Vancouver city councilors expressed outright frustration with people in charge of the Navigation Center at its meeting Monday evening, taking to task two city department heads and the deputy director of Share for their perceived foot-dragging in making necessary changes to staff and security.
The council agreed that the day center serving homeless people needed to be reviewed by a third party to see whether it was following best practices. One councilor went so far as to suggest that the center, which has had contact with more than 1,400 people experiencing homelessness since it opened in November, should be closed in the meantime.
“I’m so frustrated that I’m almost to the point where, do we want to continue functioning and operating this day center?” Councilor Linda Glover asked.
“I think we need to make these changes, but they need to be made quickly. But if they can’t be made quickly, I don’t think we should continue operating.”
Councilor Erik Paulsen suggested that the city should consider hiring an outside firm to review and report on the day center’s practices. The rest of the council agreed.
“This (presentation) did not meet my expectations. I don’t feel comfortable with some of the self-assessment that’s been presented to us,” Councilor Ty Stober said.
Until the council’s comments, the workshop was a fairly routine review of the Navigation Center’s first six months in operation presented by Vancouver Police Chief James McElvain, Community and Economic Development Director Chad Eiken and Share Deputy Director Amy Reynolds.
By and large, they told the council, the center was fulfilling its mission. By some metrics, like the number of people served and the level of outreach with neighbors, the Navigation Center was even exceeding expectations.
The program’s initial goal was to provide “basic needs assistance” — food, laundry, showers and case management — to at least 300 people in its first year. In just six months, staff and volunteers helped 1,412.
“In terms of numbers of people served and being connected to services, the day center is far exceeding initial expectations,” Eiken said.
Much of this success stems from the center’s low-barrier approach, Reynolds said. The center doesn’t turn people away who are under the influence of drugs or alcohol. They also don’t require clients to be ready to seek out long-term housing before accessing services that alleviate the symptoms of homelessness, like taking a hot shower or running a load of laundry.
“All of these help to maintain a person’s dignity and a sense of normalcy,” Reynolds told the council.
In other areas, presenters acknowledged, the Navigation Center needed more work. More clients means that the center should employ more staff. They said the center also need better security, more pedestrian safety measures in the surrounding area, and a more comprehensive way of responding to the center’s impact on nearby homes and businesses. All of that would require more funding, they reported.
“It’s really not a great client-to-staff ratio,” Eiken said.
The center has between four and five staffers to serve a daily average of 99 people. When the center was first proposed, Share expected to serve fewer than 75 people per day.
McElvain said that citywide, calls to the police increased by 3 percent from December 2018 through May 2019, compared with the same period the year prior. The number of offense reports written by officers was up 6 percent.
But in the quarter-mile radius surrounding the Navigation Center, calls more than doubled — up 131 percent compared with the year prior. Police reports rose by 129 percent.
The data tracked with anecdotes from neighbors, who have started attending meetings to testify before the city council about drug activity, fights, harassment and other issues cropping up around their homes and businesses.
“I would suggest that’s not abnormal, given the clientele being served,” McElvain said. “You’re going to naturally start to attract calls for service.”
While calls in the area have increased, McElvain added, they still weren’t totally out of the norm. Police service in the city is broken into “beats,” he explained. Beat 21 encompasses the new day center.
“Prior to the Navigation Center opening, Beat 21 was the eighth-busiest beat in our city. After it opened up, it remained our eighth-busiest beat in our city,” McElvain said.
Councilors were not impressed with the report, criticizing the presenters for a lack of any specific goals or deadlines. The outright frustration was uncharacteristic from a body that usually conducts its business agreeably.
“I hear a lot of, ‘thinking about,’ ‘looking at,’ ‘considering.’ I don’t understand why, at this point, we don’t have any concrete plans,” Stober said.
The city council began its summer break after the meeting and doesn’t convene again until Aug. 5.
Councilors decided to bump the existing agenda for the next meeting — a discussion on election districts — in favor of a more comprehensive assessment of the Navigation Center, citing the latter as the more urgent issue.
They instructed city staff to reach out to the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund in the interim, in the hopes of securing money to hire a third-party firm to review the day center. They’ll likely discuss that consulting process at the Aug. 5 meeting.
“I am extremely concerned about postponing this conversation, so we need a clear date in the not-distant future where we can have that conversation,” Stober said.