City leaders await an independent review but pledge to make some changes in the near term to address complaints
VANCOUVER — After months of increasing tension over the Vancouver Navigation Center and the homeless day center run by Share, members of the Vancouver City Council heard some possible solutions on Monday afternoon.
This was the second work session in the past three weeks about the day center, after council members remarked that they felt too little was being done to address the concerns raised by neighbors.
“At our last meeting on this subject, we were rather rushed in providing feedback,” said Councilor Erik Paulsen. “And so many councilors, including myself, made some rather pointed feedback, absent time to provide broader feedback.”
At that meeting in July, councilors did give city staff direction, including to bring in a third party to evaluate the day center operations.
Community Development Director Chad Eiken said they had reached an agreement with Alpha Project, a San Diego-area homeless advocacy nonprofit. Funding for that review would come from the Ed and Dollie Lynch Foundation, which helped buy the former Fish and Wildlife building at 2018 Grand Boulevard. Eiken said the review should happen later this month, with a report due sometime in September.
Eiken noted that the Navigation Center was intended to be the first in a series of such facilities around the county, and admitted that bringing additional services into the building’s vacant space has moved more slowly than they had hoped.
“Had we had more time to open a day center and decide on a location these are things that we would have liked to have really explored in great detail,” Eiken told the council. “So we’re learning now after the fact, and hoping that Alpha Project can advise the city on these various aspects.”
According to Eiken, there are organizations that have said they would be willing to move into the Navigation Center, but he told the council work still needs to be done to get more proposals and work with stakeholders in the community to find out what would best fit in the building. He did say that work could begin later this year to create space for those organizations.
Eiken outlined several other proposed changes, including raising the height of a cinder block fence along Grand Boulevard to discourage people from sitting on it and hanging out. Share would also hire another “ambassador” position, tasked with working at the front door and outside the facility.
“Encouraging them to come in if they’re truly there for services,” said Eiken. “If they’re not there for services they’ll be asked to move out of the area”
The Vancouver Police Department (VPD) is also working to increase visibility in the area, and adding the Navigation Center to the route of patrol officers on bikes.
Other changes would impact how people access the day center, and were recommended based on feedback from a crime analyst with VPD. Eiken said that could include fencing off the covered outdoor area and funneling all traffic through a single entry on the northeast side of the building. A desk inside would also be moved next to that entrance. Eiken said they would also like to look into a card access system that would track who was coming and going, though some councilors worried such a system could be too complex, or present new problems for the homeless population.
“I’m very much in support of some positive identification,” said Councilor Ty Stober. “I’m just hoping that this scan card system is going to be very fleshed out in terms of, you know what happens when somebody loses a card?”
Stober also said he had concerns about the proposal to increase the height of the cinder block wall outside the day center.
“Walls create disconnect,” Stober said, “walls steal energy from a street, not add to it. And I’m afraid building a wall there would end up making this look less appealing as a neighborhood tenant.”
Other proposals included expanding the city’s Talkin’ Trash program, which hires homeless individuals to pick up garbage around the Navigation Center and other areas. Eiken said they’ve applied for a $90,000 state grant to buy another truck and hire another crew for the program. The city would also allow Talkin’ Trash employees to pick up garbage on private property, with the permission of the owners.
Eiken said there had been concerns that having Talkin’ Trash go onto private property could amount to a gift of public funds, but those issues had been resolved.
“Because it’s mitigating impacts from the Navigation Center, Talkin’ Trash will be able to provide on-call services to pick up those particular wastes in the immediate vicinity of the center,” said Eiken, noting that they would be focused on properties within 500 feet of the Navigation Center property line.
Other issues being examined include potentially reducing the speed limit on Grand Boulevard past the Navigation Center from the current 30 mph to 25, and pursuing funding for a pedestrian crossing with flashing lights across the road between the Navigation Center and the Wal-Mart.
The current 75-gallon water heater would also be replaced with a 100-gallon model, Eiken said, to allow the day center to extend access time for the showers and laundry facilities.
The city is also opening a bidding process to spend $300,000 from their Affordable Housing Fund in an effort to open more shelter bids elsewhere around the city and county.
If all of the recommended changes were implemented, Eiken said, the cost would be approximately $412,000 over two years. Costs for this year could be made up in savings from other areas, but would likely require a supplemental budget adjustment going forward.
Unlike their meeting in July, the tone of council members was more cautionary on Monday. Some had even wondered last month if the day center should be shut down until an evaluation was done. This time, they cautioned Eiken to hold off on implementing many of the proposed changes until Alpha Project had completed their report.
“I think we need to have more security there, we need to have better sanitation around that center,” said Councilor Laurie Lebowsky. “And I would, in the interim, support those types of changes.”
Others cautioned holding off on bringing new services into the day center until there is more clarity about what would fit best in the area.
The city also has a Homeless Resource Manager starting Aug. 12, and councilors said they would like his input on the situation before moving too quickly with changes.
“I believe we need to rebuild the trust with the community, given the issues that have arisen over the past six months since it’s been open,” said Lebowsky. “And I believe the first step is that we have the Alpha Project doing this study.”
“I would be a proponent … of being smart and tactical about short term, strategic investments that we could make to make it a safer place,” said Paulsen, “not just for the users of the facility, but also for the surrounding neighbors.”
Paulsen said that would include better security inside and out, and addressing concerns over sanitation concerns around the center.
Other changes that will happen prior to completion of the Alpha Project review are amending Share’s contract to make sure the center is open every day, including six major holidays. That will happen in time to make sure the shelter is open during Labor Day on Sept. 2.
More detailed crime analysis
As part of the work session, Vancouver Police submitted a more detailed analysis of crime trends in the neighborhoods surrounding the Navigation Center. While most of the surrounding neighborhoods saw no appreciable increase in overall crime rates in the months since the Navigation Center opened, the Maplewood neighborhood saw a 55 percent increase in reported crime in the six months since the shelter opened, and an 84 percent increase over the same December to May period last year. The center sits on the western edge of the Maplewood neighborhood, and heat maps show much of the reported crime centered largely in the vicinity of the day center.
“This gives us a really good breakdown of what’s happening and where,” said Mayor Pro Tem Bart Hansen. “And I was pleased in some areas and some other areas I’m kind of looking at ‘wow, there’s some definite room for improvement.’ But we can work from there.”
Hansen said he would like to dig deeper into the “other” category of reported crimes to figure out specifically what is happening there, and Vancouver Police Chief James McElvain said he would work to get that done.
Eiken said staff will focus on safety improvements and addressing neighborhood complaints, but leave the major changes until after Alpha Project has had a chance to complete their evaluation and issue their recommendations. Paulsen also recommended moving to a quarterly update on the Navigation Center, instead of twice yearly, until things have calmed down. Eiken said they would plan to return in a couple of months with an update.
Members of a closed Facebook group where neighbors have documented problems they see in the area said they planned to once again pack a citizen forum at the council’s Aug. 26 meeting to urge continued action on resolving the matter.