The rocky history of the Navigation Center – the city of Vancouver’s effort to serve unhoused people – offers numerous lessons. Providing services for a needy population and balancing that with the concerns of neighborhood residents is a difficult task, and the attempt should guide future policy.
For the immediate future, it is important for officials to move on from the Navigation Center. The facility – along Grand Boulevard near Fourth Plain Boulevard – stopped providing most services when the coronavirus pandemic arrived a year ago, and portions of the building recently have been used by Fort Vancouver Regional Libraries and Sea Mar Community Health Center.
Now, city officials are considering selling the building to the library district, which would use it for a headquarters.
A couple benefits of the proposal are notable. One is that city officials would be able to direct profits from the sale toward services for the homeless in our community. Just because the Navigation Center has closed, that doesn’t mean the need for assistance has diminished.
Another is that the city would be able to take a different approach to offering that assistance. One of government’s worst traits – from the federal level to the municipal level – is a reluctance to eliminate programs. Many a well-intentioned idea over the years has become a money pit that is entrenched despite a demonstrable lack of success; the Navigation Center should not be one of those.
Indeed, the center achieved many of its goals. It opened in November 2018 and operated as a day center providing clients with shower and laundry facilities. It also offered social services, assisting people with employment, housing and health care issues.
The need was quickly evident. After setting a goal of serving 300 clients in the first year, the Navigation Center served more than 1,400 in the first six months.
But there were problems. Residents reported that unhoused people would remain in surrounding neighborhoods outside of the center’s operating hours, and police reported that calls for service in the area more than doubled. The fact that unhoused people will congregate near services is no secret and must inform future endeavors.
Then, service organization Share, which operated the Navigation Center for the city of Vancouver, ended its involvement in February 2020. Weeks later, the center closed because of the pandemic.
Vancouver, like many other cities, has struggled to deal with a growing homeless population in recent years. Taxpayers have demonstrated a commitment to help, approving a property tax levy dedicated to increasing affordable housing.
Currently, the city council is working on allocating more than $9 million in city and federal grant funds for affordable housing developments, homeless shelters and relief for tenants and businesses hard hit by COVID-19. More than $6 million of that comes from the city’s Affordable Housing Fund.
In pondering the sale of the Navigation Center building, city officials have an opportunity to make a clean and profitable break from a troublesome facility. Officials say no other properties are being considered as a replacement site. “We haven’t had that discussion,” Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle said. “All we know is we’re taking this one step at a time.”
That is all that city officials can do as they try to best serve residents. An attempt to help those in need didn’t quite work out; now it is time to move on.