Skip to main content

Here's how we can make our shelter system better

caption: The entrance to a homeless shelter on Third Avenue in Seattle.
Enlarge Icon
The entrance to a homeless shelter on Third Avenue in Seattle.
KUOW Photo/John Ryan

Seattle’s homeless shelters don’t work for some people. They have curfews, you can’t stay with your partner, there’s nowhere for your stuff and most won’t take pets.

It’s a problem for many of Seattle’s homeless. But what if we changed the shelter model to get rid of some of these barriers?

That’s exactly what the Navigation Center in San Francisco has done. It’s set up to reduce barriers to entry to get the long-term homeless off the streets.

Julie Leadbetter is the director of the Navigation Center. She said it differs from the traditional shelters we have in Seattle in some major ways.

“We are a very low-threshold shelter. We lower all barriers to access that we possibly can. So there’s no curfew, people can come and go as they please, they can bring their pets, they can bring their possessions and they can sleep together with their partners,” Leadbetter said.

It sounds so simple, remove the barriers and more people will be able to get off the street.

But it’s not as easy as it sounds. It takes resources – the center costs more than $1 million a year and only houses 75 people at a time.

The Navigation Center has storage containers where people can keep their belongings, not all shelters have access to things like that.

They’ve also gone against the traditional single-gender model by allowing partners to be together. That’s often avoided because of safety concerns.

But Leadbetter said, when you get past the fear of the unknown, you often find there are better ways to do things.

“Often times it’s a lot easier because what you’re doing is you’re bringing people in in the way they want to exist. You’re bringing their support network in. So as long as you are creating a space in which you’re really helping people solve their problems they are happy to be here, engaged and ready to do the work,” she said.

Aside from lowering the barrier to entry, the Navigation Center also lives up to its name. It helps people navigate the sea of city services and streamlines access to housing.

Since opening a little over a year ago, the Navigation Center has had about 500 people move through it. Leadbetter said about 80 percent of those people went on to stable housing.

The city of Seattle is looking at whether a shelter like the Navigation Center could work here. Mayor Ed Murray and some City Council members have been to San Francisco to look at the model.

Councilmember Sally Bagshaw has said a model like this is the only way to give meaningful shelter to the city’s homeless.

Why you can trust KUOW