The Navigation Center, Lane County's low-barrier shelter for homeless people, opens in Eugene

A long-awaited 75-bed low-barrier shelterfor people with nowhere to go opened last week.

This week, Lane County and the city of Eugene’s River Avenue Navigation Center will begin to take clients who need somewhere they can sleep, store their possessions and find the resources for their next steps.

“Places like this, it gives you a place to sit back and breathe,” said Shane Berry, a resident of The Commons on MLK, a Eugene housing community for people experiencing chronic homelessness.

Berryhas experienced homelessness for three years.He said that living unsheltered can be "defeating." For many, it means living in survival mode. Since moving into The Commons, he’s been able to stop using drugs, get his credit back and stabilize.

“If it wasn't for this program, I don't know where I would be,” Berry said. “I don't know what I would have done. I guess I wouldn't be alive.”

Julie Lambert, center left, and Shane Berry, who have both experienced homelessness, cut the ribbon at the opening ceremony of River Avenue Navigation Center in Eugene flanked by Eugene Mayor Lucy Vinis, left, and Lane County Commissioner Pat Farr on Monday, Aug. 8, 2022.

He joined county and city officials Monday to cut the Navigation Center’s ribbon to mark its opening.

Soon, 75 more people will have a place to go where they can rest, shower, eat and get the help they need. It’s a necessary, long-promised and delayed step in the city’s plan to address homelessness, but creating enough legal places where the area's about 4,000 people living unsheltered can go remains a massive and elusive task. With the closure of city-sanctioned camps and 900 people on the city’s Safe Sleep Sites wait lists, tents and mobile homes continue to populate neighborhoods.

“We need more of these projects,” said Julie Lambert, a local advocate for the unhoused.

She’s a longtime activist for housing and experienced homelessness herself for a couple years in 2015. Lambert also joined the Navigation Center’s ribbon-cutting as the chairperson of the Lived Experience Advisory Group for Unhoused Engagement.

“This right here, this is a move toward a home-first city,” Lambert said. “But the Navigation Center is just the start.”

Supporting people to overcome barriers to housing

The center is designed to serve those who have experienced unsheltered homelessness. People only get a spot through referral and are prioritized through Lane County Coordinated Entry by the number of barriers they have to housing. These factors include the length of time a person has lived on the streets, their mental health, and substance abuse history.

The purpose of the Navigation Center is to help clients remove what stands in the way of housing. Lacking transportation, not having government documents such as IDs and birth certificates and living without a safe place to dependably lay your head or charge your phone can be debilitating. The center promises to help clients with document retrieval, income assistance, credit repair and overcoming poor rental history, among other services all aimed at getting people into permanent housing.

Many people experiencing homelessness lose access to basic and essential things to function shared Maria Cortez, programs services coordinator for Lane County.

“All of those little things that many people take for granted become huge barriers for people who are unhoused and unsheltered, so having a shelter space to help transition into housing is essential,” Cortez said on a tour of the center. “The idea is to help overcome all of those barriers that seem like little things that are actually huge and they all add up.”

Maria Cortez, Programs Services Coordinator for Lane County Government, leads a tour of the new River Avenue Navigation Center in Eugene. She points out privacy walls and locked storage containers. The center is the first official low-barrier shelter in Eugene, meaning people can come with their partners, pets and possessions.

The shelter is transitional, unlike permanent supportive housing such as the Commons on MLK and the recently opened Nel downtown. There’s not a set time of stay, but the goal is for people to stay between 30 and 120 days. How long each person stays will depend on their barriers to housing, Cortez said. Some health or service providers will stay in touch with clients after they move to the next step.

It’s the area’s first official low-barrier shelter. This means people's partners, pets and possessions can come with them to the shelter. There’s also no sobriety requirement.

“A lot of traditional shelters will not let a couple stay together, don’t allow pets and have really strict limitations on possessions,” Cortex said. “The idea is to really move away from that and allow people who would not traditionally access shelter feel comfortable enough to do so.”

Project called for by TAC report, delayed by two years

The Navigation Center project was first called for in 2019 by the Technical Assistance Collaborative, a Boston-based consultant. A year earlier, in the beginning of 2018, the city of Eugene and Lane County invested $84,000 in a roadmap from the consultant that would help local governments lower the number of people camping along local streets and in parks to zero.

Once it was completed, the Eugene City Council voted in support of 10 recommendations from the TAC report, which estimated that there would be no or very few people living unsheltered within three years if all 10 recommendations were implemented. The entire plan was meant to take place over five years.

Guests tour one of the sleeping areas of the River Avenue Navigation Center in Eugene during an open house on Monday, Aug. 8, 2022.

Other recommendations included more street outreach, rapid rehousing and 350 units of permanent supportive housing. However, most recommendations have proven harder to implement than planned. Some projects were slowed down and snagged by the pandemic, officials have said.

In the case of the Navigation Center, which was opened two years later than planned, it was the pandemic that made funding possible.

The city and county were able to direct federal funds toward the building when it was established as a COVID-19 respite center. FEMA invested nearly $3 million in that renovation, according to Devon Ashbridge, a county spokesperson. Last summer, the respite center was closed so it could be revamped into a shelter.

A sign on a fence in downtown Eugene discourages camping in the neighborhood.

While local governments chip away at the recommendations, the number of those in need continues to grow and the TAC report had an incomplete grasp of the crisis's scope to begin with.

The recommendations were calculated using the Point-In-Time count, an annual count of people who are unhoused. Now, local government and nonprofits rely on the monthly Homeless By-Name List, which tracks people who are unhoused and receiving services from agencies in Lane County, for an accurate sense of the problem.

In 2019, the PIT count found 2,165 people experiencing homelessness, but the HBNL counted 4,211 people, which is still considered an undercount as it only accounts for those who used services and can't count people who don't.

More need support as city camp removals ramp up

Since the TAC report, the number of people living unhoused has swelled. The Homeless By-Name List counted 7,176 people who have received homelessness resources so far this year through July.

When City Council first voted to support the TAC report, Ward 7 Councilor Claire Syrett acknowledged the initiative would be expensive but said taxpayers already are bearing the cost of the homelessness crisis through intervention by law enforcement and other city services.

"There’s a cost on either side, and I think we need to recognize that," Syrett said in 2019. "We have an opportunity to make an investment that will reduce tangible human suffering in our community and improve the quality of life for, I think, thousands of people in Lane County."

A camper examines a ticket for parking on the streets of Eugene as the city renews enforcement of camping bans.

Clearing camps has indeed proven costly. The city opened more than 2,800 work orders related to unhoused people camping in parks, public places and rights of way and spent $3.5 million on personnel, supplies, vehicle costs and hazardous waste cleanup between June 2020 and June 2021, according to a Register-Guard investigation. During about half that time, the city had suspended the usual enforcement of its camping banin order to fall in line with official health guidance encouraging people to stay in place.

Some activists and people living unsheltered claimed there was an uptick in city efforts to clear out camps that was related to large track events hosted this summer. The city denies that there were any extra camp removal projects related to track events and a jump isn’t immediately apparent in recent by-month work order data.

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But there is data corroborating those who have noticed an increase in camp clearings generally.

From June 2021 to June 2022, the city opened 7,181 camp-related work orders, a 157% jump from the year before.

The biggest jump is in March 2022, when 705 work orders were opened, 178.7% more than March 2021. Notably that month, the city resumed fully enforcing its camping ban when Gov. Kate Brown lifted the COVID stay in place order and it also closed its last remaining sanctioned campsite.

“So that (end of temporary camping) changed everything from a practice of checking in on established campsites and doing regular assessment about whether they were having environmental and other kinds of impact ... to basically reverting to the standard of supporting the city code around unsanctioned camping,” said Kelly McIver, a spokesperson for the city's homelessness response. “So that was the that was the big change.”

McIver added the Public Works right of way crew added another staff person in April, which added to the city's capacity to respond to reports.

Over the last few years, the city has established Safe Sleep Sites, temporary places where people can legally park their mobile homes or live in shelters.

About 900 sit on waitlists for a spot.

Camper Nick Blakeman lives on the streets in Eugene in a fifth wheel trailer. He has been ticketed numerous times.

The sites are an option many are eager for, but they aren’t a perfect fit for everybody as most are not low-barrier.

Nick Blakeman has lived in his trailer for a few years. He said he grew up in foster care so Safe Sleep Sites, with rules, curfews and marijuana bans aren't an option for him because they remind him too much of his traumatic past. Since there’s no place where he can park his trailer, he frequently receives citations and getting a tow truck to move his home can cost hundreds of dollars. The costs are stacking up.

“(I want to be) somewhere where I’m able to provide for my family without feeling like a freak show,” Blakeman said. “Without feeling like I'm breaking the law.”

He said he wishes he could pay a fee or a buy permit to be able to stay in one place.

“People who have houses and live ordinary lives, usually live paycheck to paycheck from what I understand,” Blakeman said. “That means that they're only about one or two weeks away from being in our position.”

In the meantime, neighbors worried and frustrated

With the closure of sanctioned camps and most shelters at capacity, many are without options. People are frequently camping in neighborhoods throughout the city, drawing the ire and frustration of some businesses and residents.

Dustin lives in the Jefferson Westside Neighborhood, blocks away from the Whiteaker Neighborhood. Weeks ago, the street in front of his apartment was filled with people living in their cars. He said the group was loud and dealing drugs in plain sight.

“Why is it so hard to respect your fellow human being?” Dustin said. “We got young’uns living around here.”

He knows how hard it can be to stop using drugs and find housing. Dustin was homeless in the area for eight years and battled with meth use at the time. Now that he has stability that he fought for, he wants to be able to sleep in his apartment at night.

"They should have somewhere to go,” Dustin said.

Dustin talks about getting off the streets and in an apartment thanks to Shelter Care and public housing. He loves where he works and describes his job with glee, clasping his hands at his heart with a cigarette between two fingers.

Kristen Parish, who lives in the same apartment complex, also saw the group of people come through the neighborhood before they were told to move. She’s less frustrated and more concerned.

“They worry me,” she said.

Parish also experienced homelessness in the '90s.

“It's not a lack of shelter,” she said. “It’s a lack of care and understanding.”

Her bigger frustration isn't with noisy people outside, she said, but with a fellow resident of the apartment who makes noises into the night.

Down the road in the Whit, a man named Lorne Kanoa Campbell, a grandfather, worked to keep his campsite clean. He has to move all of his belongings frequently to avoid citations. Campbell said he’s on a waitlist for housing but wasn’t able to make his appointment on time.

He said he became homeless alongside his struggle with drug use. He’s desperate for his life to change and is hopeful he might soon continue with a program that could help him take the next step.

“I don't want to die doing the things that I’m doing,” Campbell said, tearing up. “Living the way that I’m living.”

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Officials say the Navigation Center is one small step in the right direction.

“This is just an essential first step,” Eugene Mayor Lucy Vinis said. “It's not the whole solution. It's a part of the larger picture.”

Cortez, with the county, said there’s potential to expand the model if it turns out to be successful. She’s been in her current role for about 10 months. Before that, she worked another shelter program, The Eugene Mission. Cortez said flexibility is needed if the community is truly interested in helping people move toward stable housing.

“One thing I think I've seen in my history providing direct service is the lack of flexibility amongst our community when it comes to keeping appointments and that that can be really challenging for folks who have barriers to transportation and cellphone access,” Cortez said.

“As a community, having that flexibility would be a huge support to helping people move into housing ultimately.”

Reporter Megan Banta contributed to this report.

Contact reporter Tatiana Parafiniuk-Talesnick at Tatiana@registerguard.com or 541-521-7512, and follow her on Twitter @TatianaSophiaPT.