The Navigation Center shelter at 606 12th Ave S on April 12, 2024. Photo by Chetanya Robinson.

After almost seven years, the Navigation Center shelter is leaving the Pearl Warren Building in Little Saigon by January 2025, Deputy Mayor Greg Wong announced at a meeting of the CID Public Safety Council Meeting on March 5. 

The low barrier shelter, designed to help people with chronic homelessness get back on their feet, has been controversial in Little Saigon ever since it was placed there in 2017 with what neighborhood stakeholders thought was a glaring lack of consultation or mitigation. 

Since then, many associate the shelter, its guests, or people it attracts, with visible crime and disorder in the heart of Little Saigon around 12th and Jackson. Downtown Emergency Services Center (DESC), which operates the shelter, denies the shelter is to blame. 

But the shelter is not leaving because of community backlash, according to DESC and Mayor Harrell’s office. The shelter’s stay in the Pearl Warren building was always meant to be temporary, and the building needs repairs and renovations, said Callie Craighead, spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office, in an email. The building is owned by the Seattle Indian Services Commission, which declined to comment on the shelter’s exit.

In the months ahead, the Mayor’s office, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority (KCRHA), and City departments are in discussions with the DESC about relocating the shelter elsewhere, or creating a different kind of shelter with the same number of beds.

What is a Navigation Center?

Based on the Navigation Centers in San Francisco, Seattle’s is focused on serving homeless adults living in encampments with significant behavioral health issues. It offers on-site hygiene facilities, 24/7 staffing, and intensive case management.

Typically, a low barrier shelter like the Navigation Center does not require criminal background checks, credit checks, income verification, program participation, or sobriety from clients, according to KCRHA.

An advantage for shelter guests is that they can store their belongings there, and are allowed to stay there with a partner or a pet. 

Most shelters are stricter – for example, the Lighthouse Shelter operated in SoDo near the Chinatown International District by the Salvation Army requires guests to maintain sobriety and a 9 p.m. curfew. 

Daniel Malone, Executive Director of DESC, said the Navigation Center played an important role in the shelter ecosystem, helping many people who were living in encampments find housing, healthcare, mental health care, and addiction treatment.

“The Navigation Center has served that purpose very well,” Malone said. “It has been a desirable shelter for people to go to, who otherwise had been living outdoors.”

According to the Mayor’s office, the Navigation Center has served 706 people experiencing homelessness since 2017, over 75% of whom were chronically homeless when they entered the shelter. 

The Navigation Center has also discharged 627 people, including 200 to a permanent destination. People stay at the shelter for a median length of 3.5 months.

A chronically homeless person is someone who has been homeless for at least a year (or four separate times over the last three years), has a disability, and lives in emergency shelter or somewhere not meant for human habitation, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“These types of low-barrier, enhanced shelters are necessary in the continuum of services provided to people experiencing chronic homelessness,” said Craighead with the Mayor’s Office in an email.

Little Saigon’s troubled heart

At any time of day around 12th and Jackson, about a block from the Navigation Center, it’s not uncommon to see loitering, drug use and drug sales.

In the last few years, businesses have hired private security or closed altogether. Shopping plazas are surrounded by barbed wire fencing.

The area is a policing hot spot, and the Seattle Police Department installed a mobile police unit there in February 2022.

The City’s drug ordinance prohibits public consumption of fentanyl and other drugs, and some of the City’s first enforcement of the law occurred at 12th and Jackson. Police were directed to divert people into services and treatment under guidelines from the Mayor’s Office in a September Executive Order.

Signs near 12th and Jackson in Little Saigon warn of penalties for buying, selling and possessing stolen goods. Photo by Chetanya Robinson.

City-installed signs in area warn of criminal penalties for buying and selling stolen merchandise, in English, Vietnamese and Chinese. 

Sue Mar, managing partner at Mar Properties, has an office located just steps away from the Navigation Center – but she rarely goes to her office anymore and doesn’t feel safe anywhere in the neighborhood. Mar believes drug use became more open once the Navigation Center moved in, and she blamed the low-barrier nature of the shelter. “It’s a no-harm facility, no barrier, no rules facility – of course they caused the problem.”

Yenvy Pham, co-owner of Phở Bắc restaurant and Hello Em cafe, which is just around the corner from the shelter, believes the influx of Navigation Center guests was too much for the neighborhood. There are a handful of homeless people in Little Saigon she has known for years, and has mutual trust with. “But when it’s just so many different characters coming in, it’s really hard to create a neighborhood that people want to come to,” she said. “Can the neighborhood and the community absorb these services and the people?”

This year, two shootings occurred near the Navigation Center. Joel Silva was shot and killed January 31, and found outside near the shelter. Police have not found a suspect. 

Navigation Center staff and clients are just as shaken by these incidents as the surrounding neighborhood, said Malone of DESC. “I think somebody choosing to come by and shoot somebody else on the sidewalk, outside the Navigation Center — neither one of those individuals is there because of the Navigation Center.” 

Unfairly blamed?

Five years ago, J.D. was living in an encampment and suffering from opioid addiction when he was contacted by the City’s outreach team and referred to the Navigation Center. He expects to move into housing this spring, and he believes the Navigation Center saved his life and allowed him to fight addiction. “This place has made such a huge difference in my life,” he said.

Most clients don’t stay there for five years, but J.D. said the pandemic interrupted his recovery. 

The way people associate the Navigation Center with theft, property crime and drugs in Little Saigon frustrates J.D. “I don’t think the Navigation Center’s got anything to do with what’s going on there,” he said. “I think people want to scapegoat this program because it’s the visible and easy thing.”

Shelter guests are strictly instructed to not loiter or be involved in buying or selling drugs, J.D. noted. “They really do emphasize to us that when we’re out here, that we need to be on our best behavior because the community’s eyes are on us.”

Malone with DESC said that while most guests have honored these rules, the shelter does enforce them and has barred people from staying there who don’t follow them.

“There’s a fair amount of confusion or perception that the Navigation Center guests are involved in many of the difficult activities at, say, 12th and Jackson or elsewhere in the neighborhood and that is quite a significant misperception,” Malone said. “Our staff and guests have been very diligent about not contributing to some of those difficult neighborhood dynamics.”

City Councilmember Tanya Woo agrees that people seeking services and help are not to blame for public safety problems. But she believes many people are drawn to the area primarily to sell and buy drugs.

“There are a lot of other factors,” she said. “I think fentanyl was the game changer – having never seen a drug before that is so deadly and that is so cheap, and that really changes who you are as a person.” 

The City has launched a Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design program in partnership with Friends of Little Saigon, community members, the Seattle Police Department, and Seattle Fire Department “identifying and implementing evidence-based strategies to reduce opportunities for crimes to occur and improve safety in the neighborhood,” Craighead said in an email. 

SPD Captain Steve Strand has served as commander of the West Precinct since 2021, which includes Little Saigon. He said the Navigation Center staff have regularly met with police and “have always been cooperative and willing to partner on solutions.”

For Strand, the fact that there has historically been a trade in cheap merchandise in the neighborhood may come from a desire for people in the neighborhood to find good deals. This results in stolen goods entering the market, and consequently a drug market. “The drug dealers also know that that’s somewhere that people will have some money in their pockets from those recent sales and drug addictions that they can exploit,” Strand said. 

To cut down on demand for stolen merchandise, police have handed out educational flyers in multiple languages to people in the area seen buying or selling stolen merchandise.

Strand isn’t sure Navigation Center guests have much to do with the trade in drugs and stolen goods. I wasn’t aware of any of them taking part in the criminal activities,” he said. 

Strand acknowledged that low barrier shelters might be less likely to report criminal activity to police, as the shelters want to establish trust and relationships with clients. 

Quynh Pham, Executive Director of Friends of Little Saigon (FLS), said the truth is somewhere in the middle. “I wouldn’t connect every safety issue with the Nav Center,” she said. “But one of the downfalls of siting it here is that there were no plans or intentions for the unintended activities that do happen around the Center.”

A neighborhood blindsided

Pham was raising the alarm about unintended consequences ever since the Navigation Center was placed in the Pearl Warren Building by Mayor Ed Murray’s administration, which created the shelter through Executive Order in 2016.

At the time, a basic overnight shelter existed in the building, and the Navigation Center was one of the first enhanced shelters offering more services than just an overnight mat on the floor, Craighead said.

In February 2017, when the City announced where the shelter would go, FLS convened a Navigation Center Community Task Force and met with community partners and residents to create a plan advocating for the community’s needs.

FLS and other Little Saigon and local Vietnamese organizations asked the City to pause opening the shelter until the City created a community engagement plan with the neighborhood and allocated the resources to mitigate safety, health and financial impacts from the Navigation Center.

The Task Force’s recommendations at the time included more police patrols and 24/7 police presence at the shelter, collecting criminal background information on clients, banning camping in the CID neighborhoods, “aggressive enforcement” of illegal activities, lighting and security cameras, a representative from the shelter attending CID public safety meetings, hundreds of thousands of dollars to mitigate impacts on local organizations, funding for neighborhood improvements, and more. 

In March 2017, the City agreed to a pause, but ultimately opened the shelter in July 2017 without receiving the Task Force’s response plan and recommendations.

“For a project like this to come in without any intention to work with community, I think people were very, very frustrated,” said Pham. She noted at the time that the City’s outreach materials were not translated into languages spoken in the neighborhood.

“Basically, they just ignored everything we said,” said Mar, who also served on the Task Force. “The City gave us no extra police protection, no extra services, no mitigation, nothing. They just put it in there and ignored us.”

But after the Navigation Center was up and running, FLS tried hard to work with DESC and the City to ensure the program was successful. “Because at the end of the day, we want people to get resources, and their basic needs are met,” Pham said.

It was hard to maintain collaborative relationships with the shelter as leadership changed. “I think on both ends, there was a lack of capacity to continue to build those relationships over time,” Pham said. 

The community expected DESC and other providers to better engage with them. “But at the root of it, that’s not their role,” Pham said. “Their role is to work with their clients or do outreach – they don’t have a community liaison type of position. And I think that that was what we were feeling like we needed from them.”

In 2022, Councilmember Woo helped lead protests against a King County plan to expand shelter and services by the Lighthouse Shelter in SoDo at the edge of the CID. The plan would have created a 419-bed services hub, one of the region’s largest, including space for RVs and mental health and addiction treatment services.

The lesson of the Navigation Center and its lack of community engagement was on her mind. “We’re not anti-unhoused. We just want to have a seat at the table and want to have a voice,” Woo said. 

Woo and other activists worried that continuing to concentrate homelessness services in the CID would have negative consequences. 

Gary Lee, a member of the CID Public Safety Council, volunteer with CID Block Watch, and recently retired city planner in Redmond, believes over-concentrating shelter and services in CID is misguided and inequitable, and goes against the Comprehensive Plan’s vision of creating a vibrant city.

We have compassion for them, we want to help them, we hope they get help,” Lee said. The demand, the need is huge – but we can’t handle it.”

While he acknowledges that it’s possible most or all Navigation Center guests have nothing to do with illegal activities, Lee maintains the shelter is a “magnet for bad behavior” – and that drug dealers, sex traffickers and others prey on people living in or near the shelter. “The neighborhood really needs to heal from the negative impacts this has created.” 

Pham speculates that the complex crises of homelessness, mental and behavioral health issues in Seattle are more than any one provider can handle. “There are a lot of pieces in the system that are broken, and so people just continue to cycle,” Pham said.

Filling a hole in the neighborhood

What happens when the shelter leaves and what will replace it is anyone’s guess. Many are hopeful the neighborhood will bounce back, and everyone has a wishlist for what they want to see in its place. 

Pham of FLS hopes the space can be activated with cultural activities, or resources for small businesses. If it’s left vacant, it will leave a hole in the neighborhood with “less eyes on the street and what’s happening on that corner.” 

Mar believes a different kind of shelter in the space, serving women, children, or the elderly, could be more beneficial for the community.

Woo believes more resources are needed for Little Saigon, “not just for the people who are there in need of services, but also for the community.” 

“I think whoever goes in there, that definitely has to be community engagement, and there has to be a seat table for community members to be heard,” Woo said. “Otherwise, we’re just going to repeat all the mistakes that we made in the past.”

By the time the Navigation Center leaves, J.D. expects he will have moved into housing. But he doesn’t believe much will change in Little Saigon: “The program is going to move and I think people will see when the program leaves, that these problems are going to stay.”

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