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David Campos Calls for Five More Homeless Navigation Centers—But Without Any Housing to Navigate To

Supervisor wants San Francisco's homeless crisis declared an emergency. Too bad you can't sleep in a declaration.

Supervisor David Campos greets Mayor Ed Lee at the 2015 soiree held at the conclusion of the Navigation Center's construction. Campos hopes to re-create this shot in the near future, again and again and again.


That San Francisco’s homeless situation is bad is inarguable. It’s not just humiliating for a city constantly deeming itself “world class” to watch thousands waste away on the street—it’s soul destroying. The spectacle of hundreds of transients sleeping beneath a highway on Division Street while Super Bowl high-rollers gallivanted about town was a perfect microcosm of a deeply troubled San Francisco. The homeless situation may not actually be worse than it was in past years. But it sure looks worse. And the recent city-mandated clearing of that Division Street encampment made that realization even starker.

All of which leads us to the news of the day: Supervisor David Campos will this afternoon ask the Board of Supervisors to declare San that Francisco’s homeless crisis has reached a full-blown state of emergency. In an open letter to constituents released last night, Campos explicitly calls out Mayor Ed Lee for his dithering, and lays out demands for five more homeless Navigation Centers to be erected in short order to accompany the much-lauded 75-resident site in Campos’s district. Politically, Campos is seizing on the populace’s growing impatience with the Mayor’s Office, and growing distrust in its “Don’t worry, we’re working on it” line. But realistically, Campos is facing much more intractable foes than any city official or department: basic math and economics. 

The Navigation Center—as is explicit in its name—exists to navigate the chronically homeless from the streets into permanent housing. This is an intense process requiring far more staffing than a mere shelter; costs per resident per night are around three times or more what is expended upon a shelter-dweller. But, in the long run, this is bottom-line smart as well as altruistic—a homeless person residing in permanent housing will cost the city far, far less than someone scraping by on the streets and being repeatedly hoisted off the pavement by emergency service providers and ferried to General Hospital. The housing at the end of the rainbow is the raison d'être of the Navigation Center. It serves the same purpose that winning did for Vince Lombardi: It’s not everything. It’s the only thing. And, as you’ve no doubt noticed, it’s the thing that this city seems to have in shortest supply.  

Campos hopes to trigger emergency provisions to allow for those in need to be housed on city property. This is a direct shot across Lee’s bow. And it’s a shot Lee earned by presenting the Navigation Center—a cost-intense, low-resident approach to solving homelessness on the individual level—as the cure-all for this city’s gargantuan, multifaceted homeless problem. Most ostentatiously, Lee claimed the Navigation Center would address the needs of the scores of street-sleepers displaced during the Super Bowl; he has, consistently, oversold this artisanal approach as something that could be employed to house legions of those without homes. 

And there’s the rub: Those homes. They don’t exist. “You can build 100 navigation centers,” said Ken Reggio, the director of Episcopal Community Services, which runs the Navigation Center. “If housing exits are not attached to it, the center is not successful.” A Navigation Center isn’t just a casual and deluxe shelter with good food and no limits on dogs or possessions toted in. It’s meant to move residents into housing. Period.  

Campos’ pending legislation could direct the city to more quickly erect Navigation Centers. But it does nothing to address the millions of dollars and bureaucratic moon shots necessary to aquire housing for the destitute in America’s costliest city. “This doesn’t give us any more tools we didn’t already have,” says Sam Dodge, the mayor’s homeless czar (and likely future pitchman for headache medication). It took “all these years,” Dodge continues, to appropriate 500 units of supportive housing in the city’s crumbling single-room occupancy hotels, largely to serve as outlets for the current Navigation Center’s graduates. How San Francisco could, in short order, conjure up rooms for the residents of five new Navigation Centers is a vexing problem. “Ah, I don’t know about six Navigation Centers,” Dodge admits. “This is something David kind of pulled out of the sky.” 

Campos doesn’t deny this. “I don’t have a crystal ball,” he says. “We’ll put that number out there. I’m happy to talk about it.” 

But, for the most part, Campos says his legislation is about less talking and more doing. The supervisor says he understands that merely erecting Navigation Centers without housing exits won’t solve the problem. What he wants is to speed up Lee’s timeline, and force him to issue progress reports: “What we’re saying is we can no longer wait for you on your own time to tell us. We want you to lay out a plan outlining what will be done,” Campos says. “We want to hear how you’re going to do it. By when.” 

This is the whirlwind Lee inherited by overselling the Navigation Center and underperforming in his efforts to replicate it. Expect a good deal of politicking and rancor and drama. But, without coherent plans—and, frankly, great deals of state and federal help—don’t expect the suffering of the homeless to be alleviated anytime soon. 

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