Serving the Potrero Hill, Dogpatch, Mission Bay, & SOMA neighborhoods since 1970

Navigation Centers Heading Towards Full Capacity

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The Embarcadero Shelter Access for Everyone (SAFE) Navigation Center, located at Seawall Lot 330, opened last December. By February, 130 beds at the facility were taken, 100 percent occupancy for the startup phase. Plans to ramp up to 200 beds by the end of the year were put on hold when the San Francisco Department of Public Health (DPH) issued new guidelines last month intended to maintain physical distances between facility guests. 

Five Keys, a nonprofit that operates a 128-bed navigation center at 125 Bayshore Boulevard, is managing the Center. The Embarcadero SAFE Navigation Center Advisory Group (ESNCAG) was formed last year to facilitate communication between community members, City and Port of San Francisco officials, and Five Keys. Last month’s was held as a webinar rather than an in-person assembly, in response to DPH’s recommendation not to hold public get-togethers as a means to reduce COVID-19 exposure risks. 

ESNCAG members and attendees at the February meeting were generally positive about how the navigation center was fitting into the neighborhood. However, nearby building residents said that there’s been an increase in drug use on the Brannan Street Wharf, hypodermic needles littering the sidewalks, and a sense of insecurity walking outside after dark on Beale Street.  While those expressing these concerns acknowledged that the presence of a daytime San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) beat patrol has enhanced safety while the sun’s out, they didn’t believe the Center was ready to ramp up to higher capacity just yet.

Southern Station Captain Tim Falvey presented data showing a decrease in crime incidents in the triangular “safety zone” delineated by Folsom Street, Second Street, and The Embarcadero between August and January, and no drug offenses or violations within that perimeter in January, compared to 182 drug offenses and four violations citywide.

“We hear from folks that say it’s calm, it’s working the way they’d hoped it would,” Steve Good, Five Keys’ executive director, said during a telephone interview. “I hear people say they’ve never seen the area so clean. That’s been a common observation of neighbors. Then we hear from the same folks who opposed it from the beginning, who I don’t think any amount of services are going to change their mind. Our plan in the upcoming months is to work with the City to extend the cleaning to a larger area and pay stipends (to Center guests).”

“The folks from HSH who are doing the work and helping to support Five Keys are great to work with,” Good said. “They’re very supportive, very concerned about getting people off the streets, keeping new encampments from starting in the area. I’m truly impressed with the Department of Public Health and the Department of Public Works.”

Marc Dragun, who represents The Brannan Homeowners Association on ESNCAG, echoed Good’s words after the February meeting, telling The View he’s satisfied with how City agencies and Five Keys staff have interacted with the community. 

But Katina Johnson, East Cut Community Benefit District vice-president, questioned how well City officials are working with her organization. “We’ve tried to make referrals,” she said. “I’m not sure where that partnership stands.”

Emily Cohen, policy advisor on homelessness for the Mayor’s office, presented three sets of Point in Time (PIT) data taken at different periods of the day in the “outreach zone,” which extends to the waterfront behind Oracle Park and the China Basin building to the south, Fourth Street to the west, and Market Street to the north, and includes the newly branded East Cut neighborhood. 

In March 2019, 179 unsheltered people were counted in the middle of the night. In October, 73 were identified during an afternoon survey. The January 2020 census, conducted in the morning, tallied 79 individuals. 

According to Cohen, a possible reason for the increase from October to January was the difference in survey timing.  Going forward the methodology will be consistent with the January approach; staff will conduct the PIT count in the morning. She added that 33 people were identified in the safety zone in October, compared to 15 in January. 

Abigail Stewart-Kahn, Director of Strategy and External Affairs for the City’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing (HSH), told ESNCAG that the San Francisco Homeless Outreach Team (SFHOT) has two dual-person teams working in the outreach zone fulltime, including swing shift, and a one-person team deployed in four-hour shifts on weekends. SFHOT engaged in 399 encounters in the outreach zone between December and the third week in February. Of these, 164 people received services, but didn’t accept a Navigation Center bed; 119 were transported to the facility. The remaining 116 declined any interventions. 

“Each one of those is a moment of trust building for people to come indoors and accept shelter,” she said.

Steward-Kahn said she’d received more than 25 requests from the public or media to tour the Embarcadero SAFE Navigation Center since it’d opened. Two media visits were conducted immediately after its inaugural, after which trips were limited to maintain a calm place for guests. An excursion for immediate neighbors scheduled last month was two-thirds booked for 30 spots. However, due to COVID-19 precautions, that outing was canceled.

“We want to protect guests and so are canceling any large group events which are nonessential, per DPH guidance,” Stewart-Kahn wrote in an email.

In March, amidst fears that COVID-19 cases could overwhelm the public health system, DPH imposed a “shelter in place” policy throughout San Francisco in an effort to contain the spread of the virus.

At last month’s webinar it was announced that as of March 23 the City was no longer accepting new referrals to any Navigation Center. “We’re currently pausing new Embarcadero SAFE Navigation Center intakes at this time, to be able to provide safer spaces for everyone inside. We have never planned to bring in clients who tested positive or who were symptomatic,” Cohen said. She added that “public health guidance continues to evolve.”

According to the Joint Information Center of the City’s Department of Emergency Management, COVID-19-related preparedness activities oriented towards the population of people without homes include working with health care providers and SFHOT to teach staff and residents prevention measures and rapidly identify and isolate patients with the disease; educating individuals in congregate living settings such as Navigation Centers about the virus and how they can protect themselves; developing plans for increased sanitation stations throughout the City, and identifying alternative housing options for cases in which quarantine is recommended for either homeless individuals or those living in groups. 

As this article went to press, the City had activated temporary housing sites for people who have tested positive for the virus and/or need to quarantine due to possible exposure. 

To report concerns about or donate items to the navigation center, email ESNCAG@sfgov.org or call or text Five Keys, 415.265.9827. Texts can include images. For needle litter, text a picture and location to the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, 415.810.1337. To report an unsheltered individual or new encampment call 3-1-1 and request the San Francisco Homeless Outreach Team; this number can also be used to report needle litter or a nonemergency situation. For nonemergency police intervention, to file a noise complaint or report loitering, call SFPD at 415.553.0123

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