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When Mayor Ed Lee launched the city’s “pioneering” navigation centers in 2015, he envisioned that homeless people would move from the streets to long-term housing in 10 days or less. But reality quickly crushed that idea, in large part because housing was scarce.

By now, the navigation centers have fundamentally changed. City teams offer brief stays at the facilities to tent encampments’ occupants, who have increasingly gone back to the streets, a Public Press analysis of data shows. It turns out that, since opening, fewer than one-quarter of the centers’ “guests” have ended up in permanent housing in San Francisco. Most of the rest have received one-way bus tickets out of town.

There are few housing options, even temporary ones, for those who do not pass through the center. The traditional shelter system is overtaxed; demand and wait times for 90-day emergency beds have hit record highs. Middle-aged adults and seniors — some in their 80s and 90s — account for the biggest share of the waiting list.

Out on the streets, police have eased up on enforcing “quality of life” violations. Citations are at records lows, as city officials move to decriminalize homelessness in their quest for solutions — permanent or otherwise.

1. From the editors: A city in FLux

Investigating homelessness takes hard work, compassion toward people who are suffering and an eye on decision-makers, who need to be held accountable for the welfare of our most unlucky and vulnerable neighbors while they strive to improve the quality of life for all San Franciscans.


After two years, fewer than a quarter of the nearly 1,200 people who entered the first two navigation centers have been placed in verified long-term housing, according to a Public Press analysis.

3. As Shelter Wait Times RISE, Older Homeless ARE in Limbo Daily

Among those waiting weeks for a bed recently were someone 97 years old and three people in their 80s. They were just a few of the record number of homeless people seeking a spot on a list that has become a fixture in the lives of many.

4. ‘Quality of Life’ Citations at Record Lows

Though San Francisco police are responding to more calls for “quality of life” violations, citations have declined sharply in recent years, and the courts have been throwing out warrants, quietly decriminalizing homelessness.

5.  A LEGACY of Criminalizing TransienCE and Homelessness

The California Legislature enacted the state's first anti-vagrant statutes in the mid-19th century, targeting Native Americans and Mexican-Americans. This timeline highlights some key years, laws and policies in San Francisco.

6. Nomads by the Bay: Homeless Camp Faces Cycle of Displacement

The story of Box City reflects the city's shifting approach to homeless encampments and the impact on their residents, who believed the highly touted navigation centers would lead them to long-term housing.

7.  After City Clears Homeless Camps, Team Works to Prevent Returns

City officials quickly learned that not long after a homeless encampment was cleared, a new one would often take hold in the same area. So they quietly added a team to keep encampments from re-emerging.


8. Swept Away: Breaking Up a Homeless Encampment (Again)

A photo essay of former residents of the disbanded homeless encampment known as Box City, who had regrouped in lower Potrero Hill before being cleared again by the city in late May. 


San Francisco does not have enough subsidized housing for all the homeless people living here. The Public Press examined the city’s paths for getting people off the streets, giving special attention to the new navigation centers. Reporters also tracked trends showing a decline in SFPD citations for behavior that homeless people have trouble avoiding.

Reporting: Noah Arroyo, Hannah Kaplan, Sara Bloomberg, Zachary Benjamin 
Editing: Michael Winter and Michael Stoll 
Cartography: Marcea Ennamorato 
Photography: Judith Calson Illustrations: Anna Vignet 
Design: HyunJu Chappell 
Online: John Angelico

REPORTING: Noah Arroyo, Hannah Kaplan, Sara Bloomberg, Zachary Benjamin, Liz Enochs

EDITING: Michael Winter and Michael Stoll

PRINT DESIGN: HyunJu Chappell/Magna Citizen Studio

CARTOGRAPHY: Marcea Ennamorato

PHOTOGRAPHY: Judith Calson 


GRAPHICS: Sara Bloomberg and Reid Brown

ONLINE: John Angelico