Though temperatures rose outside, cool heads prevailed Monday afternoon as Vancouver city councilors discussed ways to improve the Navigation Center with city staff.
Among the recommended changes to the center, which provides basic services to people experiencing homelessness, were fencing in front of the open patio area, a card scanning system to improve the daily intake process and a new ambassador staff position to mitigate people loitering outside the facility.
All of those changes would hinge on a third-party review of the day center conducted by Alpha Project, a San Diego-based nonprofit that seeks to end homelessness. The city council directed staff to pursue the independent review at its last meeting, and the Ed and Dollie Lynch Foundation donated the funds.
The review will look at current operations at the center, as well as larger questions: What services should the greater Navigation Center site include, outside the daytime shelter? How appropriate is a low-barrier approach to providing homelessness services at the center’s central Vancouver location?
These are questions the city ideally would have answered in the rush to acquire the property and open the center, Chad Eiken, Vancouver’s director of community and economic development, told the council.
“These are things we would have liked to have explored in great detail. We’re learning now, after the fact, and hoping that Alpha Project can advise the city on various aspects,” Eiken said.
The day center serves an average of 99 people per day, a number that outstrips the initial estimates from when the facility was still in its planning stages. Share, the nonprofit that operates the day center, didn’t expect to serve more than a maximum of 74 people a day.
More people in the door means more people accessing services such as food, laundry and showers that help ease the symptoms of homelessness. But the center’s popularity also strains its resources, and residents and businesses in nearby neighborhoods have complained of an uptick in drug use, harassment, illegal camping and other crimes on or near their properties.
Changes in the works
Now, there’s a tentative plan to start making changes at the center. It’s contingent on the findings of the Alpha Project study, which is slated to start later this month and conclude in the fall.
Next month, the city provisionally plans to install a fence and gate across the open-air patio, so that anyone looking to access the center needs to do so through the main door. Around the same time, the city plans to install a card-scan system to better track the center’s daily intake.
Going forward, the day center will remain open on all major holidays — currently, it closes six days out of the year. The first day to be affected by the switch will be Labor Day on Sept. 2.
The Vancouver Police Department also plans to increase patrols in the area directly surrounding the Navigation Center. Talkin’ Trash, the city program that hires people experiencing homelessness to pick up garbage on the street, will also up its services within about 500 feet of the center.
“Because it’s mitigating impacts from the Navigation Center, Talkin’ Trash will be able to provide on-call services to pick up waste in the immediate vicinity of the center,” Eiken said.
The city may also amend its contract with Share to provide one more staffer who would be positioned near the center’s entrance to encourage loiterers to come inside or move on. The council is considering increasing the height of the cinder block half-wall along the east side of the facility to discourage loitering, though some councilors expressed concerns about taking on any major capital projects before the Alpha Project review concludes.
“Walls create disconnect. Walls steal energy from a street, not add to it, and I’m afraid building a wall there would end up making this look less appealing as a neighborhood tenant,” Councilor Ty Stober said. “I’m wondering if first we can’t be focused on the ambassador position, because to me, I think that’s a much more effective way.”
Rounding out the list of recommended changes: decreasing the speed limit of Grand Boulevard from 30 mph to 25 mph, installing a striped crosswalk across Grand Boulevard midway between East Fourth Plain Boulevard and East 20th Street, swapping out the day center’s 75-gallon hot water tank for a 100-gallon one to allow for more hot showers, moving the day center’s service desk near the front door, and convening all the stakeholders for a conversation about how the rest of the Navigation Center should be utilized.
If all of the proposed changes are enacted, they’ll cost the city an estimated $412,000 over two years, Eiken reported.
Shift in tone
The tone of Monday’s conversation was a marked departure from last month, when councilors lambasted Eiken, Vancouver Police Chief James McElvain and Amy Reynolds, the deputy director of Share.
The trio delivered a formal report on the day center’s first six months of operation, but councilors felt the July 15 report didn’t sufficiently address the concerns that had been raised about the Navigation Center and its impacts on the surrounding neighborhoods. Councilors also criticized the group for their perceived slow-walking of necessary changes to the day center, and at one point, suggested the center should close until improvements could be made.
At Monday’s workshop, the tension was addressed.
“Many councilors, including myself, made some pointed feedback,” said Councilor Erik Pauslen, referring to the July 15 meeting. “We have overwhelming demand for the services that we’re providing, so I want to thank Share in particular and city staff for doing the best they can with the resources available.”