When the Navigation Center opened its doors in November, it was “the biggest blessing,” said 51-year-old Danny Hessick, sitting in the shade of the center’s open-air courtyard on a sweltering Friday afternoon.
“The security’s really good, and you’re safe,” Hessick said.
Homeless for nine years, Hessick said he comes to the day center about every other day to access basic services — laundry, restrooms, showers, and a comfortable place to rest.
He’s one of 99 average daily users of the Navigation Center. That’s a figure that far outstripped the estimated traffic of the day center before it opened, back when the city was working to transition the center from the faith-based Friends of the Carpenter shelter to the current city-owned location near the intersection of Grand and Fourth Plain boulevards.
“Our previous day center that we had at Friends of the Carpenter, we saw 30 to 40 a day,” said Amy Reynolds, deputy director of the nonprofit Share, which operates the day center. “Everyone imagined we would serve more, just not this much more.”
More people using the center means more people have access to basic human necessities. But it also means the center’s staff is stretched thin, and nearby homes and businesses are dealing with an outsized footprint on their community that many are saying they didn’t sign up for.
In part, that delta between expectation and reality spurred a frustrated confrontation from the Vancouver City Council earlier this month.
During the July 15 meeting, councilors tore into Reynolds, Vancouver Police Chief James McElvain, and Community and Economic Development Director Chad Eiken as the trio presented a six-month operating report on the center.
Members of the city council, who have spent the last several months hearing from neighbors that the new center had brought with it drugs, harassment and other criminal activity, expressed frustration with the slowness of the Navigation Center’s response to concerns. And they were frustrated that, after six months, the group didn’t present any specific goals or deadlines to improve the situation.
“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. “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.”
Councilor Linda Glover took it a step further, suggesting the day center should shutter in the meantime.
“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,” Glover said.
In the end, the council decided the situation was too urgent to put off. They elected to hire a third-party group to conduct an investigation into the day center to ensure the facility is following best practices and look for solutions to the lingering problems. The council will discuss the issue further at its next meeting Aug. 5.
Reynolds said she’s open to the idea of a third-party review. But she was taken aback by Glover’s suggestion that the day center should close, she said.
“I think it was a surprising comment in general. People are always nervous when somebody says maybe we should close what we feel is a vital service for people who are living outside,” Reynolds said.
Lack of resources is an ongoing issue, she added. In a perfect world, she would expand the staff to include more people who work one-on-one with clients to connect them with health care, employment and long-term housing.
“We could have a team of navigators, at least three, and probably three case managers. We have one of each right now,” Reynolds said. “It would seem that having one housing navigator, having one case manager isn’t sufficient to keep people moving fast through the system.”
Todd, 56, was at the Navigation Center on Friday but declined to give his last name.
He said he used to work as a carpenter but got injured on the job, addicted to painkillers and became homeless. Now, he’s clean and looking for employment again, he said, but without a truck or tools, it’s hard to get far.
What he needs is to find an employer to give him a chance, he said.
“We want the public to give us jobs. We want to earn our money,” he said.
Hessick’s case, he said, is looking up. He has an appointment next week with a navigator, who’s helping to guide him through the Vancouver Housing Authority’s application process for Section 8 housing.
“Our core question is, is the day center helping people? Is it making a difference in the community? Is the community better for having had it? And certainly, from our clients’ perspective, the answer is yes,” Reynolds said.
“Showers, bathroom, laundry, these are basic things that those of us who are housed kind of take for granted, would be readily available. And when they’re not, being able to apply for a job or find a house is not very realistic. Having these basic needs met really opens doors for people.”