The Navigation Center is closing indefinitely Thursday, leaving many in Vancouver’s homeless population wondering where they can turn to access crucial daily services.
The facility offered a place to shower, do laundry, use the restroom and wash hands, all vital pieces of personal hygiene that can help stem the spread of COVID-19. But leaders calculated that the harm of continuing to operate a center where big groups gather — an average of 160 per day — outweighed the benefits.
It’s the last building operated by Vancouver to go dark. All other public facilities, minus the emergency Operations Center, shuttered earlier in the week.
“We didn’t take this lightly,” said Dave Perlick, recreation manager for Vancouver Parks and Recreation, who was on-site as staff started hanging signs around the facility Wednesday morning informing clients of the closure.
“Yesterday, we communicated with Clark County Public Health and Clark County Community Services, and we reached the conclusion that in order to follow the direction given by the governor, we had to close this facility,” Perlick said.
Gov. Jay Inslee announced a ban on public gatherings of more than 50 people on Sunday, urging social distancing.
The decision to shut the Navigation Center is gutting, Perlick said.
Many regular users of the center don’t have anywhere else to go. Other services designed for people without homes, like church and nonprofit meal programs, are also reassessing during the COVID-19 pandemic. Businesses where people might otherwise go during the day — like coffee shops — are also closed to the public.
“If you’re doing homeless services, you’re overwhelmed right now,” Perlick said.
“I would love to give people food,” he said. “I don’t even know how to give people food, you know?”
He added a qualifier.
He continued. “If we have a huge congregation of people, even if it’s boxes, at what point do we have too many people in one location?”
The Parks and Recreation Department stepped in to handle the Navigation Center’s operations in February, when the previous operator cut ties.
In the meantime, Navigation Center staff will start coordinating the setup of portable toilets around the city for people to use during the closure, according to Perlick. He said his department should have more details on that next week.
They’ll also set up a station at the center where people can pick up their mail and access any items left in storage lockers. However, nobody will be allowed inside.
Capped at 50
A crowd had gathered in the Navigation Center’s parking lot by late Wednesday morning. Admittance had been capped at 50 people inside on the day prior, a short-lived attempt to keep the center open without running afoul of Inslee’s ban.
Hopefuls put their names on the list kept by a security staffer at the entrance, who kept the door locked until somebody inside decided to exit voluntarily.
Kimberly Ann Correa had been waiting in the parking lot for about two hours, she said.
“When people decide to leave there, then somebody gets to go in,” she said, adding that a lot of attendees were reluctant to give up their spot.
Though she lives out of her car, she said she’s not nervous about the coronavirus.
“I’m not kissing these fools,” Correa cracked, drawing laughter from a handful of people standing around outside.
Staff distributed food, supplies and encouraging words outside, an attempt to keep the peace in a situation that would grow sporadically tense and then dissipate. One person, angry at being turned away at the door, marched away shouting, “I know my rights!”
Dolly Crowell was sitting in the parking lot with her pug, Buddy. Buddy was stressed out and barking — it had been a rough few weeks, Crowell explained. A staff member came over and offered to walk him around the block.
Crowell is very worried about the coronavirus pandemic, she said. She lives in a women’s shelter that only opens overnight. With the Navigation Center closing, she said she doesn’t know what she’s going to do during the day. And she’s worried about infecting her family members, including a brand new infant.
“I’m terrified. There’s really nowhere safe to go right now,” Crowell said. “I’m not sick. I haven’t been sick. But still, there’s the grandbabies.”
She’s also worried about how closing all these public services might impact local crime rates, especially as somebody who will likely have to start spending every day outdoors.
“People will get desperate. And they’re scared.”