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Meet ’Em Where They’re At

Is San Francisco's Navigation Center the key to ending street homelessness—or a politically juiced Potemkin village?


“On an individual level,” San Francisco officials say, they know how to end homelessness. In theory, it couldn’t be simpler: Give people homes. San Francisco has, in fact, permanently housed more than 1,660 formerly homeless people in the last two years alone. Bringing this notion to fruition, however, is perhaps the most daunting challenge facing the city. And nowhere is the challenge more apparent than within a low-slung, mango-hued former high school campus at 1950 Mission Street.

It’s here, at 8:03 on a dreary summer morning, that the unmovable object of San Francisco’s homelessness problem meets the irresistible force of its housing crisis. Outside on the street, the bleak weather deepens the feeling of widespread desperation. Feral-looking dogs sniff around soggy piles of clothing that litter the moist pavement; stooped men and women gesticulate wildly while carrying on loud conversations. This isn’t quite San Francisco’s most populous homeless hangout, or its most notoriously crime-ridden. But it is the one that sits closest to possible salvation.

With a noisy series of clicks, the padlock on the gate at 1950 Mission Street, home to the city’s first Homeless Navigation Center, is unbolted and the chain removed. The doors swing open and, for the people who pass through, things suddenly start looking up. Inside, it’s everything that the streets outside are not: an oasis of fresh paint, clean courtyards, quiet sleeping quarters, and helping hands.

Tuesday is intake day at the center, which opened with much fanfare in March and has been touted by city hall as a panacea ever since. A pair of vans operated by the Department of Public Health Homeless Outreach Team pull up to the curb and discharge about 10 men and women who have been squatting in an encampment at San Bruno and Division Streets. Hulking Public Works trucks rumble through the back gate, laden with the worldly possessions of the center’s newest inhabitants. A tall, scraggly young man wearing a Led Zeppelin T-shirt steps down from the van and enters the compound. As he gawks at the well-kept blacktop, the green planters, and the freshly painted trailers, his oversize Labrador puppy bounds past him. “Metallica!” he bellows. “Come here!”

Five minutes ago this oasis was eerily still. Now it’s a flurry of activity as the newcomers, fresh from one of the over 60 homeless encampments monitored by the city, are cycled through a gauntlet of aid workers who will set them up with healthcare, General Assistance, or, on the most basic level, a valid ID.

This is what it looks like when, to repeat the well-worn mantra of the staff here, you “meet people where they’re at.” This is also what it looks like when a disproportionate chunk of city resources and political capital is cashed in to create a first-in-the-nation site— intended not to merely warehouse the homeless, but to transfer them expeditiously into homes. It’s an amazing scene to behold—but big questions loom not far behind. Can such a small, even artisanal, effort make a dent in this city’s teeming homeless population? In the parlance of tech companies, whose offices loom a few blocks from the center, can you “scale” something this resource-intensive, cost-prohibitive, and land-dependent? Where could you even put another 75-person triage facility, let alone several more?

Indeed, much is at stake for everyone involved with the Navigation Center—from the service providers who run the place, seeking to demonstrate that concentrated, hands-on staffing leads to better outcomes for the homeless, to the city politicos who secured the cash and roped in those service providers. So invested is the city in this latest homelessness silver bullet that in September, Mayor Ed Lee announced that he would be doubling down on the concept. He scared up an additional $3 million that, like a public radio matching pledge, must be equaled by private donations in order to be used. If that happens (it’ll happen), the money should keep the current Navigation Center running for at least two more years (it was debuted as a pilot project) and, ideally, fund a second location.

The trouble—well, one of the troubles—is that the resource-rich Navigation Center is tiny by design. Viewed against the city’s overall homeless population, it looks like an attempt to empty an ocean with an eyedropper. So, the answer to the simplest question—“Is the Navigation Center working?”—is complicated. It depends on whom you ask. And it depends on your definition of “working.” And, above all else, it depends on the one factor that has confounded the city for decades: where to find homes for the masses who need them.


There are rules here at the Navigation Center, but staffers make sure to tell me that they are “low-threshold” rules. That’s liberating not just for the guests (residents here are always referred to as guests), but for the staff as well. Someone found shooting up in a traditional homeless shelter is likely to be ejected—quickly. At the Navigation Center, however, the staff is given discretion: The guest could be merely warned and, like a brawling schoolboy of yesteryear, told to take it outside. This, too, is part of meeting people where they’re at.

In this and many other ways, the Navigation Center does not look, smell, or function like a normal shelter, even the best of which can feel punitive and jail-like: the hundreds of cramped bunk beds on sex-segregated floors; the metal detectors at the doors; the uniformed guards posted throughout; the regimented eating and sleeping schedules; the insistence that guests leave early each morning to forage during the day and then line up in the evening to do it all again.

As those who have experienced both settings will tell you, the Navigation Center is the polar opposite of all that. Entire encampments may move together into a 15-bed, mixed-sex trailer. They can live with their partners and their animals (Bevan Dufty, the mayor’s soon-to-be-former homeless czar and a driving force behind the center’s creation, marvels that the critical determinant of who bunks with whom isn’t race, gender, or sexual orientation, but whether their dogs get along). There are no metal detectors or guards. Guests can come and go essentially as they please. If they need to go to rehab, they don’t lose their bed. Food is provided by Meals on Wheels, and guests may eat whenever and as much as they wish (as may their animals). Rather than forfeit whatever doesn’t fit into a foot locker, they can secure their possessions—tents, bikes, clothes—in 8-by-15-foot crates on site. All of these amenities are meant to eliminate the barriers that keep the city’s most chronically homeless from the very services intended to house them.

“I could not do the shelters. There were too many rules,” says Ronnell Hunt. After years of rough living on city streets, the short, fortysomething man spent several weeks at the Navigation Center before being placed in a single-room occupancy hotel in the Mission on May 9. His new home is not perfect: The bedbugs, he says, have worked their way into his open wounds. When asked where he’ll go next, he deftly replies, “Crazy.” But it’s a better deal than roaming the streets. He’s drinking less and smoking less crack: “When I was out all day, I needed more to keep me afloat.” He couldn’t have gotten here without the Navigation Center—it was “a blessing.”

Hunt exemplifies how the Navigation Center, like Schrödinger’s cat, manages to be two wholly contrasting things simultaneously. It offers its guests more or less free run of the place. And yet they’re also smothered by staffers who coax them to social service appointments and chaperone them to on- and off-site meetings. Shelter and street dwellers don’t receive this level of attention; Hunt spent decades blowing off such appointments. “I’d miss ’em. I’d sleep through ’em.” But at the Navigation Center, much of the infrastructure to aid Hunt and his cohorts comes right to him.

Still, the enforced hand-holding is more than a little jarring, even to staffers. Site director Julie Leadbetter notes with a grin and a shake of her head that even sending a guest off to the DMV on his own to obtain an ID card has been nixed. That’s because, in one July week, guests went 0 for 2 on DMV trips: One got lost; the other ended up in jail; both mislaid the $8 check with which Navigation Center staffers had entrusted them. So that’s not how it’s done anymore.

Now Navigation Center guests are squired to the DMV and directed to a window reserved just for them, cutting a four-hour slog down to one hour. Why was this innovation deemed so crucial that Dufty called in a favor from state senator Mark Leno to help make it happen? Because the path to permanent housing starts with that DMV-issued ID. Services available to the indigent often cannot be obtained concurrently: If a guest blows off her DMV appointment, she has to wait for another appointment and then wait weeks more to receive that ID before she can land General Assistance, Social Security, Medicare, or even a voucher from a doctor affirming that, yes, her dog is a service animal. So, the ID problem had to be solved. And with generous applications of political elbow grease and time and money and manpower, it was.

But how it was solved—with a political favor between high-level government officials—speaks volumes about how the Navigation Center has worked up until now. And how, in the long term, it simply can’t work for everyone.


A pair of bare, rock-hard feet, their soles soot-black, are all that’s visible of the sleeper beneath the blankets piled on the bed. A few meters over, the only other human in the room, Christopher Dodenhoff, is cradling his dog, Candie, in one arm, and his bunny, Smiilee, in the other. He’s happy to have a conscious person to talk with.

Dodenhoff, who turned 55 on September 9, arrived in San Francisco when he was 27. It has not always been a happy life. Off and on for nearly 30 years, he lived on the streets. As a younger man, he says, he’d sleep days in the park, “work on my tan,” and bathe in the restroom of a Burger King. Then he’d work nights as a Polk Street hustler. Despite all this, he emphatically projects the trappings of happiness. “The police,” he says, “told me I’m popular on Instagram.” (True enough: If you punch #SmileZone into Instagram, you will find examples of jolly stencils that Dodenhoff has left throughout the city, gaily colored messages reading “Smile Zone. More Smiles, Happier World.”)

For a year and 17 days before being delivered to the Navigation Center by the city’s Homeless Outreach Team in May, Dodenhoff had been on the streets. He’d sleep in the doorway of a mortuary, sweep his spot in the morning, and eat his scrounged meals out of sight in the alleyway. He would wave to the kids in the morning and tell them, “School’s cool,” and then go to work emblazoning the Van Ness corridor with Smile Zone stencils. “I wouldn’t have met all the beautiful people if I wasn’t homeless,” he says. But enough was enough: “I tried to make people happy because I was sad.”

Helping people like Dodenhoff find some measure of happiness is why the Navigation Center exists. But the pursuit of happiness is not cheap. The price per guest per day at traditional city shelters run by Episcopal Community Services, which also manages the Navigation Center, works out to between $31 and $38. ECS executive director Ken Reggio gamely ballparks the Navigation Center figure at roughly three times that—$100 a night. Sam Dodge (a shoo-in to become the city's next homelessness czar after Dufty leaves his position on November 7) crunched the numbers from the center’s first three months of existence and produced the remarkably similar figure of $99.60 per guest per night.

So, is it worth the money? If you consider that guests here are among the city’s most intractably homeless, people who’ve spent their lifetime on the streets and have potentially cost the city tens of thousands of dollars apiece in emergency services, then, officials argue, it most definitely is. But seven months into this pilot program, there are indications that the center is not living up to all of its founding promise. Take the projections on how long it would require to move guests into homes: The website of the Mayor’s Office of Housing, Opportunity, Partnerships & Engagement claims that it should require "3 to 10 days” to complete intake, stabilization, and resettlement of a homeless person into a home. In fact, the average stay of those who obtain housing is something closer to 57 days. But these are, again, the city’s hardest-to-house people; “If you’re talking $5,700 to get somebody housed,” argues Reggio, “I would find that very defensible.”

As of press time, the center had admitted 210 guests over the last six months and placed 70 of them into housing. It put 38 more on buses and sent them to loved ones via a service called Homeward Bound; 29 guests walked out (12 left voluntarily, 17 were ejected); 6 were referred to shelters; and 68 were still living at the center. Of course, even settling a single chronically homeless person is no small feat, and the staffers who run the place feel justly proud of the several score they’ve helped. But considering that around 1,600 homeless people sleep in city shelters every night and that, per the latest biannual point-in-time tally, an estimated 4,358 homeless men and women roam the city, it’s a small drop in a rather large bucket.

That’s one reason that Mayor Lee’s dogged insistence that the Navigation Center holds the key to the city’s homeless problem is itself problematic. The center can’t solve the city’s overall homeless problem and was never designed to. Rather, it’s intended to focus on the most intransigently homeless. Glancing at the tally, Trent Rhorer, executive director of the city’s Human Services Agency, ballparks the population who require this service-intensive (and cost-intensive) approach at around 1,700. These are the people who most need supportive housing: “You can’t just put them in the Navigation Center and park them there,” Rhorer says. “That’s not the model.”

So, rather than dwell on Lee’s hyperbolic proclamations, homeless advocates both within government and at nonprofits would rather focus on his administration’s more tangible move to open up 500-odd units of supportive housing by master-leasing private residential hotels. Dufty says that most of the rooms are earmarked for Navigation Center residents.

Acquiring these units, however, required a considerable political effort and a hefty budget allocation. Maintaining the availability of still more housing units for the long term will require vast amounts of money and political heavylifting—forever. Rhorer estimates that another 800 to 1,000 units would “significantly move the needle on hard-core encampments.” He figures that locking down such supportive housing would cost around $18,000 a year per unit, making this an $18 million–a–year needle to move. And, unlike rousting the homeless to appease Super Bowl tourists, as Lee has advocated, it would be a permanent commitment.

Navigation Center guests are currently at the front of the line for the limited housing opportunities doled out by the city, but according to Reggio, that’s not tenable permanently. It would, in essence, enshrine a tiered system in which Navigation Center residents receive levels of care and access to housing that mere shelter dwellers are denied. The center would become the golden ticket, a homeless Potemkin Village— a place to demonstrate happy outcomes for the chosen few while the city’s overall homelessness problem persists.


Just how long the Navigation Center will continue in its present iteration is, in fact, an open question. The land upon which it stands is slated for an affordable housing development; it is not currently known when or where the center will relocate. It’s also unknown where other Navigation Centers might crop up. And, again, all of this—the entire concept of an all-in-one, low-threshold, service-with-a-smile homeless help center—is hollow if there are no homes at the end of the rainbow. “You can build 100 navigation centers,” says Reggio. “If housing exits are not attached to it, the center is not successful.”

The Navigation Center’s kinder, gentler approach, Rhorer says, could be applied to the city’s shelters, thereby luring more transients within. But the potential of the Navigation Center’s model might be more clearly demonstrated elsewhere, in cities where acquiring affordable land and affordable housing doesn’t require a time machine. In fact, officials from Boston, Portland, San Jose, and Los Angeles have all inquired about the program’s operation.

But, in the end, the challenges being faced at the local, state, and even federal level pale before the personal challenges confronting the men and women passing through this center and praying for a better tomorrow. Dodenhoff wakes up every day anticipating that the Navigation Center’s staff can help him out of purgatory. But he has been at the center since May, and the clock is ticking: He has both AIDS and cancer, and he has already survived several months longer than his oncologist predicted. He does not expect to see New Year’s Day 2016, but hopes that when the inevitable occurs, he is in a room of his own. As his stencils implore, he offers a smile: “I have my dog and my bunny. And they give me hope.”


Originally published in the November issue of San Francisco

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