Seattle’s efforts to develop a new 24-hour facility for housing the homeless have displaced longtime overnight-shelter provider Operation Nightwatch.
Coming soon to the Chinatown International District, a 95-unit permanent supportive housing facility for the homeless. To First Hill, a 24-hour emergency shelter that will add an additional 100 beds and on-site services designed to help the homeless transition to permanent housing.
Both projects were announced this month and, along with the siting of the long-developing Navigation Center, they represent a major step in the city’s pivot toward the “housing first” model city officials say will help reduce area homelessness.
But the shift has not been without consequences.
Barring a last-minute reprieve, overnight-shelter provider Operation Nightwatch will be forced to move for the second time in three months.
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The group recently elected to leave its now former home in the Pearl Warren building when city officials tabbed it as the future site of Seattle’s Navigation Center, a key resource in Mayor Ed Murray’s plan to reduce homelessness.
Nightwatch now operates out of a hall at Seattle Center, but will soon lose the space to previously scheduled rentals, confirmed Meg Olberding, Seattle Human Services Department spokeswoman. City officials are working to secure an alternative site, Olberding said. The group is expected to vacate Monday.
Most area homeless shelters close to new arrivals before 10 p.m. Director Rick Reynolds said Nightwatch fills a gap in the network, providing about 100 beds for homeless men after other emergency shelters close.
While Nightwatch provides a needed service, city officials have begun the process of shifting resources away from “mats-on-the-floor” style facilities, Olberding said. “Thinking about the big picture, we’re trying to develop shelters where we can get people holistically cared for,” she said.
Modeled after a similar “low-barrier” shelter in San Francisco, the Navigation Center will provide clients dormitory-style rooms and on-site services to help clients transition from the streets into permanent housing.
Murray has said Seattle’s navigation center could host up to 75 people Once there, clients will have the freedom to come and go as they please, and have their pets, partners and possessions with them.
The center was supposed to open by the end of last year, but delays — which officials attribute to difficulties finding an appropriate location — pushed the city’s timeline.
In the Seattle Indian Services Commission, the city found a willing partner. The Commission owns the Pearl Warren building and in 2013 lost its last major tenant. It’s sat mostly empty save for Operation Nightwatch for the past two years, said chairman Claudia Kauffman.
With the commission short of revenue, Seattle has picked up nearly $1 million in monthly payments on the loans used to fund the construction of the Pearl Warren.
In February, city officials reached an agreement with the Commission to rent the bulk of the Pearl Warren building. In addition to paying $60,000 in annual rent, the city as part of the lease agreement will pick up the monthly debt service on the commission’s construction loans and forgive the $953,689 it owes the city for earlier missed payments.
Nightwatch’s lease at the Pearl Warren does not expire until the end of the year, Reynolds said. Despite that, the group left when work crews began prepping for a planned renovation, Reynolds said
“They would clean up, but we didn’t feel like that was a good area for our guys to be sleeping,” he said.
Reynolds said the city is anxious to retain Nightwatch as a service provider, but efforts to find the group a new space have so far fallen short. “We’ve made no bones that we are not coming up with great options,” Olberding said.
Reynolds said he will keep searching for a new home, but to continue operating the group might have to downsize. “We’re going to have to figure something out or lose beds,” he said.
Nightwatch’s displacement isn’t the only issue clouding the choice of location for the Navigation Center.
Quynh Pham, president of the Friends of Little Saigon community organization, said some residents and small-business owners in the area remain uneasy about the city’s decision to site the facility in the Chinatown International District.
That’s because city officials did not seek out the community’s input before finalizing a location, she said. “It felt like they assumed this community would be against the project without talking to us first,” she said.
The lease negotiations for use of the Pearl Warren building were confidential, city officials said. “When we were able to finalize the deal, that’s when we were able to begin doing outreach,” Olberding said.
The group later staged a protest at City Hall, which Pham said was followed by a meeting with Mayor Ed Murray during which the group discussed its concerns.
When the Navigation Center will open remains an question. The city has yet to set a hard date, Olberding said
The Friends of Little Saigon will host another community meeting on the siting of the Navigation Center on April 24.