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Vancouver’s Navigation Center sees changes after outcry from neighbors

Some find situation calmer amid emphasis on behaviors, but to others there's no difference

By , Columbian staff writer
5 Photos
Dan Peterson checks in at the front desk at the Navigation Center in Vancouver on Thursday. As Share starts to phase out of running the day center, the city of Vancouver is looking for new operators. All visitors must now check in at the beginning of the day with their ID badge and check out at the end of the day.
Dan Peterson checks in at the front desk at the Navigation Center in Vancouver on Thursday. As Share starts to phase out of running the day center, the city of Vancouver is looking for new operators. All visitors must now check in at the beginning of the day with their ID badge and check out at the end of the day. (Alisha Jucevic/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Change is afoot at Vancouver’s Navigation Center, the day center for people experiencing homelessness.

The modifications are visible from the street, where temporary fencing now blocks off the formerly open-entry patio near the intersection of Grand and Fourth Plain boulevards. Inside, the center is different too. Clients now scan ID cards in order to access services like laundry and showers, and a new television and furniture offer a safe, comfortable place to rest.

Jackie St. Louis, Vancouver’s first homeless resource manager, is behind several of the changes. Since being hired for the position in August, St. Louis has focused on the Navigation Center with the philosophy that it gives the city an opportunity to be “responsive to the needs of all of its constituents, both those who are housed and unhoused,” he said.

“One of the things we’ve been very deliberate about is the code of conduct, and looking at behaviors we want to discourage.”

What’s different?

Share, the nonprofit that operated the Navigation Center for its first year, announced in November that it was ceasing management of the facility. The organization’s last day will be Jan. 31.

Vancouver city leaders formally issued a request for proposals seeking a new contractor to manage the Navigation Center on Thursday. In the meantime, staff from the city’s Parks and Recreation department are stepping in to handle the day-to-day operation.

There are usually two parks staffers out of a core group of 10 on-site at any given time, St. Louis said, along with the usual security. Share employees are also still present, helping facilitate a smooth transition.

So why Parks and Recreation employees?

“They have a strong history of managing community centers, which are slightly different but still people-focused,” St. Louis said. “They’re working there, in addition to their regular shifts.”

The Parks and Recreation staff didn’t undergo any additional training to prepare them for the new assignment, St. Louis said. They drew instead on “training in their history that sort of prepares them to work with their clients.”

In addition to the new staff setup, physical changes are visible on the day center property. The new patio fencing will eventually be replaced by a permanent version, St. Louis said, and is designed to better control the flow of people in and out of the facility. There’s only one public entrance now.

That entrance also has a new electronic sentry: a card scanner. Everyone who accesses services at the Navigation Center is now required to register with the front desk, obtain an ID card and scan in and out.

“From the city perspective, what this has helped us to do is get a better idea, get a better handle, on who is homeless in our community,” St. Louis said. “As we continue to think about our role and responsibility in our community, this helps inform that.”

The Navigation Center is designed as a low-barrier service hub for people experiencing homelessness, and the key card system hasn’t proved much of a barrier, St. Louis added.

From Nov. 11 to Thursday, 879 unique clients have accessed the center, with an average of 141 people scanning in per day.

“It doesn’t affect me too much,” shrugged Cheryl Drummond, who visited the Navigation Center on Thursday with Tiny Man, her bichon-poodle mix.

Drummond said she comes to the day center once or twice a week, and said the changes seem to have had a mellowing effect on the atmosphere, though there’s still some conflict.

She liked the new comfortable setup. Red leather chairs filled the main room of the Navigation Center, arranged around the tables in a way designed to foster conversation. The room also has a new TV, which that afternoon was playing an old Western.

St. Louis said he’s heard mostly positive feedback from clients about the changes.

“We have changed the furniture, we have a new contract providing janitorial services ensuring we have a clean facility,” he said. “Even the way the seating arrangement has been done, it’s more social.”

One 54-year-old woman at the center Thursday, who asked that her name not be used, said she was homeless after fleeing a domestic violence situation. She doesn’t mind the new key-card system, but she’s heard mixed reviews from other people, some of whom are skittish about registering.

“Some people are happy about it, and some aren’t,” she said, sitting at a picnic table on the covered patio. “But I saw what was going on before it happened, and that wasn’t good, either. … (There was) violence here and there. It’s something still (occurring), of course, but it’s gotten better.”

Neighborhood concerns

One driving force behind the changes at the Navigation Center was the loud, repeated frustration from nearby residents and business owners, who have said that the facility was putting an undue burden on their homes and livelihoods.

In testimony at city council meetings and through written correspondence, property owners in the nearby neighborhoods — Maplewood, Rose Village, Central Park, Harney Heights and Fourth Plain Village — have reported a situation near the boiling point, citing conduct ranging from intravenous drug use in their yards to mail theft to harassment.

“The citizens in the community are getting angry. I can feel the tension rising,” resident Rachel Weber told the city council back in June, one of dozens to participate in resident forums with concerns about the Navigation Center.

Jim Thomas, president of the Central Park Neighborhood Association, said Thursday that the situation seemed to be calmer.

“I can see a big difference as I’m going by the Navigation Center. You don’t see near as much traffic there, you don’t see people standing around, you don’t see people doing drug deals,” Thomas said. “It’s clearly much more organized.”

But Central Park is higher in elevation than most other neighborhoods near the center, Thomas added, and the uphill climb seems to have spared the area of the worst of the problems experienced by other neighborhoods.

Sandy Bennett, who chairs the Fourth Plain Neighborhood Association, said she and her neighbors haven’t seen much difference since the changes at the Navigation Center were implemented.

And the main issue remains: When the day center closes at 5 p.m., the people accessing those services need to go somewhere, and that usually means the surrounding residential streets.

“I think things are pretty much the same,” Bennett said. She added that she’s been impressed with St. Louis and his ideas.

“I’m really hoping there will be some good changes coming along our way.”

Columbian staff writer