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Harbor of Hope’s River District Navigation Center in the Pearl takes a mellow approach to getting the unhoused back on their feet
The doors are open, the showers are hot and the outdoor ashtrays are filling up.
The Oregon Harbor of Hope River District Navigation Center has been in business since August 2019. The design won an AIA Portland Merit Award in the Built Category in October, and now it is possible to get an early reaction from staff about how the space works.
Budget dominates the design by Opsis Architecture: the manufactured “sprung” structure, made of fabric over arched aluminum bents, is cheap and only expected to last 30 years. The central core of offices and nine single-use restrooms are made of plywood. There is no kitchen, just a serving counter where other nonprofits drop off meals.
The Navigation Center intakes people by appointment who are homeless. Usually, outreach workers from Central City Concern or the Portland Police approach them just before ad hoc homeless campsites are cleared. (The center looks first for veterans, the disabled and over 55s.) It can take a week of visiting to gain the trust of a camper before they accept an appointment.
The navigation center is designed with a simple linear flow. Near the front door is the awake space, a set of tables and a TV where people eat and hang out during the day. At one of three counters, they have their needs assessed, such as work, medical and housing, as well as getting documentation like a new ID. In the middle, they can have any necessary medical help and choose from nine single-use bathrooms and four showers. At the back, they sleep on steel bunk beds, which are heavy and strong, designed to be bed bug resistant and almost impossible to move around. Up to 99 people can stay for up to 90 days, which is not long if they are dealing with the bureaucracy of state services.
Paul Susi manages the center. He has managed five different shelters for Transition Projects, which operates low-barrier shelters — ones where you don’t have to be religious or sober. The soft-spoken young man hires people with experience being homeless because empathy is one of the staff’s most powerful tools.
On a tour of the space one recent November morning, when Portland looked picturesque with its fog and fall colors but felt cold and damp, Susi pointed out some of the things he likes about the new center. One is the climate control — the insulated fabric skin makes the temperature easy to keep stable. The stalls are molded plastic, but the shower rooms have real tile on the wall.
“That’s one of the flourishes that really gives the place a little more dignity,” said Susi. “It’s not just a warehouse, right?”
Susi said there is no PA playing music, so, at night, the sounds are of traffic, trains and snoring. A split foam pool noodle is used to muffle the fire doors’ slamming.
And then there’s the 22 skylights.
“The natural light is such a huge, huge asset. It’s calming. It feels welcoming. It feels more inclusive. It feels like we’re in the world, we’re not hiding away from the street. Especially on a sunny day, it really makes a huge difference. And there are these big windows: a lot of natural light.”
A lack of windows and the use of fluorescent light can remind people of institutions, such as other shelters — or prisons.
According to architect John Shorb, a partner at Opsis Architecture who worked on the design, “Budget is a common constraint, but in this case, it was an even larger constraint. All the funding was coming from private donors, so an effort was made to design an environment that was welcoming and supportive for the residents and respectful of the limited budget.”
One example was the plywood core — it is cheaper than real wood or drywall. It “brought a warmth and life to the interior,” Shorb said.
The sprung structure was another obvious cost savings. The fact that it could be erected quickly saved on labor costs.
To get natural light in the building, Shorb’s team spent a lot of time modifying the basic sprung structure. Mostly, it was adding skylights and windows to a structure that is traditionally used throughout the world as storage. The skylights track the plywood core, which is where the smallest rooms are, so they are not too dingy.
Shorb said the landscape design, which includes a ridge topped with shrubs at the front of the building, shields residents on the patio from the eyes of passersby.
“We did a lot of work with the client group to make sure we were providing a safe space, and it wasn’t just the fences. The plantings create a nice buffer from the sidewalk,” Shorb said.
The areas with laundry machines, a tiny medical clinic, and a row of computers, are crucial to the programming.
“A lot of thought was given with Transition Projects and Harbor of Hope on providing amenities that are going to support residents making a transition,” said Shorb. “It’s a safe place to be and also one of respect, and it connects people to services.”
Residents gather in the awake space to talk or watch movies on the modest TV in the evenings. On a recent morning, many were sitting quietly, a few napping. Only residents with a doctor’s note can go on bed rest and stay in their beds between 10 a.m. and 8 p.m. Many residents leave during the day. They have appointments, and 40% of them have jobs, much of it day labor work with agencies. The numbers of a giant clock are marked on the wall, but there are no hands.
Staff member Lilly Hailey was proud that she had just helped someone use the computer to land a job at Subway sandwich. Others she has known, at other Transition Projects shelters, have graduated to the housed life and come back as mentors.
The navigation center is about getting people in the door, assessing their needs and getting them out again, hopefully into housing. The allotted time — 90 days — is not that long, according to Susi, to navigate the bureaucracies it takes to get documents, benefits, and training and housing.
There are three counters: one near the door for check-ins and general help navigating the homeless system. One for food, and a third near the back for help with laundry, showers and bed issues.
Many people arrive off the streets, dazed and confused. If they weren’t already lost when they became homeless, they soon are. The center is to get them to hit the ground running and move on.
“There are a lot of advocates in our community, a lot of caseworkers, and not nearly enough housing, not nearly enough programs to send people to,” Hailey said. “So, there’s a lot of folks here who come here with no actual plan…We have a system that we work with city-wide. It’s a database that tracks who is reserved in which bed for the night. So, we know on a given day to expect about 10 folks to come in, that are placed here by our shelter access coordinator who’s working with those outreach teams. And they triage folks based on the traditional priorities. That’s folks over 55, veterans, and the differently-abled. So those are the folks that were prioritized getting back to shelter.”
“The fences are not here to keep people in — they’re to keep people out,” added Don Mazziotti of Harbor of Hope. “Predators, drug dealers, prostitutes, people come around. Folks have been trying to access the facility without authorization and without reservations.”
Potential residents arrive by cab, (friendly) police car, and by the 77 bus. There are outreach workers with “buckets of TriMet tickets” helping the homeless, says Susi.
The patio is popular, especially with smokers. Well-behaved and housebroken pets are allowed, and there is an astroturf square where they can relieve themselves.
Much of the job consists of talking to the residents in a respectful manner that they’re not used to on the streets.
“Transition Projects started as the only agency in Portland that was doing social services work that was not governmental and not faith-based,” says Susi. “And so for 50 years, that’s been our thing. We welcome everybody. It doesn’t matter what your nationality or education, city, international status. We use the pronouns that folks give us; we use the names that folks give us. We’re not law enforcement and we place a priority on dignity, respect and treating folks as we would want.”
Asked if that works, he replied, “It’s very complicated. It takes a lot of time. It takes a lot of effort. And it’s not always pretty, but it does work.”
For talks, there are side meeting rooms, and then there’s the courtyard.
This morning, a middle-aged man showed up at the front desk with a rolling suitcase and a bad temper. He talked non-stop, agitatedly, and after 10 minutes, Susi steered him out to the patio where he caused less
of a disturbance but kept on talking. Susi stayed with him for 15 minutes more,
Susi explained how he is trained in de-escalation. The first thing is to take a non-confrontational stance, his torso side-on to…