Neighborhood group challenges City’s decision-making on Navigation Center

The following is a guest post from Wallace Lee, President of Safe Embarcadero for All.  SEFA is a community nonprofit organized to voice concerns about public safety in the neighborhood and San Francisco’s controversial proposal to construct a homeless shelter on the waterfront.

Many of us moved to this neighborhood because we consider it safe place to live.  Indeed, safety may be a reason why ours is increasingly a neighborhood where San Franciscans choose to start a family.[1]

But the City’s efforts to rush a 200-bed homeless Navigation Center onto The Embarcadero waterfront threatens to upend the success of this growing community.  Moreover, the City’s approval of the homeless center on an accelerated timeline behind closed doors—bypassing the normal procedures to gather and consider community input—is a blow to responsible civic government.  

More than 10,000 people live within three blocks of the proposed project.  These are the people who will be most affected by the waterfront homeless center.  But their concerns have been ignored by City leaders who only care about seeking the most expedient solution to the difficult problem of homelessness. 

There are undeniable and well-documented negative impacts of homeless shelters, including public alcohol and drug consumption, police interventions, property crime, personal assaults, and attracting additional homeless encampments.  Yet the City has pretended that these problems do not exist with Navigation Centers.  In promoting the waterfront homeless center, City officials told residents that they have nothing to fear because Navigation Centers abide by 
“good neighbor policies.”

Through public records requests, we recently received previously-undisclosed documents from the City that call into question the City’s claims about Navigation Centers.

For example, an internal email from March 2019 shows that Homelessness Department Director Jeff Kositsky was, “getting a great deal of complaints about tents” cropping up around the Division Circle Navigation Center and admitted that “[the City] needs to do a better job of complying with our good neighbor policy.”  This was at the same time that Kositsky and others were touting the success of good neighbor policies.

The City has also disclosed hundreds of “Critical Incident Reports” generated by existing Navigation Centers in the last 6 months.  They report deaths, drug overdoses, and other calls for emergency services.  

If the rate of Critical Incident Reports from the 84-bed Bryant Navigation Center and the 126-bed Division Circle Navigation Center are extrapolated to the much-larger 200-bed Embarcadero Navigation Center, then we can expect it to generate 40 calls a month—or more than one emergency call a day!  And that’s only counting the calls generated insidethe center.

One frequent complaint heard in our neighborhood is that our first responders are already stretched thin.  Yet the City has announced no plans to expand those services to accommodate the calls from the new homeless center.

City records have also revealed that residents are right to worry that the new homeless center will be a magnet for encampments and the problems they bring.  Over just a two month period, recordsfrom other Navigation Centers detail incidents like:

  • A former Dogpatch Navigation Center guest pitched a tent around the corner from the center and used the tent as a drug den for current guests of the center.
  • A guest kicked out of the Bayshore Navigation Center set up camp with others next door.  A fire from his tent caused damage to the neighboring small business.  The business owner complained that his employees were threatened with weapons.
  • The Homelessness Department directed that a camper set up behind the Bryant Navigation Center should not be removed because “she is very mentally ill.”
  • Debris was piled up next to the Bryant Navigation Center so that people could climb over the fence surrounding the center.

All this is not to deny that Navigation Centers provide a much-needed respite for their guests.  However, the fact is that these centers are not the benign presence the City claims.  Given the track record of problems associated with existing Navigation Centers, the City should have engaged with the community to find solutions that work for everyone. Instead, the City is railroading the largest-ever Navigation Center into one of the most densely-populated areas. It is a dangerous experiment.

In moving as quickly as it has, the City has circumvented multiple laws and regulations designed to protect the public.  Among those are the public trust doctrine.  San Francisco received the waterfront site in trust from the state in 1969.  The public trust doctrine, with its roots in the California Constitution, holds that certain important resources (like waterfront property) are preserved in perpetuity for public use and enjoyment—for water-related purposes.  If the City wants to make a non-trust use of public trust property—as the waterfront homeless center would be—the law imposes specific requirements which the City has not followed.  

There is another equally important issue of public trust at stake:  the public’s trust in the City government. This public trust is based upon the belief that government and its representatives will follow the rules, comply with regulations, and be beholden to the same rules to which citizens are subject.  

The City has broken both public trust governing the site for the waterfront homeless center and has broken the public’s trust in the City as well.  This leaves residents no other option than to head to court to hold the City accountable.

If you would like to support Safe Embarcadero for All’s lawsuit against the City, please visit https://www.safeembarcaderoforall.org/contribute.


[1]Recent census data shows that the number of children has increased by 49% in the last five years while the total population has grown by 25%.