The Central Waterfront Navigation Center (CWNC), located at the east end of 25th Street, closed for the past year, may reopen soon as COVID-19 vaccinations become more widespread. Last month, Mayor London Breed announced the availability of vaccines to those experiencing homelessness or living in congregate care facilities, such as homeless shelters.
When the facility shuttered, CWNC residents were given the option to move to a hotel room the City leased during shelter-in-place (SIP). CWNC has a maximum capacity of 64 people. Larger navigation centers continued to operate, though at reduced capacity as part of COVID-19 precautions.
“The site is rather small which made distancing harder, and the staff was needed to operate high-capacity SIP hotels,” said Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing’s (HSH) Deborah Bouck.
The City-funded facilities are “a low-barrier alternative to shelters,” said Bouck. Pets and partners are welcome, with no curfews or set mealtimes. Walk-ins aren’t accepted; beds can only be secured through a San Francisco Homelessness Response System Access Point referral, or if directed by a Homeless Outreach Team.
It costs roughly $100 a night for a stay at a hotel or navigation center, a bargain compared to $190 nightly for a single tent in one of six “safe sleeping villages,” more than $61,000 a year per tent. The villages are located in designated lots throughout San Francisco. They provide a place to sleep, food, restrooms, and are staffed 24/7.
San Francisco’s first navigation center was initiated in the Mission in 2015. Since then, the model has been replicated in other municipalities, including Austin and Seattle. Two new centers opened this year, bringing the City’s total to 10. CWNC started operating in 2017 on a dead-end street. A short distance south on Third Street, a Shelter Access for All (SAFE) Navigation Center commenced in January with a 116 people capacity.
According to Bouck, SAFE navigation centers are a higher-ability evolution of the traditional navigation center model. The HSH website refers to them as “more scalable, sustainable, and effective.”
The Bayview SAFE Navigation Center is the neighborhood’s second such facility. Just a few streets away, Bayshore Navigation Center, with a 128-person capacity, has been operating since 2018. In February, the TAY Navigation Center opened in Lower Nob Hill, a first-of-its-kind facility to serve 18- to 24-year-olds. According to HSH’s website, more than 100 sites have been evaluated to host SAFE navigation centers.
“I can’t speak for or imagine the turmoil I think that some of these folks live with…,” said Dogpatch Neighborhood Association’s president Katherine Doumani. “But I think it’s lovely down there on the water. In that way, it’s a unique environment, compared to say the navigation center that’s under a freeway. It kind of has the best of all worlds, being tucked away right down the Bay, but at the same time, it’s right on the T-line.”
“Its small size, low-barrier, high quality, high amenity model made it very popular with guests,” Bouck agreed.
Doumani said people often have misconceptions about the problems a navigation center might attract. Three years after CWNC opened she couldn’t think of a single issue that arose during its tenure. Last April, as the public health crisis took hold, the San Francisco Port Commission approved a five-year lease renewal for the facility with community support.
“Just because there’s a navigation center there, doesn’t mean that what’s happening on the street is related to that,” Doumani said, recalling opposition to opening the Embarcadero SAFE Navigation Center in 2019. “There’s a lot going on there, but there [was] always a lot going on there, period.”
Aside from location, navigation centers vary by length of sojourns. CWNC allowed 30-days, 60-days, and “Until Placement” stays. Other centers work to place guests with friends or family, which HSH considers a successful exit from homelessness. Although 37 percent of positive navigation center exits involve friend or family reunification, CWNC didn’t offer this service. Instead, 28 percent of CWNC’s guests were placed in permanent housing, compared to an average 17 percent at other navigation centers.
In spite of the higher placement rate, without family reunification CWNC had a lower overall success rate, with 71 percent of its exits unsuccessful; clients left by choice to an unknown destination, abandoned their bed, or were asked to leave. Forty-six percent of exits were ineffective at the City’s other navigation centers.
Without further transparency it’s difficult to understand the factors that contribute to different outcomes. Episcopal Community Services, the nonprofit the manages navigation centers, declined to provide a statement for this story.
“I think that the hardest thing in dealing with the City and trying to solve these problems in general is that it seems like it’s sort of a rotating cast of characters,” Doumani said. “There’s a lot of different groups within the City Hall who address some of these things, but coordinating doesn’t seem to be one of their strong suits, and I think that that’s made it really complicated to have any sort of accountability.”
Working to fix this problem is Rescue SF, a coalition of neighborhood associations. In collaboration with Tipping Point, a nonprofit organization that works to reduce poverty, it’s developing metrics to determine the efficacy of different efforts.