Operation Nightwatch makes way for Seattle's navigation center

When Seattle Mayor Ed Murray announced plans for a 24-hour homeless navigation center, Rev. Rick Reynolds said he asked the city’s human services department if Operation Nightwatch was vulnerable.

Operation Nightwatch takes in 140 mostly middle-aged homeless men each night, first providing meals and services at its center at 302 14th Ave. S. From there, 75 men would go to the Pearl S. Warren building at 602 12th Ave. S. for overnight shelter, which is managed by Compass Housing Alliance, with the others going to the Bread of Life Mission.

Reynolds said he was told at that time that there were about 50 sites being considered for the navigation center, which will be a low-barrier shelter that mirrors a successful San Francisco model.

Then he received a call from a representative from human services in early February, asking him how the search was going for a new shelter site.

“No one had told us yet,” Reynolds said, “so 15 minutes later her boss called.”

The Operation Nightwatch executive director said he was asked not to say anything until the mayor made the announcement the following week. That information leaked to the Seattle Times prior to Murray’s announcement.

While Reynolds supports the need for a navigation center, the decision has displaced 75 homeless people while the city works to create a space to help 75 homeless people.

“I can’t be too angry with the city,” he said, “because we were going to have this problem sooner or later.”

Compass had been leasing about 2,000 square feet of space on a month-to-month basis from Seattle Indian Services Commission, which owns the Pearl S. Warren building, he said.

When the decision was made to claim the building for the navigation center, Reynolds said, the city promised to work with Compass to find a new shelter site to accommodate Operation Nightwatch clients.

A 90-day notice to vacate was issued on Feb. 10, but then demolition work started at the Warren building two weeks ago, making its use as a shelter impossible, Reynolds said. The Operation Nightwatch executive director said he found out a week later that Compass staff were in there with masks on.

“The message is, ‘Yes, we care about homeless people, but go ahead and breathe the dust,’” Reynolds said.

Operation Nightwatch clients that had been using the Warren building were moved to the Next 50 Pavilion at Seattle Center, with the first night of shelter service starting Thursday. That space can only accommodate 65 people, Reynolds said, but Bread of Life Mission was able to take the remaining 10.

The Next 50 Pavilion will only be available through April 17.

“We are looking for a permanent space. These beds are really important in the emergency shelter system,” said Meg Olberding, director of external affairs for the Seattle Human Services Department, adding the city does not want to continue moving Operation Nightwatch clients from one place to the next. “We are having a hard time finding space.”

Olberding said Operation Nightwatch was only using a small portion of the Pearl S. Warren building, and the city determined the 20,000-square-foot structure could be better utilized.

“It’s not that we’re displacing one for the other,” Olberding said. “We need both.”

The Navigation Center will be different from many homeless shelters in Seattle, allowing people to stay regardless of sobriety, partners, groups and pets. It will provide access to bathroom and shower facilities, storage for belongings and access to on-site case management and social services. People will not have to be sober to stay at the navigation center, but no consumption of drugs or alcohol will be allowed on site.

Olberding said criteria for determining a viable navigation center site included having enough space for showers, bathroom and laundry facilities, accessibility to people living along the I-5 Duwamish Greenbelt and reliable transit to and from the location.

Reynolds said he’s now trying to determine if Operation Nightwatch’s model makes sense anymore, and if maybe the nonprofit should look at developing its shelter in another building, though those costs would be very high.

There is no start date yet for the navigation center, Olberding said, and the human services department continues to work with the community.

The Friends of Little Saigon and several other community organizations and members signed a Feb. 20 letter to the city that requested a pause on the navigation center.

“Since the news of the Navigation Center was disclosed, to our complete surprise, there has been an overwhelming outcry from the businesses and community members who work, shop, and visit Little Saigon,” the letter states. “For many, this is the final straw. We are being neglected, ignored, and treated as second-class to every City sanctioned project and policy that reaches into the Little Saigon neighborhood.”

Olberding said Little Saigon and the broader community have been engaged in discussions as plans move forward.

“I think really the community has been supportive of it as a navigation center,” she said. “We’re just making sure that their issues, we hear them and we’re talking to them.”