Standing in the back of the Vancouver Navigation Center, Randy Tyler spoke bluntly of what brought him there.

“I lost my job in 2002 because I quit — because of drugs, I really believe that — and I really fell off the grid for 16, 18 years,” Tyler said. “Just kind of waking up now. It goes by very fast.”

He’s at the center to “navigate,” he said.

The 50-year-old will soon enter drug treatment after more than a decade of abuse. He said it’s a second chance he owes to the center, an 18-month-old office where people without shelter can find assistance.

Tyler has a plan, but with gaps he knows he has to address. When his inpatient stay finishes, he wants to get a job and find housing. But he said he knows he’ll have to spend time at a shelter.

“I don’t want to come out and be on the streets out of treatment,” he said, “and being in the same predicament, and not feeling like I’m going in the right direction, you know?”

Whether he can find such shelter is likely going to be decided by Vancouver city leaders and voters. The southwest Washington city’s homeless population is growing, especially the number of people who have no shelter whatsoever — no car to sleep in, no friend’s couch.

There were 958 people experiencing homelessness in Clark County in 2019, according to the latest official data. That’s a rise of 21% since 2018. The unsheltered population stood at close to 500 people — a 30% increase.

The navigation center where Tyler stood could be a linchpin for Vancouver’s future plans to assist people who are completely unsheltered. But city officials admit the center’s short history has been bumpy, and they need to overcome their own inexperience.

Change in navigation

At 4 p.m. on a recent Tuesday, the navigation center hummed. Dozens of people sat around lunch tables, talking while a TV mounted in the corner played.

As it currently operates, the center gives people without shelter somewhere to go from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. People can eat, shower and do their laundry.

People using the center can also connect with nonprofits that offer help. The navigation center provides space for groups specializing in helping people find food, work and places to live.

“It’s meant to help people find resources that they need to get back on track or stay on track, for anyone who is experiencing homelessness or about to experience homelessness,” said Stacey Donovan, a city staffer.

“It’s a center that’s meant to help people feel safe, have a safe place to go, and also find direction they may need with where they are currently in their lives,” she added.

But when 5 p.m. comes around, red-shirted staffers scuttle people outside, left to their own devices until morning.

Vancouver Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle takes a tour of the Vancouver Navigation Center, the city's 5,000-square-foot homeless day center, in 2018.

Vancouver Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle takes a tour of the Vancouver Navigation Center, the city’s 5,000-square-foot homeless day center, in 2018.

Molly Solomon/OPB

Located in central Vancouver, the center’s proximity to residential neighborhoods has fueled tensions. Some neighbors have said the center attracts bad actors who bring disruptive behaviors to their doorstep.

Rachel Weber, who said she represents about 240 neighbors, described the situation in dire terms to Vancouver City Council this month.

“We have active drug use, theft, trash, chaos all of the time. We can’t escape it, we live there, we can’t walk away,” Weber said. “These are our homes, it’s at our windows, it’s in our front yards.”

In the fall, a third-party analysis called the center poorly managed, according to the Columbian. The 44-page analysis recommended several changes, including adding shelter beds.

But soon after, the nonprofit Share, which operated the navigation center for the city, announced it would no longer run the center. The nonprofit said it had “different opinions” on how to run the center, the newspaper reported.

Two months later, Vancouver’s first homeless resources manager — whose job it is to spearhead the city’s strategy for managing and solving homelessness — abruptly quit.

It was initially reported Jackie St. Louis resigned because he couldn’t move his family from Pierce County. But in his resignation letter, St. Louis also noted a clash of philosophies.

“I believe that my vision for this work does not align with your requirements of the position and therefore I feel that resigning is the best option for me and the city,” St. Louis wrote in the letter, obtained by OPB.

St. Louis could not be reached for comment.

Vancouver’s Parks and Recreation Department has been officially running the center since the end of January. Twelve staff members pick up shifts.

The center has improved since the report, according to parks officials. They have added security fencing and implemented an ID system at the door.

“It was really difficult before we got there,” said Julie Hannon, the parks department supervisor.

Vancouver is looking for another contractor to take over operations. The deadline to apply was Wednesday.

‘Rebuilding trust’

Ensuring the center works as designed is a priority for elected officials in Vancouver. Not just for its current services, but for plans to manage homelessness in the future, too.

Vancouver City Council is currently developing a package of funding initiatives that would raise tens of millions of dollars every year for city services. Some initiatives will likely need voter approval.

As city officials develop the plans, they’ve asked residents how they think the money should be spent. Homelessness was consistently listed as the top priority.

City officials plan to spend millions adding shelter space. That could include creating around 80 beds at the Vancouver Navigation Center, although those plans aren’t set in stone.

Councilor Erik Paulsen said he supports the efforts, but added the bumpy short history of the navigation center will require helping the public understand why the city’s investing in the center.

“Because of the way that navigation center was launched, we made a horrible first impression with the surrounding neighborhoods,” he said. “There was a lot of trust damaged in that process.

Paulsen later added the city needs to “rebuild some of that trust.”

Part of the growing pains, according to Councilor Bart Hansen, stems from the city’s inexperience with homelessness.

For many years, the city’s main way of addressing the issue was to dole out state and federal grant dollars earmarked for social services.

Then, in 2016, voters approved Proposition 1, a $42 million property tax levy designed to build affordable housing. To date, the fund has raised $10.5 million and has helped create 515 units of housing. It also meant Vancouver was directly involved in addressing housing issues. 

“We’re in the business of running a city,” Hansen said. “We’ve counted on the state and the feds in the past to take care of these services.”

But experts say Vancouver still needs shelters and more services if it wants to get people into the housing that is being built.

“We absolutely need additional shelter beds in the community,” said Kate Budd, executive director of Council for the Homeless, based in Vancouver. Budd said shelter space is a key part of a whole menu of services needed for the community.

“The key is looking at it across the continuum,” she said. “All of those programs make up a functioning and well-rounded system that make up a very diverse system for people whose needs are just as diverse.”

In January, Vancouver City Council gave $475,000 to help expand existing shelters. Currently, a patchwork of nonprofits in the county offer about 200 beds that might be exclusive to children, women or men. Churches also add beds when the weather is cold enough.

As the navigation center was closing for the day Tuesday, a woman named Trinette, who did not want to provide her last name, said she had landed space at a shelter for women. But, she said, there needs to be shelter across the board — for men, women, children and people with disabilities.

“There’s a ton of people sleeping on the streets, on sidewalks, and they don’t have a safe spot to sleep,” she said.