When COVID-19 hit, the Vancouver Navigation Center had just been getting back on track.
The city-owned day shelter for people without homes had been through a thorny couple of months. It had been left without a designated operator; the previous organization, the nonprofit Share, had dropped the site in February, leaving the Vancouver Parks and Recreation Department in charge of handling the center day to day.
A few weeks after Share pulled out, Vancouver’s overall homeless strategy was left rudderless when the city’s homeless resources manager, Jackie St. Louis, resigned. With no operator and no department leader, the Navigation Center had to scale back its services, which had once provided counseling and housing referrals.
Julie Hannon, Vancouver’s Parks and Recreation manager, told the city council last week that her staff had to reduce the offerings to the center’s clients — 160 people, on an average day — who accessed the facility daily for laundry, bathrooms and showers.
“It was more of a place for people to go,” Hannon said. “Not a lot of counseling services during the time when the city operated the (center).”
The double departure of Share and St. Louis gave way to monthslong searches for a new homeless resources manager and a new Navigation Center operator. When the novel coronavirus outbreak started, the latter search had just proved fruitful.
After a thorough application solicitation process, including multiple site tours, a search committee had narrowed the pool of applicants down to four potential operators. They weighed the cost, qualifications and cultural competency of each option.
The committee eventually settled on Catholic Community Services of Western Washington as the new operator of the Navigation Center, said Dave Perlick, the city’s recreation manager. They toured the Nativity House, a 160-bed emergency overnight shelter, day center and transitional housing complex operated by CCS in Tacoma.
They were impressed by the operation, Perlick said. It sealed the deal.
“Pre-COVID, we began a process to talk to them about putting together a contract,” Perlick said. “That is right about the time where we all had to take a pause.”
By mid-March, the novel coronavirus outbreak had pulled the rug out. The Navigation Center closed altogether on March 19.
Scaling back services
The contract with CCS is on pause, Hannon said, as both the city and the nonprofit group try to sort through coronavirus fallout.
“We have two new challenges that we’re trying to understand,” Hannon said.
“The first is operating the Navigation Center with clients in the atmosphere adhering to CDC guidance and public health guidance. Not only physical distancing, but dealing with belongings and possessions, and also showering, and some pretty serious facility issues that need some extra sanitation,” Hannon continued. “The second challenge, that is still unknown at this time, is the impact of any lost revenue to the city.”
Cost is a major consideration, made all the more urgent by the shortfall expected in city coffers as a result of the outbreak — Vancouver’s budget office tentatively predicts a $45 million shortfall this year alone, mostly in lost sales taxes.
Options to reopen
Hannon presented the city council with four options for a Navigation Center operation contract with CCS, ranging in cost from $580,140 to $1.26 million per year.
The cheapest option would see the Navigation Center open six hours a day, five days a week, with eight full-time equivalent staff and a caseload of up to 150 clients per year.
“The other options slowly move up the gamut as far as budget and operating hours,” Hannon said.
The most robust package would see the center open 10 hours a day, seven days a week, with 18.5 full-time employees and a potential caseload of 600 clients annually. Each of the scenarios would maintain the bathrooms, showers and laundry facilities.
Rather than greenlight any one of the four options, the city council ultimately decided to shelve the issue.
Councilor Sarah Fox said she wanted to wait until the city had replaced its homeless resources manager before moving forward with a new operator. Several councilors said they wanted to convene with Clark County leadership before taking any major steps.
Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle suggested a virtual sit-down with Eileen Quiring, chair of the Clark County Council, to put together a joint subcommittee that could reassess the region’s broader response to homelessness.
“It would be a good place to kick off and keep moving forward,” McEnerny-Ogle said.
The Vancouver City Council plans to discuss the future of the Navigation Center further at its June 1 meeting.