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Navigation Centers – A Different Approach to Shelter the Homeless

By Akanksha Singh posted 05-20-2018 21:57


By Julia Laue, AIA, LEED AP
Principal Architect & Division Manager
San Francisco Public Works, Building Design & Construction – Architecture Division

One day, in late December of 2014, the Director of San Francisco Public Works, Mohammed Nuru, called together three of his deputies, including the City Architect, City Engineer and Operations chief, and asked them to meet him at an abandoned school yard in the Mission District.  This school yard was full of vacant modular classrooms, offices and restrooms, surrounding a central blacktop open space.  Three months later, in March of 2015, San Francisco Public Works, in partnership with other City agencies, opened San Francisco’s first “Navigation Center” -- a bolstered shelter for homeless people living in encampments.  

With a 75-bed capacity, the Navigation Center has since served more than 1,000 people. The idea was to quickly and temporarily house the homeless, providing them with support services on this privately owned site, which was slated to later become an affordable housing development project.   Since the first site opened, three more Navigation Centers have come on line, with three more in the works.

Courtesy of San Francisco Public Works, Bureau of Architecture Courtesy of San Francisco Public Works, Bureau of Architecture

1950 Mission St. Navigation Center; opened March 2015 and slated to close September 2018 to make way for a new affordable housing development. Design:  A repurposed schoolyard with a central plaza and courtyard.

While San Francisco may not have as many homeless people as other American cities, such as Los Angeles or New York, it is challenged in that it is packed into just 47 square miles with 860,000 residents, and a day-time population exceeding 1 million, when workforce commuters and tourists are factored in. San Francisco’s tech industry-driven development boom over the past five-plus years has placed new housing and office space in what were once industrial areas where people living on the streets went largely unnoticed. The result of the changing landscape has magnified the homeless population.

As estimated 7,500 people experience homelessness in San Francisco on any given night.  Of those, 4,300 are unsheltered and living on the streets, which is causing the challenge of eve- increasing homeless encampments.  The resources to address this need include approximately 1,555-plus beds available for people without homes and 1,100 on the shelter waiting list.  The saying, “Necessity is the mother of invention,” could not be truer when it comes to sheltering people who are homeless, and gave rise to the Navigation Center model.

How do we quickly, temporarily, house the most challenged homeless people while at the same time provide them with support services to allow them to “navigate” to help, housing or back home?  What is unique about the Navigation Centers and sets them apart from traditional homeless shelters is that they are open 24-7, fully staffed. There is no curfew and clients can bring their Possessions, Partners and Pets, i.e. the 3 “Ps,” a phrase coined by one of the early champions of the Navigation Center model.   Traditional homeless shelters generally have curfews, do not allow clients to store their belongings and do not allow pets.

San Francisco Public has provided design, construction management and construction services for the Navigation Centers, on behalf of our client, the City’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing. The three new centers, now underway, were designed to be built in less eight months and constructed concurrently -- a quick turn-around in San Francisco made possible by the emergency declaration unanimously approved by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in December of 2017. 

Courtesy of San Francisco Public Works, Bureau of ArchitectureCourtesy of San Francisco Public Works, Bureau of Architecture

Central Waterfront Navigation Center – opened June 2017 – with a 70-person capacity.  Design:  An all new customized modular trailer village organized around common area courtyards and amenities.

San Francisco Public Works continues to pursue new and innovative models for these centers to ensure a humane and dignified experience within an inviting and supportive environment as they transition from street encampments to a more stable, healthier and safer living situation.  Programs and amenities include community/dining rooms, which provide three meals a day; basic healthcare and case-work support services; TV lounges, landscaped outdoor living room-type areas. There are also showers, restroom trailers and laundry rooms provided at each Navigation Center.

Courtesy of San Francisco Public Works, Bureau of Architecture

SF Public Works architects and landscape architects participate in a Navigation Center design charrette – April 2016

Design solution models include modular trailer campuses, arranged around various outdoor courtyards all tied together with an elevated deck; conversion of an SRO (Single Room Occupancy) hotel to a Navigation Center; and a warehouse solution where a vacant warehouse has been converted to a Navigation Center with dormitories, modular shower/restroom trailers and outdoor activity areas.

Currently under construction is a tensile structure Navigation Center utilizing “Sprung” fabric buildings.  This approach also has been utilized by the cities of San Diego and Fresno and the state of Hawaii and is currently under development in Portland, OR for its homeless shelters.  The structures are quickly erected, fully insulated and air conditioned and have a long life span; many are warranted for 35 years or more.

Since 2016, the newly created San Francisco Department of Homelessness and Housing has provided contract services at the Navigation Centers.  Two of the newest Navigation Centers are being built on underutilized California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) properties that have been leased to San Francisco. State officials are holding up the arrangement as a potential model for other local governments to pursue. One of these sites, at Division Circle, about a mile south of City Hall in an area dotted with encampments, had been used to be a parking lot. It is slated to open in early summer and is the City’s first Navigation Center using the fabric building/structure model. 

Courtesy of San Francisco Public Works, Bureau of ArchitectureCourtesy of San Francisco Public Works, Bureau of Architecture

Courtesy of San Francisco Public Works, Bureau of Architecture
Division Circle Navigation Center, scheduled to open early June 2018, with a 125-person capacity.  Design:  Tensile fabric structures arranged around a large outdoor area with site furnishings and generous planting, including a community garden.

Another Caltrans site, at Fifth and Bryant streets, is designed to be a modular trailer campus similar to the one built in the Dogpatch neighborhood adjacent to San Francisco’s central waterfront. The trailers there are arranged around courtyards, all tied together with a raised decking system that covers utilities located above grade. The configuration allows for quick installation, fits within the temporary-use model and is less expensive to build.  The trailers may be moved from site to site, as required.

  Courtesy of San Francisco Public Works, Bureau of Architecture

Courtesy of San Francisco Public Works, Bureau of Architecture 

Fifth and Bryant Navigation Center, scheduled to open July 2018, has an 84-person capacity.  Design:  Customized modular trailer village arranged around courtyards of various sizes, shapes and functions with site furnishings, outdoor seating and planter boxes, all tied together with a unifying raised deck.

The crisis of homelessness in our cities is complex and challenging and cannot be solved with just one solution or model, but requires innovative, outside-the-box ideas.  It is our hope as design professionals and government agencies that we may be able to contribute architecturally by providing dignified, supportive and inviting environments for this often underserved population.

For another perspective on Navigation Centers, take a look at one of the 2017 AIA “I Look Up” video challenge” videos, submitted by San Francisco Public Works.  The theme of the challenge last year was “Built for Better” and below is a link for the submitted video, “A Little Alcove: San Francisco Navigation Center.