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Share to stop operating Vancouver Navigation Center

Move follows disagreements with city over operations at center for homeless

By , Columbian Social Services, Demographics, Faith, and
, Columbian staff writer
Published: November 1, 2019, 4:00pm
8 Photos
J.C. Ingram gives water to his dog Fritzy as he waits to use the showers at the Vancouver Navigation Center in Vancouver.  (Alisha Jucevic/The Columbian)
J.C. Ingram gives water to his dog Fritzy as he waits to use the showers at the Vancouver Navigation Center in Vancouver. (Alisha Jucevic/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Homeless service nonprofit Share will cease operating the Vancouver Navigation Center after January.

Executive Director Diane McWithey said Share and the city of Vancouver had different opinions on how to operate the Navigation Center, a day facility for the area’s homeless population. She said she and Deputy Director Amy Reynolds met with the city’s Homeless Resource Manager Jackie St. Louis on Oct. 25 about needing to remove Share from the day center.

Share will begin notifying clients today of the change. A replacement operator was not identified in an email sent by the city in response to Share’s decision. Nine Share employees who work at the facility will move to other Share programs or receive severance packages.

McWithey said they felt Share and city did not have “the same mission vision and values as to how to run the day center, so we gave notice.” She said Share’s decision did not have to do with a recently released third-party report from Alpha Project, a San Diego-based nonprofit. The meeting with St. Louis was scheduled before the report came out.

The report described the center as poorly managed and recommended several changes, including opening a temporary, 150-bed bridge shelter. During its Sept. 4 site visit, “Alpha Project observed virtually no control over access to the facility, little client engagement, and an absence of any social modeling to shape and control client conduct. During the same visit, Alpha Project observed neighborhood impacts stemming from client conduct in the community and little effort to mitigate those issues or engage community interests in positive relationships.”

McWithey said the comment that the center is poorly managed was unfair as Alpha Project staff spent “seven minutes” in the center and did not speak with its operating staff.

“It’s unfortunate that those words are receiving the publicity that they are,” she said. The report was “written with the flavor that their way is the only way, and we just know that not to be true.

“Their way is effective and so is ours,” McWithey said.

Shortly after Alpha Project’s September visit, Bob McElroy, the group’s president, told The Columbian that the findings of his report were “going to piss people off.” His organization is known for its 324-bed bridge shelter, a reinforced tent that was erected in response to a hepatitis A outbreak among San Diego’s homeless population.

While speaking with The Columbian on Friday, McElroy said Alpha Project was in the middle of opening another bridge shelter. He said the report was Alpha Project’s opinion and was not a rebuke of Share.

Operating a day center, housing navigation center and temporary bridge shelter the way Alpha Project does is tremendously challenging and has involved a lot of trial and error, he said.

“It’s tough. It’s not a rebuke of the agencies who try and do it. They have specialties in other areas,” McElroy said.

At its facility in San Diego, Alpha Project has made changes primarily based on feedback from homeless clients. The nonprofit relies heavily on trained staff who are formerly homeless or recovering addicts.

Vancouver wouldn’t necessarily have to find another agency to take over the Navigation Center but could form its own group. McElroy encouraged Vancouver to seek out people who are passionate about addressing the problem and working with homeless people. It’s important that the city repair its relationship with the neighborhoods surrounding the Navigation Center, he said.

“Optics are huge. It should start there,” he said.

The day center originally opened mid-December 2015 at Friends of the Carpenter in west Vancouver and last November moved to 2018 Grand Boulevard in central Vancouver. The new, larger location has drawn criticism from community members and Vancouver City Council, which requested the third-party review. The review was paid for by the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund held at the Community Foundation for Southwest Washington.

Share is working with its staff and the city on the transition.

Vancouver City Councilor Erik Paulsen said that city leaders plan to put out a request for proposals to find a new Navigation Center operator. But in the meantime, the local government may take a more hands-on role at the day shelter, running the facility with staff and contractors hired by the city directly.

“I believe there is a bridge strategy that would involve the city taking on a little bit more of the day-to-day operations until we can find a new partner,” Paulsen said.

The council found out about Share’s decision Oct. 28, Paulsen added, when they were forwarded a brief email from Share announcing the nonprofit’s decision.

“It was two sentences long. And it didn’t really elaborate,” Paulsen said.

Further discussion is planned for Monday’s city council meeting.

Several changes will be implemented by Nov. 11 that increase security at the Navigation Center, according to an email sent to community members by St. Louis, the homeless resource manager.

An ID card system was recently implemented by Share and will continue to be used to control access in and out of the building. The sole entrance will be the door facing the main parking lot, a change that McWithey said Share had wanted.

The outdoor area will be enclosed, and there will be no loitering outside of the building. Along with requiring a new check-in procedure, a new code of conduct will be enforced, the email said.

A thorough cleaning of the building interior will take place Nov. 8 through Nov. 10, during which the Navigation Center will be closed. When it reopens Nov. 11, the Vancouver Police Department will have a daily presence at the facility “to help with security and code of conduct rules” through Nov. 24, the email said.

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The changes mirror some of the recommendations outlined in Alpha Project’s report. During a Dec. 10 community meeting at the Navigation Center, St. Louis will discuss the changes and answer questions.

Some people using the day center Friday afternoon who spoke with The Columbian had heard about the upcoming change and said they were curious what the day center will look like.
Many said they relied on the shower, laundry and mail services offered at the Navigation Center.

“I hope it doesn’t close,” said Tracey Valenzuela, who’s been visiting the day center since it opened.

She said if there were more rules maybe people would respect the place more.

Scott Gibson recommended that the city, as the new operator of the day center, “cut the BS.” He said the announcement was a surprise to him and he’s going to wait and see what the new center will be like. His biggest criticism of the Navigation Center is that it takes a long time for people to get housing.

“They run it to the best of their abilities,” said Barbara Comparni.

She’s not sure what to think of the change. She noted that there are rules and signs that say “clean up after yourself.” If people adhered to them, the Navigation Center would be a better place.

The Navigation Center, as it’s currently operated by Share, is considered a low-barrier day center, meaning that there are few barriers to using it. But, that could change with the new structure and influence whether people choose to use the facility.

“Placing additional barriers on the day center and the clients who are served there will definitely mean that there are more people on the street,” McWithey said.

McWithey said there are many different ways of addressing homelessness and that the community thrives on differences and creativity in its response to the problem.

“Our population of the homeless is a growing population. There’s a tremendous need in our community,” McWithey said. “The day center was one response, but there needs to be a multifaceted response to this problem.”

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