Seattle's First Navigation Center Is Not Your Average Shelter

Plus, six things council member Sally Bagshaw saw at the one in San Francisco.

By Rianna Hidalgo February 9, 2017

On Wednesday, mayor Ed Murray finally announced the location of Seattle’s first Navigation Center, a 24-7, low barrier, dormitory style living facility that is expected to open in spring, eventually serving up to 75 people at a time. Its opening was delayed when the city struggled to find a site (what’s new), but has reached an agreement to house it at the Pearl Warren Building at 606 12th Avenue South in the International District.

Last May, council member Sally Bagshaw took a trip to tour San Francisco’s Navigation Center, which serves as the model for Seattle’s and has garnered national attention for its innovative approach and success connecting people to services and permanent housing.

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The Navigation Center courtyard at 1950 Mission Street in San Francisco. 

Here’s what Bagshaw saw in SF and why she sees Seattle’s new center as “a big step forward.”

1. Shipping containers.

Well, what’s in them. Visitors can bring and securely store their possessions. There are lockers and under-bed storage boxes, but for larger items like bikes or shopping carts, those containers stand ready. That addresses a couple things. Since most shelters don’t provide storage, people have to schlep their life's possessions as they head out for the day—a huge burden for someone searching for work or housing, or walking miles at a time. Second, theft. Bagshaw says people tell her they are on constant watch at shelters, even keeping their shoes on at night because if not, they’re as good as gone by morning. That is also why Bagshaw is elated about the lockers added to the Roy Street Shelter in early January, a $35-per-unit investment.  

“This is something we’ve been pounding on for years now,” Bagshaw says, “And we’ve finally made progress.”

2. Dog runs.

It’s rare to find a shelter that allows pets, let alone provides donated dog food and volunteer veterinary care. You don’t have to be a homeowner to consider your pet a family member, and for many on the streets, a pet is a lifeline.

Bagshaw recalls a particularly frigid night when she saw a man curled up outside with his puppy. He told her he couldn’t go inside because he didn’t want to give him up. At the SF center, Bagshaw says pets could sleep in bed with their owners or stay in kennels at night.

3. The last ‘P.’

So far we’ve got possessions and petstwo of the most common regulations that end up creating barriers to shelter. The last one is partners.

If you had to choose between sleeping outside with your loved one, or separating to sleep inside a shelter, what would you do? Bagshaw would go for the tent.

“I’d rather be underneath a bridge and be able to stay together, even knowing that I’ll be rousted in the morning,” she says.

Many shelters are men or women only, forcing couples to split. At the SF center, Bagshaw says staff push together twin beds so couples can sleep together. Apparently, the incredibly offensive notion that people might have sex has been raised (what are we, high school chaperones?). Bagshaw delivers this gem:

“You know, people are discreet. They’ll figure it out.” 

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Seattle delegates meet with staff at the Navigation Center.

4. All day, all night

At most shelters, you “queue up,” wait for a spot, sleep, then get your butt kicked out right around 7am. “That’s the worst thing you could do,” Bagshaw says. “No way you are going to get stabilized with that.” SF’s center is open 24-7, providing meals, showers, laundry facilities, and allowing people to come and go. When Bagshaw walked into the center the first time, something clicked: “Really, it was one of those moments where your whole brain transitions. This made sense.”

5. “Radical Hospitality”

Unlike some shelters, those struggling with addiction or alcohol use are welcome at the Navigation Center, though use is not allowed on the premises. Case workers focus on meeting immediate needs with one-on-one counseling, then aim to connect people with services and long-term housing.

6. Good Vibes

Bagshaw says there were four rules on the wall: no drug or alcohol use on site, no bigoted language, no violence, and no stealing. “I will tell you how respectfully people there treated each other,” she says. She saw the entire center as a place that ensures people are “treated like human beings and not like the scum of the earth.”

As for Seattle, the city needs some time to renovate and prepare the location, and has said it will set up temporary sites to address needs in the meantime. It will also hold community meetings before the opening. One center will not solve the homelessness crisis, but Bagshaw believes if we can emulate the model multiple times over, it will make a big dent. The fact that she’s heard the word “mollycoddling” from critics doesn’t phase her.

“This model is something that’s been tried in multiple cities, and it’s showing to be something that works,” Bagshaw says. “These are human beings who are struggling, and the center can be one of the tools that makes the city safer and more compassionate.”

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