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The rise and fall of Vancouver’s Navigation Center

Philosophical differences, staffing woes, COVID-19 among issues that derailed Vancouver’s day facility for homeless

By , Columbian staff writer
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7 Photos
Rachel Korf, left, behavioral health receptionist for SeaMar Community Health Centers, takes the temperature of Prisli Maldonado, maternity support and community health worker, as she checks in for work at the former location of the Vancouver Navigation Center on Thursday morning, July 8, 2021.
Rachel Korf, left, behavioral health receptionist for SeaMar Community Health Centers, takes the temperature of Prisli Maldonado, maternity support and community health worker, as she checks in for work at the former location of the Vancouver Navigation Center on Thursday morning, July 8, 2021. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) (Photos by amanda cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

When Vancouver leaders officially announced that the city would permanently close its Navigation Center — a long-planned, briefly operated, well-used and hotly contested day shelter for people experiencing homelessness — the news barely made a ripple.

It makes sense. The center had already been closed for a year, shuttered due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Hardly anyone came by anymore, save the occasional person looking to access a storage locker or pick up their mail. For those who used to access the center’s services, and for those who live nearby, the March update that Vancouver would be selling the facility to the Fort Vancouver Regional Libraries for a new headquarters building didn’t materially alter the status quo.

But the Navigation Center’s impact on the community was huge. The facility took around four years of planning work, $4.3 million to purchase, and roughly half a million dollars to operate in the one full year it was open. It had offered relief and immediate services including showers, laundry and a safe place to rest for an average of 160 daily visitors by the end of its 16-month run, more than doubling the original estimate of the community’s need.

The center also dominated the discourse in five surrounding residential areas, with neighbors at turn expressing support for the shelter, frustration with how it was operated, and disenchantment with the civic process over their inability to do much about it.

Given the Navigation Center’s outsized footprint, city residents would be forgiven if its quiet fizzle left some scratching their heads.

By examining more than 10,000 pages of emails, contracts and documents, The Columbian was able to paint a clearer picture of the facility’s demise.

The public records illustrate Vancouver’s ambitious attempt to spearhead its own homelessness response. But they also illustrate that effort’s decline, with staff and elected officials realizing over time that they may have bitten off more than they could chew.

The documents also paint a clearer picture of how COVID-19 impacted the saga. The virus was the final blow, but it was far from the only factor that contributed to the Navigation Center’s closure. Emails among city staff in early March 2020 show they had been considering scaling back hours or shutting the center down over staffing turmoil unrelated to COVID-19.

Hopeful start

When Vancouver purchased the 26,000-square-foot building that would eventually house the Navigation Center, it was with a healthy dose of optimism.

Just a small portion of the full facility — around one-fifth — would be used for the actual day center. The rest would remain vacant but provide enough room and opportunity to bring in housing, health care, employment and counseling providers. There was also potential for an overnight shelter.

Eventually, city leaders came to see the facility as a potential one-stop hub for everything a person experiencing homelessness might need to help get back on their feet.

Chad Eiken, Vancouver’s director of community and economic development, wrote about the “big news” in an Oct. 30, 2017, email.

“It is large enough that in the future it might house offices for direct service providers and also serve as a severe winter shelter or even permanent shelter. Right now, though, we are only focused on getting a day center up and running so folks have a place to go during the day,” Eiken wrote. “We have a lot of work to do to line up operating funds and improve the space inside, but this could be a game changer for providing services in a more holistic way.”

The city selected Share, a local homeless services nonprofit, to serve as the operator of the day center. The relationship was a natural extension of a previously existing arrangement — in conjunction with Clark County, Vancouver and Share already operated a smaller day center for unhoused people, the Friends of the Carpenter facility in west Vancouver.

The Navigation Center opened its doors on Nov. 19, 2018. For the people who relied on the space, it was indeed a game changer.

Project leaders originally estimated the center would see around 50 visitors per day; in the first couple of months, it averaged 99 people per day. That figure later rose to 160. Access to bathrooms, laundry, shower facilities, electrical outlets and even just a safe, warm place to rest was “the biggest blessing,” as visitor Danny Hessick described it to The Columbian in July of 2019.

“The security’s really good, and you’re safe.”

Contract conflicts

Public reports of friction between Vancouver and Share started emerging that summer, with city leaders expressing frustration over neighbors’ complaints of crimes and mismanagement that seemed to go unaddressed.

In one particularly contentious July city council meeting, city councilors admonished three center stakeholders over their perceived slowness to make adjustments: Eiken, Vancouver Police Chief James McElvain and Share Deputy Director Amy Reynolds.

“I hear a lot of, ‘thinking about,’ ‘looking at,’ ‘considering.’ I don’t understand why, at this point, we don’t have any concrete plans,” Councilor Ty Stober told the trio.

In November, Share announced it planned to cease its operations of the Navigation Center the following February.

Share, for its part, didn’t provide many details on why the organization ultimately decided to pull out. Executive Director Diane McWithey told The Columbian at the time that Share and the city lacked “the same mission vision and values as to how to run the day center.”

However, internal correspondence between city staff indicates that Vancouver had been searching for a way to terminate its contract with Share before that announcement.

The sticking point: As part of their contract, Vancouver had agreed to work with Share for at least 10 years or risk forfeiting a $180,000 grant awarded by the state for the project.

In October, Assistant City Manager Lenda Crawford sent an email to City Attorney Johnathan Young.

“As you know, we have not been satisfied as to how Share has been managing the Day Center and need to be able to implement other options including the removal of Share as the operator in order to get the Nav Center back on track or risk closure altogether,” Crawford wrote. “I need you to review this agreement with the state along with the city’s contract with Share and provide options on how we can legally unravel this, even if it means repaying the grant.”

The following day, on Oct. 20, 2019, Crawford added in an email to City Manager Eric Holmes that “there is a philosophical difference between the city and Share as to what type of facility this should be and their ability/willingness to better align with the city’s views.”

A few days later, staff circulated a third-party report of the Navigation Center’s operations conducted by San Diego homelessness nonprofit Alpha Project. The report was largely critical of the status quo.

On Oct. 25, Vancouver’s Homeless Resources Manager Jackie St. Louis reported that Share leadership told him they were terminating the contract.

“If Share no longer wishes to play that role, the city would work with them — as we would with just about any vendor — on an orderly exit from their role and responsibility under the term of the contract,” Holmes responded.

In a follow-up this week, Young confirmed that the city had to forfeit the afformentioned grant money. Vancouver returned $174,600 to Share so the nonprofit could repay the Washington State Department of Commerce, a casualty of terminating the contract.

Staffing struggles

Initially, the city reported that Parks and Recreation employees would be overseeing the transition from Share during the search for a new permanent operator. Those reports were correct. However they underestimated the strain that Parks and Recreation staff suffered as a result.

The facility was understaffed, and it struggled to attract employees who could cover daily duties while the long-term fate of the day center remained in flux. Correspondence between staff also illustrates that city leaders were reluctant to offer the pay and benefits needed to match the requirements of the job.

Julie Hannon, director of Vancouver’s Parks and Recreation Department, emailed repeated pleas to city leadership asking for more support.

On Nov. 29, 2019, Hannon received a forwarded exchange between her department’s cultural resources manager and the development director of a Portland-based homelessness nonprofit. In the exchange, the Vancouver staffer, Stacey Donovan, was asking Krista Harper of the Clackamas Service Center for advice on how to improve staffing levels.

Harper’s opinion: “I’ve reached out to a few folks about this and the general consensus is that as a temp job without benefits, it’s going to be a real challenge to find someone equipped for the job.”

Harper also included a message from an unnamed friend in the Vancouver nonprofit circle, who wrote: “I am most definitely a good fit, but it appears as though the position is temp, and I need a long-term employer that offers benefits. If the city doesn’t create a position that includes those important pieces, I’m afraid they’re going to simply get what they pay for, and I can tell you first hand that the Nav Center is ground zero for a multitude of problems that absolutely need the right person to dial it in. When you know more, please do forward the job description, but for a temp job with no benefits AND being the central nucleus to a very political hot spot, none of my colleagues with the skills it takes would sign up for that!”

Hannon forwarded the exchange along to Holmes and Crawford on Dec. 2.

“Interesting feedback about the Nav. Center from someone within the Vancouver industry, read highlighted below. I am worried about getting good staff,” Hannon wrote.

Crawford responded: “It would be difficult to offer this as a benefitted position until we know whether we are going to secure a new operator. But it is understandable why a temp position is not attractive.”

Hannon broached the subject again a week later.

“I need to reopen this discussion,” she wrote on Dec. 10. “With the holidays quickly arriving and limited assistance from unrepresented group, we need more folks to work consistent shifts at the Nav. Center. … The RFP for a new operator is not even due until Jan. 29, so I am (in) desperate need (of) some long term assistance.”

“Most of the staff working at Nav. have not had two full days off in a row and cannot flex for their weekend shifts, given the other workloads,” Hannon added in a follow-up.

19 Photos
People come and go from the Vancouver Navigation Center in Vancouver.
Navigation Center Photo Gallery

City leaders didn’t take steps to resolve the issue until January, when they hired six additional people from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, a regional workers union. They continued to solicit other Vancouver staffers open to taking on the “special assignment” until a permanent operator of the Navigation Center could be secured.

Around they same time, the center was dealt another staffing blow: St. Louis, the city’s first-ever homeless resources coordinator, announced he was leaving his position after just six months. An internal email from Holmes indicated that St. Louis’ departure was linked to trouble moving his family from the Puget Sound area.

Operator search

Meanwhile, the search for a permanent operator also hit a bump. Early on in the search, city leaders had agreed that applicants needed to attend a mandatory on-site tour in order to be considered for the contract. However, they later found that other, competent operators had been disqualified from the process because they were unable to attend the Jan. 17 tour.

So they decided to solicit another round of proposals and schedule another site tour, pushing the due date for the second set of applicants back to Feb. 19.

That second round turned up the most promising permanent operator: Catholic Community Services of Southwest Washington. The organization’s formal interview was held Feb. 26, Vancouver staff toured another CCSSW facility on March 5, and shortly afterward, they were drawing up the contract.

“After our meeting we had follow-up discussions internally and the direction we have been given is to move forward with going to city council on March 23,” Anna Vogel, Vancouver’s procurement manager, wrote in a March 10 email.

But as the rest of the world also found out in 2020, a lot can happen over two weeks in March.

Plans to scale back, even before COVID

The Navigation Center closed on March 19, 2020. For all the agonizing decisions around best practices, staffing and long-term operators, this decision — in retrospect, the most consequential of this whole saga — wasn’t really a decision at all.

Directives from Gov. Jay Inslee’s office banned indoor congregate settings. The day center was an indoor congregate setting, and it wouldn’t be feasible to operate it safely. Holmes’ hands were tied. So that was that.

The Navigation Center closed because of COVID-19, but correspondence between city staff indicates that it may have closed even if the pandemic hadn’t hit.

On March 10 — one day before the word “COVID” first appeared in any of the records obtained by The Columbian — Hannon sent an email to Parks and Recreation Manager Dave Perlick asking for his thoughts on her plan to transition the facility away from Parks and Recreation and over to the new operator’s staff.

Hannon’s proposal would have scaled day center hours back to half-days on the weekend, cut laundry services on Sundays, and starting April 20 shorten Navigation Center hours to 2 p.m. on weekdays.

“If the council does not approve the contract with CCS, I would suggest we move to close the Navigations Center on Friday, April 17, 2020,” Hannon wrote.

The document never made it to the city manager’s inbox; the following day, Holmes released a plan for new sanitation and social distancing protocols at the center.

Then the center closed, and stayed that way. Then, on Oct. 3, a burst water main flooded an office used by the Fort Vancouver Regional Libraries facilities staff. They needed a space, and Vancouver had an empty one.

Later that same month, Sea Mar Community Health Centers also approached the city, asking to use the vacant Navigation Center as an interim location. The lease at their Tower Mall building was expiring before their new location was ready.

Both organizations leased space in the vacant Navigation Center. Then, three days before the one-year anniversary of the day center’s closure, Vancouver made an announcement: It would be selling the facility to the library to act as a new permanent headquarters building.

While most city staff still colloquially called the facility the Navigation Center in internal correspondence, all public materials began to refer to it as the “Grand Boulevard building.”

The building is expected to formally change hands in August, Vancouver spokeswoman Cara Rene told The Columbian last week.

Lessons learned

According to Vancouver Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle, proceeds from the sale of the building — recently appraised at $4.325 million — will go toward homelessness programs. However, city councilors disagree over whether they’ll ultimately pursue another day shelter or funnel the money into some other resource for unhoused people.

“I am very cautious about us continuing to talk about something called a ‘day center,’ ” Mayor Pro Tem Linda Glover said at the council’s March 16 meeting. “When you gather people together with nowhere to go at 5 o’clock, it’s not a successful model.”

In the meantime, city leaders are reassessing their approach and messaging surrounding homeless services in general.

Vancouver now emphasizes its position in a “supporting role” tackling homelessness, with Clark County recognized as the lead agency.

Vancouver sits on the Clark County Joint Executive Board on Homelessness, which formed in October. The Vancouver Housing Authority also purchased the former Howard Johnson hotel near Vancouver Mall earlier this year and is turning it into a noncongregate homeless shelter.

“The city is shifting back to a fairly limited scope in favor of supporting the county in more of a leadership role,” a recap of a January city council workshop stated. “We know the best way to help homeless citizens is through mental health and drug addiction services, but those are not services that we can provide ourselves. That means we need to play a supportive role to the county that provides those services.”

In an April conversation with The Columbian, Holmes explained that the city scaled back its hands-on homelessness approach partly in response to the complications encountered running the day shelter.

“We recognize that while we had taken a foray into that direct service model. … the organizational capacity, expertise capability, wasn’t there,” Holmes said. “The experience of the Navigation Center was very difficult.”

Columbian staff writer