On a frigid day last year, I walked into Seattle’s largest homeless camp. As my breath turned to fog, I wondered why anyone would choose to live in a tent under the freeway. Why not go to a shelter?
A woman named Cassidy Sweezey explained why she chose to live in the encampment.
“To stay in a shelter, you have to carry all your belongings and leave at a certain time and come back to wait in line to get in at another certain time,” she said. “There’s nowhere to cook, and I’ve got a boyfriend, I’ve got two dogs, which also doesn’t fly.”
“For me to move to a shelter and go that route would degrade my way of living right now. It would be like taking a step back,” Sweezey said.
Others echoed her concerns, which is how Seattle ended up with the Navigation Center this week.
Based on a model in San Francisco, the center is designed to address the issues that keep people like Sweezey out of traditional shelters.
Walk into the center in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District, and you won't see mats lined up on a gymnasium floor, like most shelters.
Instead, there are metal cots with bed bug resistant mattresses, plastic tubs where people can store their belongings, and small crates for pets.
The shelter is open 24 hours – unlike most shelters, which close early in the morning for the day.
The beds are singles, but they can be pushed together to accommodate couples. There are also showers, a kitchen and access to services.
Seattle Mayor Ed Murray put the process for this new kind of shelter into effect in June 2016. Controversy over where to site the center resulted in months of delays.
And when it opened this week, neighbors in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District still opposed it.
They have concerns about potential safety, public health and economic impacts the center might have on the neighborhood.
And the community group, Friends of Little Saigon, does not feel the city’s response has been adequate.
“We will continue to fight through our civic processes, voting power and legal means until we are treated equitably and respectfully as a community. If you have concerns about the Navigation Center, contact the City of Seattle,” a letter to supporters said.
Despite pushback, the city is hopeful this model will help to move more people off the street and into housing. And Murray said, if the Navigation Center is successful, they may open more like it.
About 20 people have already been referred to the newly-opened facility. The city’s outreach teams are in charge of referring clients to the center. They’re initially prioritizing those living in unauthorized encampments.
The facility sleeps 75 people at any one time, and the aim is to limit stays to 60 days.
During that time, residents will work with case managers to get into housing, or addiction or mental health treatment.
Daniel Malone is the Executive Director of the Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC), the group running the shelter.
He said many other shelters function as a survival tool, and that means they focus on quantity of service instead of quality.
"We're really going for a much more high quality arrangement that will provide a robust array of services where people can feel comfortable and ideally make very significant progress in their personal situations that will contribute to them exiting homelessness and staying out of it," Malone said.
The Navigation Center will also accept clients struggling with addiction.
Malone said they won’t encourage drug or alcohol use in the center, but they also won’t kick people out for using there.
They’ll have to find a balance, he said.
Malone is hopeful the Navigation Center model can work. But he’s concerned about the lack of affordable housing in the city and what that means for the people they’re trying to serve, people with very little to no income.
"We can't just will people out of homelessness,” he said. “We can't scold them out of it or coerce them out of it. We have to give them opportunity to get out of it."
Malone said some clients may have to move out of the city to find a home.
Mayor Murray has pointed to his affordable housing plan as a key piece needed to reduce homelessness in the city.
He said that he’ll measure the Navigation Center’s success on whether people are remaining off the streets after going through the program.