Vancouver leaders are considering selling the Navigation Center, the beleaguered day shelter for the homeless temporarily closed by COVID-19, so it can serve as a new library headquarters.
Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle told The Columbian on Wednesday that the city council still needs to discuss the proposition at Monday’s meeting. But on her end, selling is something she would “absolutely” support.
A few administrative staffers with Fort Vancouver Regional Libraries had been working in the vacant Navigation Center building since mid-December, after a burst pipe flooded their current headquarters facility at the corner of East Mill Plain Boulevard and Fort Vancouver Way.
Tak Kendrick, the library’s communications and marketing director, said the library is using around 3,000 square feet of the 26,578-square-foot building.
“We certainly are potentially interested in the space, or at least having more formal discussions,” Kendrick said.
The Navigation Center, located at 2018 Grand Blvd. in central Vancouver, has proved a good fit for library operations in the meantime, McEnerny-Ogle said. Library leaders approached Vancouver City Manager Eric Holmes about potentially buying the property, she added.
“They needed to have a temporary move to the Grand building because they were flooded out,” McEnerny-Ogle said. “But I think they looked at the Grand Boulevard building with a new set of eyes.”
The transaction would additionally open up the existing library headquarters – owned by the city, available to the library district through a low-to-no-cost lease that doesn’t expire until 2030 – to other uses.
Vacating that building will allow both organizations to pursue their shared vision of an arts and innovation-focused community campus, including a K-5 school already under construction and funded by a voter-approved bond. The library headquarters was already being eyed as an eventual community arts space once the lease expired, but vacating the building earlier could accelerate the timeline.
“It’s a domino effect,” McEnenerny-Ogle said. “We have buildings available now, so we’ll take one building at a time and see what we can do with it.”
Selling the Navigation Center would permanently shutter its day shelter for unhoused people. The shelter has been out of operation for nearly a year due to the pandemic.
Should the city move forward with the sale, it would likely put the profit in a homelessness services fund. Currently, no other properties are being formally considered by the city for a replacement shelter.
“We haven’t had that discussion,” McEnerny-Ogle said. “All we know is we’re taking this one step at a time.”
A rocky history
The Navigation Center opened in November 2018 to offer unhoused people a free and safe place to shower, use a restroom, do their laundry and charge their electronics.
The day center also served as a hub to connect clients with additional resources. Service providers for job assistance programs, transitory housing and health care would regularly meet with people on-site.
From the clients’ perspective, the day shelter was an unrivaled success. The Navigation Center operator reported that the facility had blown by its original goal of providing basic needs assistance to at least 300 people within its first year – six months in, staff and volunteers had helped 1,412.
Though the city of Vancouver owned the facility, it was operated by local homelessness nonprofit Share.
“Overall, we’re really pleased with the amount of people we’re able to serve and the services we’re able to offer,” the center’s then-manager, Jillian Daleiden, said at the time.
For residents of surrounding neighborhoods, however, the higher-than-expected traffic at the center wasn’t a positive feature.
Outside shelter hours of 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., residents reported that unhoused people would remain in the surrounding Central Park, Fourth Plain Village, Harney Heights, Maplewood and Rose Village neighborhoods. Residents and business owners started showing up to city council meetings to report incidents of harassment, drug activity and people defecating on their property.
Those anecdotes tracked with a formal report from the Vancouver Police Department: calls for service in the quarter-mile radius around the Navigation Center more than doubled compared to the year prior, up 131 percent in the facility’s first six months of operation.
“I would suggest that’s not abnormal, given the clientele being served,” VPD Chief James McElvain told the city council in July 2019.
By then, city councilors had already started to lose confidence in the facility, expressing frustration with its staffing and security limits and ordering a third-party review to ensure the center was aligned with best practices.
It went downhill from there. Share announced it would no longer serve as the center’s daily operator, officially halting its management of the facility in February 2020. A few weeks later, the city’s first-ever homeless resources manager resigned after six months on the job.
In the meantime, staff from Vancouver’s Parks and Recreation Department stepped in to manage the shelter’s day-to-day as city leaders continued a search for a permanent operator.
They’d found a promising prospect in a Seattle faith-based nonprofit, but it ultimately didn’t matter; the Navigation Center closed its doors to its unhoused clients on March 19.
Since then, a handful of secondary COVID-safe services have been offered from the building. Former clients could swing by during very limited hours to pick up their mail, use the restroom, wash their hands or stock up on water bottles. Those who kept their belongings in storage lockers could continue to do so, with the opportunity to access them during those windows.
“We are actively looking for a more permanent site to provide those services,” McEnerny-Ogle said Wednesday.
The city council plans to discuss the potential sale at its meeting at 6:30 p.m. on Monday.