Vancouver’s experiment with the Navigation Center serves as both an object lesson and an abject lesson in government. It reflected an attempt to address the city’s growing homelessness problem, yet in the end it stands as an example of failed government intervention.
With the experiment having crashed to a halt, the important thing is for city officials to learn from the mistakes and devise new strategies for dealing with the issue. The Navigation Center may have gone away, but the social, health and economic impacts of homelessness in our community continue to linger.
Many of those mistakes were illuminated in a recent article by Columbian reporter Calley Hair, who examined thousands of pages of emails and contracts to detail the rise and fall of the Navigation Center. Designed as a day center providing shower and laundry services while connecting unhoused people with social services, the facility was borne of the best intentions. But it quickly devolved into an albatross beset by poor management while negatively impacting surrounding neighborhoods.
In some ways, the center reflects the best of government: It was a thoughtful attempt to address a pressing issue, and city officials deserve some credit for quickly recognizing its shortcomings. While the COVID-19 pandemic threw the final mound of dirt on the project, leaders already were preparing for its likely burial. Unlike many government projects, it did not become a perpetual money pit.
But in other ways, the Navigation Center reflects the worst of government: It was overly ambitious and destined to ultimately fall short of its aims, draining taxpayer funds and city staffing while striving for an unattainable goal.
Amid all this, the most important lesson is the insatiable need for services throughout the city. Organizers initially expected the center to serve 50 clients a day, but the average was about 100 people a day in the opening months. That quickly grew to 160 clients per day — reflecting the scope of the issue. That issue is demonstrated by growing encampments in every conceivable public space throughout the city.
Officials now have changed the narrative surrounding services for homeless people. The recap of a January city council workshop says: “The city is shifting back to a fairly limited scope in favor of supporting the county in more of a leadership role. 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.”
Indeed, Clark County oversees the implementation of mental health and substance abuse services. And under different leadership during the past decade, the county was slow to address the growing issue of homelessness that now has reached a critical point.
Clark County leaders must, indeed, take the lead in providing robust health services — metaphorically being the first responders in the crisis.
A Clark County Joint Executive Board on Homelessness, which formed in October, provides some hope for progress. The board establishes the county as the lead agency and includes officials from both the city of Vancouver and the county. Other cities throughout the region also should be included; homelessness knows no boundaries.
Reducing the number of unhoused people in our communities will require broad action involving health services, social services and an increase in affordable housing. As officials strive toward those goals, they can look to the Navigation Center as one approach that doesn’t work.