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By Kelsey Lannin, Bay News Rising staff reporter —
There’s a lot of homelessness in the Haight. Even the homeless shelters are homeless.
After a contentious debate, San Francisco legislators finally agreed to build six new “Navigation Centers” to shelter and serve the homeless. But now comes the really hard part: convincing residents that a homeless shelter is good for their neighborhood.
The Board of Supervisors authorized the program last month along with a two-year construction plan. Already, neighbors in the Haight-Ashbury are pushing back.
“Things like that become a magnet,” Lena Emmery, a real estate broker and neighborhood resident said. “We have to stop being a magnet center and deal with the people that are here.”
Emmery, who also serves on the community policing advisory committee, believes that homeless services will only encourage what she sees as a chosen lifestyle, attracting more people in need to the Haight.
This “not in my backyard” attitude is nothing new for the Haight-based nonprofit Homeless Youth Alliance. The alliance is one of the only organizations that supports the teens and young adults that gravitate to the neighborhood, and like the proposed navigation centers, the organization has faced impenetrable resistance from residents and property owners.
Mary Howe, executive director of the alliance, recalled how she was denied a post-retrofit lease renewal in its former location in 2014. Now, she seems to be facing round two of the same battle.
“Of course we offered to come back in as soon as they were done and pay an increased rent, and they said they wanted to take the building in a different direction,” Howe said. “But then the building has sat empty.”
Undaunted, Howe began looking for a new landlord, only to be rejected 150 times, by her count. She remains adamant, and is still looking for a suitable location. She insists the Navigation Center and her services remain a part of one of the city’s main areas where homeless youth congregate.
She has supporters. Howe noted that some Haight residents have been advocating for a Navigation Center in the neighborhood that would also focus on youth. Some have taken a more direct approach, including Kathleen Ryan, whose Haight-Ashbury home has served as the alliance’s temporary office for the past 2 ½ years.
She began volunteering with the organization as a nurse after her day job as an OB-GYN, and when it became clear that finding a new location was going to be a challenge, Ryan stepped up.
“I was kind of like, ‘You guys need an out and I’ll be your out, and you keep doing what you’re doing,’” Ryan said. “And so yeah they moved in.”
Ryan insists it doesn’t bother her and that her two kids, now home from college and also volunteering with the alliance, see the staff more than she does. She said the small staff of 10 do the dishes, take out the trash, and help out with other household chores, making them great tenants.
“When I came home from work today, there were six people meeting in the living room,” she said. “Mary’s office is in my bedroom, so her desk is up against the wall.”
“We call her Dr. Awesome,” Howe said. “Her and her family are the kindest people I have ever known.”
Howe attributes the neighborhood’s resistance to discrimination and stigma against the homeless. The owners, a partnership of six people who also own the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment.
“There are a lot of people that think that the folks that are on Haight Street are there by choice,” Christina Evans, active neighborhood organizer and owner of The Booksmith on Haight Street, said.
Evans advocates for one of the Navigation Centers to be built in Golden Gate Park, where many homeless youth live. She said Phil Ginsburg , general manager of the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department, has shown no interest in this idea and that since he isn’t accountable to the Board of Supervisors, it’s an uphill battle.
“It’s not like my idea is radical. I’m basically proposing that we address a population of people by doing something about it,” Evans said. “And I’m open to better ways to address it than throwing them in jail.”