San Francisco Trip Part I: The Navigation Center

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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 drug addiction.

National best practices 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 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 is 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 and 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, becoming housed can be very difficult and requires navigating through complex systems-housing services, treatment facilities, health benefits and employment searches, each of which can be filled with hurdles and barriers that can seem impossible while homeless.

I visited San Francisco’s Navigation Center last month to learn how it 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 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 four rules posted on the wall: no drug or alcohol use onsite, no bigoted language, no violence, and no stealing. A small group with representatives from the King County Council, Columbia Legal Services, the Neighborhood Safety Alliance, Seattle’s Human Services Department, and Seattle Police Foundation’s the IF Project, took a tour with the staff and residents.

Man at Navigation Center

Each resident is guaranteed abed 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
    Storage containers at nav center

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

    accommodate them.

  • 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 get eliminate items as they are ready.

We need shelters like this in Seattle – low-barrier, 24/7 access, with services tailored to the needs of individuals, and designed to move people out of homelessness. I am excited that the Mayor has taken steps to prioritize creating something similar to the Navigation Center. The Washington State legislature approved $600,000 for a Navigation Center this year, and the city is matching 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. I look forward to working with Mayor Murray and our community on moving forward to help those most in need navigate their way into housing.