San Francisco Trip Part I: The Navigation Center — and now a Navigation Center in Seattle too!



Navigation center

Our Seattle delegation meeting with staff at the Navigation Center

Last month King County Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles and I went to San Francisco with a number of local friends to learn more about how San Francisco is assisting people who are living on the streets and struggling with behavioral health and drug addiction.

A small group of us with representatives from Columbia Legal Services, the Neighborhood Safety Alliance, Seattle’s Human Services Department, and Seattle Police Foundation’s the “IF Project”, took the tour to see what we could learn from our California neighbors.

National best practices — some underway in San Francisco — can be emulated here in Seattle.  Combining a “housing first” approach with a public health response to addiction will provide us effective tools to address the needs of people living unsheltered.

I had three important takeaways from San Francisco.  I’ll write first about my experience at San Francisco’s Navigation Center, followed by installments about Public Health’s Integrated Buprenorphine Intervention Services (IBIS), and the Department of Public Works’ Pit Stops.

The first step to end homelessness is to provide people with housing and appropriate supportive services. In a Housing First model, endorsed by the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH), people are able to stabilize and work on the other struggles they face such as unemployment, addiction, or behavioral health concerns. Many places around the United States have used this model with success, including Seattle in a pilot directed toward homeless families. The Seattle City Council approved the Housing Levy for the August ballot which is designed to build over 2,000 affordable housing units and assist over 4,500 households with rental assistance.

New housing construction will be welcome, but for people who are homeless, the wait is too long.  People who are unsheltered must be offered support soon. They need what many of us take for granted, a safe place to sleep, lockers to store their possessions, treatment for illnesses, and access to bathrooms, showers, and meals.

Nav Center 2

The Navigation Center is made from school portables and offers 24 hour shelter and wrap around services to residents.

While we work toward this goal of permanent housing, we also need to recognize that we must move faster to help people who are struggling to survive TODAY. Unfortunately, finding stable housing is difficult and requires navigating through complex systems– housing services, treatment facilities, health benefits and employment searches, each of which is replete with hurdles and barriers that can seem impossible while homeless.

I visited San Francisco’s Navigation Center last month to learn how SF has responded to the needs of unsheltered people and have helped them through the complex system to becoming housed.  Sited in vacant school grounds in the Mission District, the Navigation Center is offered by the City of San Francisco and is run by the Episcopal Community Services.  It offers 24/7 access to beds, showers, restrooms, and meals. Social workers are co-located on the grounds. Missy, a staff person at the Navigation Center, greeted our group in the Center’s small lobby, where each resident and visitor sign into the site. There are only four rules which are posted on the wall: no drug or alcohol use onsite, no bigoted language, no violence, and no stealing.

Man at Navigation Center

Each resident is guaranteed a bed and locker space for their belongings.

The Navigation Center has moved over 250 people into housing or treatment programs in the city or back home through the Homeward Bound program, a city-sponsored program that will help homeless people return home by connecting with family and providing the cost of a bus or p

lane ticket. One resident had been living on the street in the Mission for over four years, using the drop-in day center, but not shelter because of health issues, and he told us he was placed into a permanent home within four weeks. He’s lived in his home for a year. The Center’s success has been recognized nation-wide, and San Francisco is planning to build one or two more Navigation Center-type facilities for vulnerable people this year. Here’s why this approach is working:

  1. Low-Barrier to Entry: The Navigation Center offers “radical hospitality,” meaning those who are invited to stay may do so even if they have substance abuse issues or untreated mental illness. The four rules keep the community safe, only 17 people had been asked to leave at the 6-month mark.
  2. Services Onsite: Individual needs are accommodated by staff and everyone is expected to be working toward a healthier life style. Beds, lockers, social workers, washer/dryers, showers, services, a kitchen, friendship, and support are all available on site. The Center keeps a calendar of all the residents’ appointments, helping residents navigate an extremely complex system
  3. Flexibility: The Navigation Center deals with the 3P’s that can be big barriers to finding shelter: Pets, Partners, and Possessions.
  • Pets are welcomed because “pets bring more love than not.” Dog food is donated, and the near-by animal shelter offers shots, health care and licensing. They have two dog runs for little and big dogs and kennels for the dogs to sleep in.
  • Partners are welcomed and are allowed to sleep together. When a couple wants to sleep together, the staff pushes two twin-sized beds together to accommodate them.

    Storage containers at nav center

    Storage containers are available for residents to keep larger belongings like bikes or carts

  • Possessions are safely stored in lockers. Everyone has a locker under his/her bed, a stand up locker, and shipping containers (like from container ships) act as storage for large items. People are allowed to store their personal belongings and may eliminate items as they are ready.

We need to convert more of Seattle’s night-only shelters to low-barrier,  24/7 access, with services tailored to the needs of individuals, and designed to move people out of homelessness into stabilized housing and employment as appropriate.

I am excited that Mayor Murray announced he will take steps to prioritize a 24/7 Navigation Center here in Seattle.  Earlier this year, our Washington State legislature approved $600,000 for a Navigation Center; and Seattle is matching this investment with a private donation of $600,000 earmarked for homelessness services, and will establish a designated fund to collect additional private donations to support the center.

This is our first step to make a significant difference for people who are experiencing homelessness, and to improve the health and safety for all of us in the City of Seattle.  In Parts #2 and #3 to follow, I will discuss drug treatment on demand and the need to emulate San Francisco’s public toilet programs. We are on our way.

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