On a recent Thursday morning, the Vancouver Navigation Center was bustling. People were hanging out at tables inside and outside, watching television, waiting to take showers, doing laundry and nursing cups of coffee.
“We’re seeing more people than we originally expected,” said Jillian Daleiden, who manages the center, street outreach and Talkin’ Trash for homeless service provider Share.
Share reported that an average of 99 people visited the center daily between Dec. 1 and May 31, the first full six months it was in operation. Two years ago, when the city first proposed relocating the center from an industrial area in west Vancouver to 2018 Grand Blvd. in central Vancouver, estimated usage was projected at 50 people per day.
Daleiden surmises the nearly doubled number of visitors is due to a combination of the center’s location, access to public transportation, enhanced services — and an overall increase in homelessness.
At about 5,000 square feet, the center is more than four times the size of the warehouse space it used to occupy. It’s centrally located off Fourth Plain Boulevard along a bus rapid transit line.
Services at the old location included case management, housing navigation, computer access, mail and restrooms. In addition to that, the new location has showers, laundry, snacks, coffee and group activities including bingo, arts and crafts, recovery groups and meditation, and space for daily and long-term storage. (There’s a wait list for the storage cages and bins.)
The new location has attracted more outside service providers that connect with people at the center, including SeaMar, Columbia River Mental Health Services, Hazel Dell Animal Hospital, Janus Youth Programs’ outreach and the Medical Teams International dental van.
“Overall, we’re really pleased with the amount of people we’re able to serve and the services we’re able to offer,” Daleiden said.
Those services are in increasing demand. Daleiden pointed to the most recent census of the homeless population that showed homelessness rose 21 percent this year.
Kyla Houchens, who spoke to the The Columbian on a recent visit to the Navigation Center, said the center is not a solution to homelessness.
“It gives you some resources to deal with the symptoms of homelessness,” she said. Having a chair to sit in, hot coffee to drink and a TV to watch are amenities housed people can take for granted. Houchens said at the center, she’s treated like a human, not a vagrant.
“It’s all right,” said Lisa Wattles, who added that the center’s employees are overworked and that the place is a work in progress. “I at least feel safe here, and it keeps me out of the weather.”
Wattles stays at an overnight shelter and can’t take her dog inside a public library during the day, but the dog can lie by her side at the Navigation Center.
Houchens and Wattles said they don’t like that people have taken pictures of them just because they’re homeless and in the neighborhood. Both say they leave the area at night.
“I really take offense to that,” Houchens said. “You’re tired of seeing homeless people? Do something about it.”
Rose Village resident Eric Lambert is not surprised that the Navigation Center is serving more people than initially estimated. He was involved in an effort to appeal the decision to allow the center to locate to Grand Boulevard; the foundational argument was that the city’s estimated daily attendance number was too low.
“I don’t think ‘I told you so’ is really in order, because perhaps [the city] knew the whole time,” Lambert said.
Under the former Human Services Siting ordinance, the number of people a facility served determined its class, and there were rules around locating similarly sized facilities near each other. Because the Navigation Center was believed to serve fewer than 75 clients daily, it was rated as a Class 3 facility. Lambert had argued it should’ve been classified as a Class 2 or 1 facility.
“You don’t need to be a weatherman to tell which way the wind is blowing,” Lambert said. “Clearly, in our opinion, they were going to serve more than 74.”
Lambert said the group came to that conclusion by looking at other services in the area, the number of people at the current day center and those who were camping around Share House, a men’s homeless shelter downtown.
Peggy Sheehan, the city’s community and economic development programs manager, said the city estimated attendance based on the actual use of the previous day center at Friends of the Carpenter.
“At the time of the application, the city felt that the expected number of clients would not exceed 74, and so it did not explore whether it would meet the spacing criteria of a Class 2 facility,” Sheehan said in an email.
In the end, the city rejected the appeal and upheld the hearings examiner’s decision to allow the Navigation Center. Her decision was based on the center’s projected compatibility with the surrounding area, Sheehan said, adding that she can’t speculate what would’ve happened had different facts been known then.
“While anticipated attendance was likely one factor that was considered in determining compatibility, a review of the hearings examiner’s decision shows that it was not the sole factor, and it is not a permit condition. The examiner placed no condition on the maximum number of clients that could be served at the Navigation Center,” Sheehan wrote.
The Human Services Facilities Siting ordinance has since been repealed and replaced with zoning code updates, so the number of people a facility serves is no longer relevant when determining where it can be located.
Report on Monday
Nearby residents and business owners have been complaining to the city that their concerns aren’t being addressed and that the surrounding area is going downhill.
Comment cards submitted during a May 29 open house at the Navigation Center, which The Columbian obtained through a public records request, relayed a variety of perspectives on how things are going. One said that staff is doing the best it can. Another asked that better security be provided at bus stops around the center. Yet another said the area felt unsafe for children and people in recovery due to people drinking and doing drugs near the center. One comment card simply read in all caps: CLOSE THIS CENTER!
At 5 p.m. Monday, the Vancouver City Council will get a report on the Navigation Center during a workshop session. Chad Eiken, the city’s community and economic development director, Vancouver Police Chief James McElvain and Share’s deputy director, Amy Reynolds, will present information about the center’s first six months of operation.
Councilor Ty Stober brought up the upcoming workshop during the July 1 city council meeting.
He said over the last six months, city officials have toured several homeless service facilities: Portland Rescue Mission, Alpha Project in San Diego, Stout Street Health Center in Denver and Springs Rescue Mission in Colorado Springs, Colo. The models differed in the ways they dealt with the nationwide homeless crisis, but all worked hard to support the people they serve, Stober said.
At Alpha Project, where hundreds of men and women live in bunk beds inside a large tent, long-term residents and alumni patrol the neighborhood and make sure kids get to school safely. Stober contrasted that with his surprise visit to the Navigation Center.
“I was left to wander with the rest of the guests that day. In many ways, that was a good experience as it allowed me to see what it meant to be a first-time visitor,” he said.
An outside service provider was waiting in an office to be approached by clients, he said. Most people were watching TV, and there weren’t really any other activities.
“I didn’t witness relationships being built nor partnerships being leveraged to make a positive impact on the facility,” Stober said.
He’s heard from nearby residents about the Navigation Center’s impact on the community. They don’t feel like the city and Share are listening to them.
“We’ve struggled to improved the reputation of the facility and its relationship with the neighborhood,” Stober said.
At Monday’s workshop he wants to hear personal responsibility for those issues and identified solutions.