San Francisco’s Navigation Center for the homeless is a promising model for Seattle—if the city decides to really embrace it.
Last month, the Seattle Human Services Department dropped several pieces of bad news in the laps of the city council’s human services committee: First, the department had failed to locate sites for all four of the sanctioned encampments Mayor Ed Murray promised as part of his “Bridging the Gap” proposal to shelter some of the city’s unsheltered homeless population, now several thousand strong. Second, ongoing sweeps of unauthorized encampments will no longer be monitored by the city’s Office of Civil Rights, which was charged with overseeing encampment removals and making sure workers comply with rules about notice and disposal of people’s tents and other possessions. And third, a planned low-barrier shelter known as the Navigation Center, to be operated by the Downtown Emergency Service Center, won’t open on schedule due to trouble locating an acceptable site for the facility. “Identifying a site has taken longer than we originally [anticipated], so we’re going to have to issue a new timeline once the site has been identified,” HSD deputy director Jason Johnson said at last month’s meeting.
The Navigation Center delay was a blow to advocates who’ve argued that Seattle needs shelter options that serve the hardest to house among the city’s growing homeless population—those who don’t use regular shelters because they have one or more of the “three P’s”—pets, partners, and possessions, which aren’t allowed in traditional shelters—or because they’ve been scared away by bad experiences in the shelter system. Add to those three disqualifiers a fourth “P”—problems. Shelters don’t work well for people in acute mental distress, people who happen to be drunk or high, or people whose mental or emotional troubles make it difficult for them to stay in close quarters with hundreds of other people.
It’s a fairly safe bet that the city will announce the Navigation Center site sometime in January—too late to help those stuck sleeping outside in subzero temperatures during the first half of this unusually cold winter, but in time for Murray to attend the opening before his reelection campaign begins in earnest. But what do city officials really mean when they talk about “low-barrier” shelter, anyway—and what will make the Navigation Center different from other shelters DESC operates, like the Morrison Hotel downtown, which takes people in any condition on a first-come, first-served basis?
To help answer those questions, I headed south to San Francisco, where the original Navigation Center opened in the Mission District in March 2015. (The city has since opened another Navigation Center, and is working on a third; all three are temporary facilities on public land slated for eventual redevelopment.) Located in the middle of a a dreary street of Mission Street populated largely by street kids and older people just sort of hanging around, the Navigation Center stands out for its clean sidewalk, airy entryway, and woodsy, modern exterior. It looks more like the entrance to a pricey new condo building than a shelter—if that condo building was flanked by two portable buildings painted institutional yellow, and fronted by a short but official-looking sturdy iron fence.
“It’s hard to explain that it’s never looked so good [on the street outside], but there it is,” Sam Dodge tells me as we walk through the center. Dodge is the deputy director of San Francisco’s new Department of Homelessness, and he—along with John Ouertani, the site manager—is one of the chief evangelists for the Navigation Center model. “This property is open 24 hours and is very low-threshold,” Ouertani says. “There are a few rules, but the guests pretty much come in and out as they please.” As we’re talking, a new guest comes in—a skinny young man, probably 30, staggering under some unseen weight, his head parallel to the dusty ground. A case worker steers him toward his dorm, urging him to get some sleep.
Physically, the center consists of several low portable buildings—an admissions center, a dining hall/TV room, an ADA-accessible building with showers, restrooms, and free laundry facilities, and five dorms—clustered around a central courtyard. The layout gives clients (the Navigation Center calls them “guests”) more physical room than a traditional shelter, to walk around, play with their pets—and sleep. The dorms themselves house a maximum of 15 people each, a far cry from the hundreds of bunk beds that crowd a typical shelter, and some beds are pushed together in pairs, to accommodate couples who want to sleep together. Meals are available all day and night in the common building, and showers are open 24/7, to give people a sense of autonomy and to differentiate the center from other institutional living situations that guests may have encountered and found unwelcoming or traumatic in the past.
“A lot of people [the Navigation Center serves] haven’t had contact with a shelter for a very long time, but they have past memories of shelter or they’ve heard rumors on the street, and that’s kept them out,” Dodge says. “I think it’s really important that we’re telegraphing to people that ‘You are going to make this amazing life change, and it’s going to be hard and it’s going to take a lot of appointments and all this stuff, but we’re here to make it easy for you, and we want to make a tranquil environment where you can rest when you need to rest, and you can eat when you need to eat, and stay focused on the goal of ending your homelessness.” In contrast, traditional shelters typically serve meals, if they serve meals at all, at standard times, clear out sleeping areas during the day, and are anything but tranquil.
DESC director Daniel Malone says that during one of his visits to the San Francisco Navigation Center, he and his colleagues witnesses a client become “really agitated about something,” yelling and pacing around frantically. What they noticed, he says, is that the man “was basically able to blow off some steam—the physical environment there seemed to allow for him to have that moment, or that event, without really significantly affecting anybody else. And some of us from DESC observed that and immediately made the connection that if that had happened in the DESC shelter—and things like that happen in the DESC shelter all the time—he would have had a different reception, because a lot of people would have been around and wouldn’t have had the patience for that happening.
“It helped some of us feel more confident that there could be some real differences by going this route of creating a place where we weren’t just trying to squeeze in as many people as humanly possible.”
Another key difference between the Navigation Center and a traditional shelter is that the Navigation Center is truly low-barrier, welcoming people who have partners, pets, possessions—and problems. Ouertani estimates that at any given time, there are a dozen or more dogs on the property—many of them pit bulls—and says that as long as they’re vaccinated, on a leash, and don’t attack people or other dogs, they can stay. “We had about 17 pets come in within the first month and an half after we first opened up, and that’s pretty much what dictated where the guests went, because you can’t put 10 pit bulls in one dorm,” Ouertani said. People are also allowed to bring large possessions, like shopping carts, bikes, and what Dodge calls “survival stuff from the street.” (Weapons are taken at the door and stored for clients to retrieve later.) And they’re allowed to stay with partners‚ unlike typical shelters that require couples to split. (Dodge says there have been times when women, for example, or transgender people have said they felt unsafe sleeping in coed dorms, and the Navigation Center has accommodated them by making one of the five dorms single-gender). Finally, they’re allowed to stay at the center even if they’re under the influence of drugs or alcohol—or, in most cases, even if they consume drugs or alcohol at the center. “We’re not so much focused on the drugs and alcohol,” Dodge says, “because we know those are almost a given. So if you get caught using on the property, it does not mean that you are asked to leave. That’s our time to outreach to you.”
Clients can’t just walk in to the Navigation Center, nor will they be able to do so in Seattle. Instead, the center seeks out new clients at encampments (often right before announced raids by San Francisco city authorities) and through groups serving homeless people from marginalized communities. “One of our [initial] ideas was that we could go and just take a whole encampment and bring them inside,” Dodge said. “And then we saw from some of our data that in taking the whole encampment, we started to preference a younger, whiter group that felt comfortable in places of conflict, so then we started to say, ‘Let’s select for some racial equity and try to balance those numbers out a little bit.'” Like the city of Seattle, San Francisco uses a race and social justice lens when designing and funding city programs. “And then we went to the Haight Ashbury [neighborhood] and worked with some of the groups up there, and said, ‘Let’s work with a younger cohort. Let’s try to preference transgender people who seem to feel unsafe in a lot of our shelter system.'” The result is a population that goes through demographic changes based on the center’s current outreach priorities. f the population looks a little too young and white, they can tweak their outreach to bring in more Latino immigrants; if it’s skewing heavily toward straight, older couples, the center can increase outreach to groups that serve LGBTQ youth.
“Part of the model is being able to experiment and try new things and collect data and analyze it and experiment again,” Dodge says.
One reason the original Navigation Center has been so free to experiment is that it’s funded largely by private dollars, through a no-strings-attached grant from an anonymous wealthy donor; Seattle’s Navigation Center will be funded by a combination of state and local dollars.
Daniel Malone, the DESC director, says his group plans to emulate the experimental spirit of the San Francisco Navigation Center, but notes that the city will choose clients based on its own set of criteria, which will in turn be dictated, to some extent, by federal priorities. “Essentially, folks are going to [come] to us after being selected by the Human Services Department,” Malone says. Johnson, the HSD deputy director, says Navigation Center clients will be chosen by outreach workers who will “engage with an unsheltered person or couple to try to tease out what that couple might need to move from living outside to living inside”; if it seems like they’ve rejected other shelter options because of barriers like restrictions on partners and pets, “then the Navigation Center comes into play.”
Johnson says Seattle’s Navigation Center, when it opens, will still embrace “the core themes that hold true at the San Francisco Navigation Center,” but it will be uniquely Seattle.” For example, Johnson says, people will be expected to move out of the center, and into more stable (if not permanent) housing within 30 days—an ambitious goal given that, also according to Johnson, the average shelter stay in King County is 200 days. Johnson says the San Francisco Navigation Center has “changed their model” to move people through the center in 30 days, but Dodge says that for those who are seeking stable housing (as opposed to shelter or treatment), moving through the system takes longer, about 90 days on average.
San Francisco’s Navigation Center has moved nearly 300 people into more stable housing since it opened in 2015, which is quite a feat—especially when you consider that many people enter the center with few or no prior connections to the city’s homeless “system.” That’s another thing that’s different about the Navigation Center—instead of just providing phone numbers and addresses for service providers and sending clients on their way, the center provides each client with an on-site case manager who helps them make appointments and actually show up, as well as service providers who come to the center weekly. Of all the barriers to housing, Dodge says, the sheer number of appointments can be one of the most daunting. “At one point, we were averaging 28 appointments that someone had to make coming from the street [before getting] housing, and for some of these other cases, where you’re dealing with immigration and maybe the Veterans Administration, it’s much more.”
The most ambitious versions of San Francisco’s plan max out at about six Navigation Centers, which works out to about 450 theoretical clients at a time. The unsheltered homeless population of San Francisco is nearly 6,700, according to a 2015 count; in Seattle, it’s around 3,000. (The actual numbers are likely much higher, since those figures only represent the number of people homeless count participants actually encountered sleeping on the streets.) Johnson says Seattle has no immediate plans to start siting a second Navigation Center, and indicates that the site the city will choose won’t be a temporary use of publicly owned land, like the ones in San Francisco. Given that a single low-barrier shelter will barely make a dent in the growing demand, many advocates point out the obvious: Seattle needs more low-income housing, and not just in the form of short-term “rapid rehousing” rental vouchers.
“I’m still trying to wrap my head around the fact that, when I got to Seattle 20 years ago, there were literally a third of the homeless people that we see now,” says Real Change director Tim Harris. “My issue with the [Navigation Center] approach is just simply that 75 beds doesn’t go all that far, given the depth of the need.”
Malone, whose organization will be charged with making the Seattle Navigation Center a success, says that “if the Navigation Center fails and doesn’t have a lot of throughput”—that is, people entering the center and exiting into housing—”then it’ll end up being a very expensive shelter, and that’s not what anyone’s looking to do.”
A final unknown: What will federal housing policy look like under the Trump Administration? Immediately after the election, housing and homelessness advocates were deeply concerned about who Trump would pick to head up the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which sets federal housing policy. (The federal government provides about 40 percent of Seattle’s budget for homeless services). Now that Trump has chosen Ben Carson, the libertarian-leaning surgeon and failed Presidential candidate, they’re looking for funding closer to home, at the state and local levels.
Council member Sally Bagshaw, who heads up the council’s health and human services committee, says that “as dire as it is, what we’re facing right now, I actually don’t think that the federal government was going to help us anyway, because of the Republican Congress. I believe firmly that what we do, and every step of progress that we make is going to be done by the city and the county, with, hopefully, some help from the state.”
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