Navigating the long, twisty way to Portland's Navigation Center
There was a lot of talk about how much work was required to complete Portland's new homeless Navigation Center when elected officials and social service providers gathered there Monday, Aug. 26.
During the morning news conference the day before the facility opened in the Pearl District, Mayor Ted Wheeler and Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury repeatedly praised developer Homer Williams for raising the private funds to build it.
Wheeler and Kafoury described the large structure under the south end of the Broadway Bridge as an innovative public-private partnership that will help move people living on the streets into permanent housing.
"It's a catalyst for change," Wheeler said of the facility.
Williams was equally gracious, thanking the city-county Joint Office of Homeless Services for funding the operating costs of the facility, where up to 100 homeless people can live at a time and receive medical, counseling and placement services from on-site providers.
"Homelessness is, by far, the biggest issue facing Portland and (other) cities," said Williams, a prominent developer, who thanked the city and county for their support.
In fact, the mutual public respect masked the fact that Wheeler and Kafoury both helped prevent Williams from doing a similar project at two other locations in previous years. Or that Williams created the facility because he does not believe the existing programs funded by the city and county effectively move street people into housing. He created Oregon Harbor of Hope — the nonprofit that funded and constructed the Navigation Center — to show how it should be done.
"Our electeds cannot be expected to manage this without our help," Williams said of the homeless crisis.
Becoming a champion
Williams, who first became known for redeveloping much of the Pearl District, was not always a homeless advocate. In fact, he was criticized for opposing the relocation of the Right 2 Dream Too homeless camp in Northwest Portland onto a site near one of his upcoming developments in 2013.
But the criticism seemed to transform Williams, and he soon begin looking for alternatives for moving the homeless into permanent housing. A few years later, he became inspired by the Haven of Hope in San Antonio, Texas, a nonprofit organization with a large campus that offers camping, shelter, housing and services to thousands of homeless people at a time.
By then, Williams was working with Don Mazziotti, the former director of the Portland Development Commission, now called Prosper Portland. Together, they proposed opening a multiservice center and shelter in a large, empty warehouse at Terminal 1, a former Port of Portland property in Northwest Portland that had been purchased by the Bureau of Environmental Services for the Big Pipe project. The City Council authorized the bureau to lease the land to the Portland Housing Bureau for the shelter in August 2016.
To support the project, Williams and Mazziotti organized a visit to Haven of Hope in October 2016 that included Mayor-elect Wheeler and then-Commissioner Steve Novick. The trip was heavily covered by the local media, with the operators of the facility explaining they provide a continuum of services that improve their chances for success.
But when Wheeler returned to Portland, he came out against the Terminal 1 project, saying it was not the right fit.
The council pulled the plug on it on Oct. 25 after the bureau and William's organization failed to agree on a lease. The council subsequently sold Terminal 1 to Lithia Motors.
After that, Williams considered Wapato Jail, the never-opened Multnomah County correctional and treatment facility in North Portland. He and his representatives repeatedly inspected the facility — which has space for hundreds of beds, an industrial-size kitchen, medical facilities and conference rooms — and then offered to buy it from the county for $7 million on April 2, 2018.
Kafoury and a majority of the commission opposed using Wapato to service the homeless, however, and sold it to another developer for $5 million on April 12.
But that developer immediately sold Wapato to Jordan Schnitzer, a well-known developer and philanthropist, who gave Williams an opportunity to put a plan together for using it as a homeless service center and shelter.
Williams was unable to line up the necessary partners, however, and was forced to drop the idea.
Schnitzer is moving ahead with demolishing and redeveloping the property for industrial uses.
A site at last
By then Williams already was working to open the Navigation Center on city-owned land in the Pearl District. He announced the project at an April 10, 2018, news conference with Wheeler and Kafoury. Columbia Sportswear President and CEO Tim Boyle spoke and pledged $1.5 million to the project — a commitment that grew to $3.3 million after construction and related costs increased.
Although Wheeler and Kafoury originally said no public funds would be used to build or operate the Navigation Center, they relented as the costs increased and agreed that the Joint Office of Homeless Services would pay the operating costs.
Although not as large as Wapato, the temporary 9,700-square-foot structure is still large enough to accommodate William's original vision — combining ongoing shelter and on-site service providers that focus on helping residents move into permanent housing.
During the news conference the day before the facility opened, Wheeler said that the city and county have changed their approach to emergency shelters over the years until it more closely aligns with Williams' vision.
"When the homeless crisis started, the goal was to get as many people as possible into any available building. But many people would not access them. We had to change and offer better designed, dignified spaces. We know this will work," Wheeler said.
Still, those at the news conference said they know the work at the Navigation Center is just beginning. Opening the center is one thing; operating it is another.
"Now for the hard part," said George Devendorf, executive director of Transition Projects, the nonprofit organization operating the facility.
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