred to homeless substance users as “volatile, unpredictable and aggressive.” Another held up a cardboard display showing pictures she’d taken of homeless people on the street, warning that the Navigation Center will bring “biohazardous waste” to the Embarcadero.

“Assuming your child is unsafe, even your pet is unsafe, because they’re merely near a group of poor people is the very definition of class hatred.”

Data shows that this stance isn’t shared by the majority of the city. According to ​apoll conducted by San Francisco’s Chamber of Commerce, 90 percent of San Franciscans are in support of opening more Navigation Centers and 77 percent would support one in their own neighborhood. An ​analysisofexistingNavigationCenters in the city established no correlation between the centers and crime rates of their surrounding areas.

With consideration to the opposition, the Commission still voted unanimously in favor of the proposal.

“This is the best debate that I have ever heard as a commissioner,” said Willie Adams, vice president of the Commission, following the vote. “I know this is something that will probably be settled in the courts – it won’t be settled here.”

A ​GoFundMepage called “Safe Embarcadero For All” was launched in March by Safe Embarcadero member Neel Lilani, whose wife Margaret Shaw Lilani spoke in opposition to the proposal during public comment. The page has since raised over $100,000 to hire land use attorney Andrew Zacks as legal counsel against the operation of the Navigation Center. One anonymous donor sent $10,000 to the campaign.

“While no one wants to pursue legal avenues,” the page reads, “the city has left us little choice but to explore legal options because they have failed to engage with our concerns.”

The Examiner reports, “A competing fundraising campaign has raised over $175,000 in support.”

According to the ​2017Point-In-TimeSurvey published by the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, 7,500 people experience homeless on any given night in San Francisco, 4,300 of whom are without shelter. Forty-nine percent of the city’s homeless population was identified in District 6, where Seawall Lot 330 is located.

Jordan Davis, a resident of District 6, spoke of her own experience with a Navigation Center during public comment. “I was once that homeless person on the street,” she said, “with matted hair and head lice who acted out. I got housed because people believed in constructive solutions and put a Navigation Center at 16th and Mission, where I graduated from. If that was not there, I probably would’ve killed myself or died on the streets.”

The Embarcadero SAFE Navigation Center will open with 130 beds and expand to 200 beds within seven months of opening.

“What is happening in this debate is going to spark conversations all over the city,” said Commissioner Adams. “It needs to happen. This painful conversation needs to happen.” Sam Moore, a San Francisco State University journalism student, is an intern with the Bay View. He can be reached at samoore2015@gmail.com.