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Navigation Center has ‘growing pains’ as it approaches six-month mark

The exterior of the Navigation Center. There is a car in the parking lot covered with a tarp.
Chris Lehman
A tarp covers a vehicle in the parking lot of the River Avenue Navigation Center on Jan. 11, 2023.

Last summer, the city of Eugene and Lane County opened a new, so-called “low barrier” shelter for unhoused people. The River Avenue Navigation Center was the product of years of planning.

It was hailed as a significant achievement in a county where more than 10,000 people were “actively homeless” at some point last year, according to the county’s Human Services Division.

Six months after officials cut the ribbon, however, some residents say the facility is falling short of its promises.

Not a peaceful setting

Ever since she arrived at the Navigation Center in December, Teri has been surrounded by bedlam.

Frequent yelling and fights. Rampant drug use. Threats.

“I felt safer in my Jeep in a parking lot,” she told KLCC while sipping a Mountain Dew at a diner around the corner from the north Eugene facility.

Teri, 60, doesn’t want her full name used because she’s afraid of retaliation from staff or other residents.

“I’ve found broken crack pipes in the bathroom,” she said. “The needles. The caps. You find them out in the parking lot. They basically sit there in their cars doing it.”

Teri said she won’t touch illegal drugs, though she doesn’t–in theory–begrudge others using them.

“To each their own,” she said. “But when it starts affecting the inside…”

Her voice trailed off.

“I won’t even go sit in the common areas,” she said.

The River Avenue Navigation Center is supposed to serve as a bridge to housing for people without a place to live. It’s far from being the only Eugene-area shelter. But officials say it’s different because it has few restrictions on who can stay there. While clients have to be referred, the only requirement is that they are age 18 and older.

“We’re dealing with folks who are some of the most vulnerable folks in our community,” said Lane County Health and Human Services spokesperson Jason Davis. “People who have not been able to maintain residency at other shelters. And we are saying ‘Come on in, have a place to stay.’ And that has with it some growing pains.”

Davis acknowledged that some of the more than 100 people who’ve stayed at the Navigation Center have voiced concerns about, among other things, cleanliness and food safety. One resident of the center texted more than 80 photos to KLCC that the resident said showed examples of unsanitary conditions, including in the bathroom and hallways.

"There's got to be something that can be done about that," the resident, who did not provide a name, said in a text message.

The county sent a health inspector to the site in November in response to the complaints, though the inspection was apparently limited to the kitchen and dining areas.

Local homeless advocates Julie Lambert and Shane Berry cut the ribbon to the Navigation Center, as officials including Eugene Mayor Lucy Vinis (left), Lane County Commissioner Pat Farr (near center), and Boot the Dog watch on.
Brian Bull
On Aug. 8, 2022, homeless advocates Julie Lambert and Shane Berry cut the ribbon to the Navigation Center, as officials including Eugene Mayor Lucy Vinis (left), Lane County Commissioner Pat Farr (near center) watched.

The kitchen was “clean and well maintained,” according to the report obtained by KLCC. Inspectors made some suggestions about how to ensure cleanliness in garbage collection areas and a handwashing station, but concluded that “no further action is required.”

Still, Davis said the vocalized discontent has spurred changes. Officials have decided to implement random inspections of the facility going forward.

“Those include taking a concerted look at the specific concerns that were brought up initially, but then anything else that we need to look at,” he said.

Few residents have found permanent homes so far

While it’s publicly funded, day-to-day operations at the Navigation Center are run by Equitable Social Solutions, a Kentucky-based for-profit company that, according to its website, considers the Eugene facility one of its "signature programs" and operates similar shelters in Chicago, San Diego, and Madison, WI.

Figures provided by the company at a recent meeting of the Lane County Poverty and Homelessness Board showed that in the first four full months of the center’s operation, just seven people left to what officials call “positive outcomes,” that is, a safe and permanent living situation.

More than three times that number left for so-called “negative outcomes.” That mostly means they ended up back on the street. Most of those who entered simply haven’t left.

David Montes, the on-site manager at the center, told the panel that those numbers don’t represent a level of success he’d ultimately like to see.

“There was a 90-day timeframe stated to try to get people housed,” he said. “But our approach is not to exit anybody if they don’t meet that benchmark. Ultimately, the goal is to keep people off the streets.”

Montes repeated what other officials have said; namely, that the center serves a population with a high level of challenges.

“Sometimes it means that we see numbers that we don’t want to see,” he said. “But as long as we’re doing our due diligence and actively providing the services as promised, I think that we’re going to ultimately reach our goals and make a strong impact in our community.”

[NOTE: After this story aired, KLCC learned that Montes had been fired from his role at the River Avenue Navigation Center. According to Lane County Health and Human Services, the decision was made by Equitable Social Solutions. That organization did not respond to a request for comment Friday.]

Frequent visits by first responders

Meanwhile, public records paint an often-chaotic scene at the Navigation Center.

All told, police and fire responded to more than 100 emergency calls to the property or adjacent alleyways in the last four months of 2022.

Many were for medical issues, but police reports also describe open drug use and fights involving people and animals.

“Subject is threatening clients, losing control, throwing chairs around,” said a readout of a 911 call from the facility on Dec. 15.

The person who placed the call, however, was not exactly an uninvolved bystander.

The caller “confirmed that he threw one chair,” according to the readout. “Advised him not to do that and he argued that he hasn’t thrown any chairs while on the phone and hung up.”

Police responded to the scene, but ultimately they determined that the person filing the complaint was uninjured, despite apparently having had a cup of hot coffee thrown in his face.

“What you might see there might be pretty traumatizing,” said Davis. “It’s going to be difficult for residents, it’s going to be difficult for staff. And there’s going to be mistakes made and it’s going to be a process. But I think the overall takeaway for us is that we’re committed to that process.”

Meanwhile, some residents of the center say there doesn’t seem to be any rush to help them find jobs or permanent housing.

One man, who didn’t want his name used because he’s afraid he’d be kicked out of the center for speaking to the media, said he was living at the site for a full month before he received any assistance with his job search.

He said he wants something in maintenance or landscaping, two fields in which he has job experience. He said he even started cleaning up around the facility, both as a way to demonstrate his skills and because he wasn’t satisfied with the level of cleaning provided by the staff.

“I take pride in where I live,” he said. “I clean the dorm, and I clean the units, and I make sure everything’s sanitary. Because I gotta live there, too.”

Teri said she’s actively looking for work and has had some meetings with the state employment department. But she doesn’t feel very optimistic that she’ll end up with a permanent home anytime soon.

“I am number 740 on one of the (housing) lists,” she said. “So that’s going to be three or four years.”

In the meantime, Teri said she’ll continue to speak up on behalf of herself and the other residents of the Navigation Center, in hopes to improve conditions at the place they’re calling—at least temporarily—their home.

Chris Lehman has been reporting on Oregon issues since 2006. He joined the KLCC news department in December, 2018 and became News Director in March, 2023. Chris was born and raised in Pennsylvania, and graduated from Temple University with a degree in journalism. His public broadcasting career includes stops in Louisiana and Illinois. Chris has filed for national programs including “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered.”
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