By Stacy Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
On Feb. 20, community organizations — mostly Vietnamese American — sent out a letter to the City of Seattle requesting “a pause on the location of the new Navigation Center.”
The authors of the letters were representatives from Friends of Little Saigon, Helping Link, Summit Sierra Public School, Viet Wah Supermarket, Asian Plaza Redevelopment, Vietnamese American Community of Seattle & Sno-King County, and Tet in Seattle. They are critical of how the news of the Navigation was rolled out.
The letter, which was also signed by dozens of local Vietnamese Americans, many of whom own business in Little Saigon, stated that the news of the center’s opening in Seattle’s Little Saigon came as a surprise. The letter is criticizing the mayor’s office for lack of communication and community outreach.
“For many, this is the final straw,” the letter stated. “We are being neglected, ignored, and treated as second-class to every City sanctioned project and policy that reaches into the Little Saigon neighborhood.”
The upcoming Navigation Center will be located in the Pearl Warren Building, at 606 12th Avenue South in Seattle’s Little Saigon, an area of predominantly Vietnamese businesses and residents. It is designed to be a 24-hour living facility for Seattle’s homeless individuals and is currently undergoing construction and modifications in order to carry out its specialized functions once it opens.
On a phone call with Northwest Asian Weekly on Feb. 8, the day news of the Navigation Center’s site was released, Meg Olberding, external affairs director for Seattle Human Services Department, pointed out that the site for the upcoming Navigation Center was chosen because the building was an operating shelter and has the infrastructure to support its planned services.
“It had Operation Nightwatch and a good number of beds,” said Olberding. “[And the Navigation Center will be] a different kind of service that we’re going to be offering there. It will be referral only, not a drop-in center.”
Operation Nightwatch Men’s Shelter is an interdenominational Christian ministry that serves homeless individuals. When it was operating at the Pearl Warren location, it had 75 shelter beds and its overnight hours were from 9:30 p.m. to 5:30 a.m. daily, according to Compass Housing Alliance, which oversaw case management.
Neglected and ignored
The letter on behalf of Little Saigon stated that there has been an ongoing history of Little Saigon being overlooked by the City of Seattle. It cited the City’s lack of engagement and transparency when it came to the Livable South Downtown rezoning, the First Hill Streetcar construction, the Denny Substation Transmission Line, Nickelsville on Dearborn, and the Seattle Womxn’s March street closures, using these as examples that adversely affected business in Little Saigon.
The letter’s authors also hinted that they believe Little Saigon has received a certain amount of lip service.
“… [T]he decision to locate the Navigation Center in our neighborhood without any prior engagement is disrespectful, short-sighted, and antithetical to the values of racial equity that we expect from a ‘sanctuary city,’” the letter stated, referring to Seattle Mayor Ed Murray’s Jan. 25 response to President Donald Trump’s executive order to crack down on sanctuary cities who have supposed undocumented immigrant-friendly policies.
Shelters aren’t the answer
Not all community members associated with Little Saigon share the same fervor as the letter’s authors, however. Some refrained from signing the letter, stating that they’d like to take a wait-and-see approach. Seattle’s upcoming Navigation Center is to be modeled after San Francisco’s, the first of which rolled out March 2015. A second one opened June 2016. More are planned.
Last month at Seattle University, at a public forum with Murray, San Francisco’s mayor, Ed Lee, said that San Francisco may need as many as 11 Navigation Centers.
“Shelters aren’t the answer,” Lee said. “There is no transformation in lives. [Navigation Centers] are a place to get you ready for permanent housing. I want a result to happen for the person we bring into the Navigation Center.”
Navigation Centers differ from shelters in significant ways. Many individuals opt to stay in unauthorized encampments, rather than traditional shelters because partners, pets, and possessions are banned. At Navigation Centers, people are allowed to come and go as they please, enter with their animals, and benefit from intensive services provided by the City. The goal is to transition individuals to permanent housing in months.
According to San Francisco city officials last June, about 80 percent of those who enter into Navigation Centers eventually moved into stable supportive housing or were reunited with friends or family.
Seattle’s Navigation Center will be funded in part by $600,000 secured by the City in the state capital budget. The City is matching this state appropriation with a private donation of $600,000 earmarked for homelessness services. Additionally, it stated it will establish a designated fund to collect additional private donations to support the center.
On Feb. 8, Quynh Pham, board chair of Friends of Little Saigon, stated that her frustration with the upcoming Navigation Center lies in how the news was rolled out to stakeholders in Little Saigon, not necessarily the concept of the Navigation Center itself.
“I think the Navigation Center concept is a good one,” Pham said. “And it’s something very new, so we’re pushing the City to do an evaluation, an impact report for us. They need better data on who they are serving and they also should assess the effect and the impact [the center can have] on the surrounding community, as well as the effectiveness of the program.”
The end of the letter from Little Saigon stated, “At this point, we request a pause to the ongoing work on the Navigation Center until the City of Seattle 1) has an inclusive community engagement plan with the Little Saigon community, 2) has heard from the community regarding their concerns and needs, and 3) has allocated the required resources to mitigate safety, health, and financial impacts from the Navigation Center.”
Benton Strong, Communications Director for the City of Seattle, said that the City will hold a community meeting on Feb. 28, from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. at the Pearl Warren Building.
Community members may raise questions, concerns, or give comments then.
Stacy Nguyen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.