The Case for Navigation Centers

by Elizabeth Lee, December 14, 2021

Starting in the metropolis of San Francisco, navigation centers are essentially more flexible and welcoming versions of homeless shelters; these places are meant to act as a safe, transitional place to reside until a place of living is made or found for homeless people in the area. Navigation centers allow for a form of case management that can be a far more effective method for moving homeless people out of shelters and into more permanent locations. While some homeless people may stay at shelters for up to 6 months waiting for open housing slots, navigation centers often have an average turnover rate of 30 days - far less than the average 6 month rate of homeless shelters. However, if said homeless people are unable to find another place to reside before 30 days are up at the navigation center, they will not be forced to leave.

Navigation centers also have lower barriers for homeless people to reside there; they allow these people to bring family members, pets, and personal possessions with them when they come to reside in the center. This helps prevent the large and often frightening lifestyle change that many of these people must make when considering joining a homeless shelter. Furthermore, this helps create a much more friendly and relaxed environment in the navigation center, making it less stressful during the hard times of homelessness.

This allows for a faster transitional period for homeless people, and allows for an experience more targeted towards the specific needs of people. For instance, those struggling with mental health issues are given more adequate care than if they were to go to a homeless shelter.

In fact, 61 percent of homeless people in Berkeley who were admitted to a navigation center either entered a permanent home or were reunited with friends or family. Moreover, the organization Bay Area Community Services is even more effective, who were able to house 1,090 out of 1,317 people for a housing rate of 82 percent.

Additionally, many homeless people have enjoyed navigation centers much more than a traditional homeless shelter. For Jerry Womack, who has lived on the streets for over ten years while struggling with drug addiction, the navigation center felt like a place where the staff actually cared about his well being, and so he was able to work with case managers in order to start a new life. He has access to food services 23 hours a day, as well as a laundry room to drop off bags of dirty clothes to get washed. In contrast, many people who lived in homeless shelters felt unsafe in their living environments, with some even believing living on the streets is safer than being in a shelter. For David Pirtle, his experience with homeless shelters involved being surrounded by drug dealers, and many people got their belongings stolen. This leads to many people like Pirtle to choose living in the streets over going to a shelter for many years, thus making it harder to house and care for the homeless population.

One of the primary arguments against creating new navigation centers stems from community members, who fear that homeless shelters may make neighborhoods more dangerous. However, some studies have shown otherwise. According to the Goldman School of Public Policy, additional navigation centers/homeless shelters have no effect on neighborhood crime. In fact, half of community members surveyed believed that navigation centers decreased the number of homeless people on the streets, contributing to a community that is safer overall. Despite communities concerned about property value loss due to congregation of the homeless, workers at navigation centers have stated that construction and operation of navigation centers do not cause more homeless to reside on the streets nearby - afterall, those that do will not be allowed to reside at the center. Property values continued to rise in all neighborhoods, regardless of whether a navigation center was built or not.

In order to combat the growing homelessness crisis in California, we must begin by handling the basics, and that begins by creating large amounts of high-quality, short-term housing like navigation centers. By providing homeless people with their right to shelter, we can take the first steps in creating a strong rehabilitation system for those who are homeless, and pave the way for reducing rates of homelessness as more and more people are able to find homes.