Opponents of the Embacardero homeless navigation center protest its construction in San Francisco.
Photo: Patrick Howell O’Neill (Gizmodo)

Usually, the building of a homeless center is just local politics. When it happens in San Francisco, the whole country takes notice.

After five hours of contentious public debate on Tuesday night, which was preceded by six weeks of controversy, the San Francisco Port Commission unanimously approved plans to build a homeless navigation center on the Embarcadero waterfront in South Beach, a wealthy downtown neighborhood where some residents in opposition to the center raised $101,425 to pay for lawyers that all but promised to take the issue to court.

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“This won’t be settled here, it’ll be settled in the courts,” Commissioner Willie Adams said on Tuesday night at the commission meeting in the San Francisco Ferry Building.

It was the hottest day of the year in San Francisco by far, but hundreds of residents still turned out and stuck through hours of debate.

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The anti-navigation center crowd had orange signs with dripping syringes arguing that “San Francisco’s front yard” was the wrong place for the 200-bed facility they describe as a “mega shelter.” The pro-navigation center crowd, coming in from around the city and supported by numerous advocacy groups, was more numerous, louder, and better organized. From the getgo, they had homeless folks speaking to cameras about how navigation centers had saved their lives, and they carried their own signs with messages like “hate has no home here” and a list of people who died on San Francisco streets.

In the last three years, more than 400 people have died without shelter in San Francisco, according to a recent report.

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The center will be built in South Beach. In the last decade, the neighborhood has become one of the richest and most expensive in the city according to reporting from the real estate firm Compass. South Beach has been among the richest neighborhoods in America’s most expensive city for much of the last decade.

The Embarcadero center first made national headlines when a group of wealthy neighbors began to raise money on GoFundMe to legally challenge the effort. Supporters struck back with their own GoFundMe campaign and raised more money from more donors, $176,000 from 1,899 people in total, to support the Coalition on Homelessness, which helped push the proposal forward.

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The homeless crisis in San Francisco is one part of the larger housing crisis in the region, which itself is one puzzle piece of the enormous wealth gap in Silicon Valley’s surrounds and all of California.

In most other cities, this homeless shelter would have been mostly ignored. People around the country are paying attention because they view San Francisco, Silicon Valley, and California as early warning grounds for what can happen in their own cities. As tech giants like Google and Facebook rapidly expand across the U.S., as the wealth gap widens and numerous housing crises hit in various regions around the country, eyeballs turn to tech’s home town to see if this enormous collection of ultrarich tech giants will act in the face a San Francisco homeless problem that the United Nations called “a violation of human rights.”

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Some of Silicon Valley’s richest showed up to donate to the supporters’ cause. Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff and Twilio CEO Jeff Lawson donated $10,000 each, and GoFundMe itself donated $5,000.

San Francisco Mayor London Breed is pushing this center, the largest in the city at 200 beds, as part of a plan to offer 1,000 new beds to people experiencing homelessness. Over 4,300 people are unsheltered on the streets of San Francisco every single night. It’s also the most expensive city in America, sitting atop Silicon Valley and the site of a dozen local tech companies filing for IPOs collectively worth billions of dollars this year.

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“We simply need more Navigation Centers, more permanent supportive housing, and more affordable housing throughout our city if we are going to change the conditions on our streets and help those in need,” Breed said in a statement released after the vote Tuesday night.

Matt Haney, the city supervisor representing the local district, supported the building of the navigation center and pushed the mayor to build similar navigation centers in every neighborhood around the city. Citing the 1,100 San Franciscans regularly on shelter waiting lists, supporters of the center enthusiastically agreed.

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“I’m confident this navigation center will make a positive impact on this neighborhood,” Haney said in a statement. “There is data to support that. I have personally visited every navigation center in the city. They’re well run, they improve neighborhoods and they save lives. Our city is in crisis and the need for shelter is undeniable.”

The opposition’s criticisms were primarily worries about cleanliness, safety, and equity. Some of the opposition on Tuesday night said the homeless would “terrorize the neighbors.” In response, Breed adjusted and slowed the build-up of the center, expanded police presence for safety, and is contracting with private companies on cleaning. The Embarcadero center will be the city’s biggest such center and is being afforded special treatment as a result of the vocal local opposition.

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Real estate attorney Andrew Zacks, who was hired with the opposition’s fundraiser money, alleged the city violated the law when failing to provide relevant documents in short order. It will likely be Zacks who leads the legal effort against the Embarcadero center. Opposition delivered a petition from 2,600 individuals against the center.

The Embarcadero center will be the city’s ninth navigation center. The city’s navigation center system helped 2,200 people exit homelessness last year, according to San Francisco city statistics, and has helped 46 percent of guests exit homelessness since its launch. More navigation centers are expected to be announced in the near future.

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“Assuming your child or pet are unsafe merely because they are near a group of poor people is the very definition of class hatred,” said Jennifer Friedenbach, director of the Coalition on Homelessness. “It’s inhumane, immoral, not just entitled, it’s spiteful and selfish. When my kids see homeless people, they ask me how we can help them.”