Learn from Navigation Center mistakes

July 18 — Vancouver’s experience with the Navigation Center serves as both an object lesson and a despicable lesson in government. This reflected an attempt to address the growing problem of homelessness in the city, but ultimately it is an example of failed government intervention.

Now that the experiment has stopped, the important thing is for city officials to learn from their mistakes and develop new strategies to deal with the problem. The Navigation Center may be gone, but the social, health and economic impacts of homelessness in our community persist.

Many of these mistakes were brought to light in a recent article by Colombian journalist Calley Hair, who examined thousands of pages of emails and contracts to detail the rise and fall of the Navigation Center. Designed as a day center providing shower and laundry services while connecting homeless people to social services, the facility was born from the best of intentions. But it quickly turned into an albatross plagued by mismanagement while negatively impacting the surrounding neighborhoods.

In some ways, the center reflects the best of government: it was a thoughtful attempt to solve an urgent problem, and city officials deserve some credit for quickly recognizing its shortcomings. As the COVID-19 pandemic threw the last mound of earth on the project, leaders were already preparing for its likely burial. Unlike many government projects, this has not become a perpetual financial sinkhole.

But in other respects, the Navigation Center reflects the government’s worst: it was too ambitious and destined to fall short of its goals, draining taxpayer funds and city staff while striving to achieve a unreachable goal.

In the midst of it all, the most important lesson is the insatiable need for services throughout the city. Organizers initially expected the center to serve 50 clients per day, but the average was around 100 people per day for the first few months. This quickly grew to 160 clients per day, reflecting the scale of the problem. This problem is demonstrated by the growing number of camps in every imaginable public space of the city.

Authorities have now changed the narrative surrounding services for the homeless. The recap from a January city council workshop says, “The city is returning to a fairly limited scope in favor of supporting the county in a more leadership role. We know the best way to help homeless citizens is mental health and addiction services, but these are not services that we can provide on our own.

Indeed, Clark County oversees the implementation of mental health and addiction services. And under different leadership over the past decade, the county has been slow to tackle the growing problem of homelessness which has now reached a critical point.

Clark County leaders must, indeed, take the lead in providing robust health services – being metaphorically the first responders to the crisis.

A joint Clark County executive council on homelessness, formed in October, gives hope for progress. The council establishes the county as its main body and includes representatives from the city of Vancouver and the county. Other towns in the region should also be included; homelessness knows no borders.

Reducing the number of homeless people in our communities will require major action involving health services, social services and an increase in the number of affordable housing. As officials strive to achieve these goals, they may view the Navigation Center as one approach that is not working.

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