San Francisco Hopes New Homeless Shelter Impresses Tech Sector

The Navigation Center is a new kind of homeless shelter -- one that allows pets, possessions and partners. (Sam Harnett/KQED)

An anonymous donor has given San Francisco $3 million to help address homelessness. The city is using the donation to try something new — a homeless shelter with fewer rules and more open space.

The city is running the Navigation Center in conjunction with the San Francisco Interfaith Council, a community organization. The shelter is a kind of pilot project. The goal is to create an efficient path from the street to housing. One big hope is that tech companies will see success and contribute much-needed funds for more programs like it.

The Navigation Center is near the 16th Street BART Station in the Mission District. Much of the surrounding area has been gentrified, pushing the poor and homeless into neglected spots like this one.

In the middle of the day, homeless people are scattered around the intersection, some with shopping carts, others sleeping on pieces of cardboard. People are shouting, rattling cups with coins. A group of guys in a corner gamble over a game of dice. The smell of urine comes in strong bursts along the sidewalk.

Inside the Navigation Center is a completely different scene. There is a big open courtyard, with lots of sunlight. Guests are reading books, working on bikes, playing music. There is a lounge area with a TV playing the NBA Finals.

This place does not feel like typical shelters, which are struggling just to provide a place to sleep. There is an abundance of open space. The capacity is 75 guests, and no one is crammed anywhere. There is no curfew, so people can come and go whenever they please.

Allen Naethe is sitting at a picnic bench in the middle of the courtyard. Naethe is an Army veteran. He has been homeless 15 years but never went to a shelter. He couldn’t abandon the love of his life on the street.

Naethe calls over Benthe, an English Staffordshire terrier he has been with for years. Naethe says he “doesn’t go nowhere she won’t go.”

Allen Naethe did not have to leave the love of his life behind to stay at The Navigation Center
Allen Naethe did not have to leave the love of his life behind to stay at the Navigation Center (Sam Harnett/KQED)

At most shelters, Naethe would have to leave his dog behind. But not at the Navigation Center.

Julie Leadbetter is the center’s director. “We’re trying to lower the barriers to access shelter,” she says. What is really innovative here is that guests can bring what are called the “three Ps”– pets, possessions and partners. Leadbetter says, “It’s about addressing people with their lives intact.”

In other words, treating them like people.

It is easy to see the difference that makes with someone like Naethe. He has his dog, his things, friends out on the street. Most shelters cannot accommodate all that. They are rooms crammed with beds, and there is no place to put all your stuff. Couples can’t stay together in the same bed or dorm.

“We don’t want to create a place that breaks down the very little supports that people have,” Leadbetter says, “It’s about starting with what they have and building up.” And building quickly. The original goal was to get people benefits and housing in two weeks.

The city put services directly on-site to cut through all the red tape. Episcopal Community Services is providing support, such as counseling and case management. Guests can sign up for benefits and programs right at the shelter. It’s remarkable, says Naethe.

“You do it all here. They’ve got general assistance workers here, they’ve got case managers here. It’s a good thing.”

Since it opened 2½ months ago, the Navigation Center has gotten 35 people into housing. But it is already taking longer than hoped to sort everything out and find homes — about a month per person instead of two weeks.

The stakes are high. Bevan Dufty is San Francisco’s director of Housing Opportunity, Partnerships and Engagement (HOPE), a city agency dedicated to addressing homelessness. Dufty thinks the program could spur tech companies to get off the sidelines and kick in more financial support. He says, “The technology companies that are here, they want to see us do a better job responding to homelessness.”

Dufty hopes the original donor will renew the $3 million pledge once it runs out. He says this kind of private cash makes a program like the Navigation Center easier to jump-start.

“It gives you the latitude to be much more nimble and dynamic with what you are doing,” Dufty says.

Overall, the city is making homelessness more of a priority in its budget. Mayor Ed Lee announced about $29 million more will be spent on homelessness over the next two years. But homeless advocates say that budget increase won’t solve the big problem: the housing crisis.

James Quiet was living on the street even though he was working as a cook at AT&T Park.
James Quiet was living on the street, even though he was working as a cook at AT&T Park. (Sam Harnett/KQED)

San Francisco is just too expensive. Even people with steady jobs are ending up out on the street. That is what happened to James Quiet.

For the last year, Quiet says he was a cook at AT&T Park during the day. At night he slept on the street. He was working and homeless.

Quiet says having a job made it hard for him to get support for housing. He is not disabled, elderly or a veteran, so he couldn’t get benefits through most specialized programs. Quiet couldn’t afford shelter, but he did not qualify for help.

The Navigation Center took Quiet in. “It’s a blessing,” he says, “Without this, I’d still be homeless on the street, I’d still be sleeping on the sidewalk and going to work. That would be my reality.”

Through the Navigation Center, both Allen Naethe and James Quiet have now found housing. Quiet says having his own home will be a life-changer. He will finally have a place to put his things and start rebuilding.

Regardless of success stories, the whole Navigation Center experiment could be short-lived. The property it is on will start being developed into affordable housing by 2017. Dufty hopes the shelter can secure a new home before then.

But as anyone in San Francisco knows, finding a home in this city is not an easy thing to do.

  • Chuck

    This looks promising. Can we get more details? Aside from the $3million, how did this get started. Was it a project the city put together or something instigated by a non-profit or just volunteers.
    City programs tend to be long on bureaucrats and short on ideas but maybe this is the exception.


Sam Harnett

Sam Harnett is a producer and reporter who contributes regularly to KQED News, The California Report, Marketplace, and The World. He is the creator of Driving With Strangers, a podcast of stories told in a car; and a co-founder of Blocsocks, an initiative to help Bulgarian women sell their wool goods abroad.

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