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Minneapolis is considering building a ‘navigation center’ to address homeless encampment. So what is a navigation center?

Navigation centers have become a popular way for cities to address homelessness: giving people a place to sleep with few restrictions, where they can also get advice on housing, employment, addiction and other health issues. 

Minneapolis city council members
Left to right, Minneapolis city council members listening during Thursday's meeting: Phillipe Cunningham, Andrea Jenkins, Lisa Bender and Jeremy Schroeder.
MinnPost photo by Jessica Lee

For the first time, Minneapolis is seriously considering a city-sponsored center for homeless people that would offer emergency beds and social services joining just a handful of U.S. cities that have taken similar steps to help their growing number of people living on streets.

The possible facility in Minneapolis — for which officials have yet to determine specifics, such as funding or a location — has emerged as an answer to what has become Minnesota’s largest homeless encampment. City Council members had the option of moving the project forward at a meeting Friday, though decided they need more time to work out the plan’s details.

An estimated 300 people now live at the encampment at Hiawatha and Cedar Avenues. It’s a population that grew exponentially after a homeless family first moved to the location at the beginning of the summer, and officials have promised those living there will be provided permanent housing — or at least temporary beds at the center — before the weather turns cold.

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The effort, which includes pledges from nonprofits and agencies across multiple layers of government, is becoming the city’s most comprehensive aimed at reducing the number of people sleeping outside. It also marks a milestone in a housing crisis that spans the Twin Cities region, with some City Council members and advocates, as well as Minneapolis mayor Jacob Frey, saying the added attention on those faring the worst in the area is long overdue.

“This is an emotional, visible display of a really deeply-entrenched problem in our community,” City Council member Andrea Jenkins said of the Hiawatha camp at a meeting of council members Thursday. “This is a response to an emergency situation.”

It’s also a problem that other cities know all too well. Tent cities are permanent fixtures under bridges, along highways or inside parks in several cities on the the West Coast. Governments in San Francisco, San Diego and Seattle have opened stations similar to the one planned for Minneapolis, with easily-accessible beds and counselors.

Dubbed “navigation centers,” the facilities began as a temporary solution to address homelessness but eventually evolved into significant pieces of the cities’ efforts  to help their poorest residents. “It’s a gap that we’ve seen in the system — low-barrier, emergency shelter,” city coordinator Nuria Rivera-Vandermyde told Minneapolis council members. “Across the nation, the concept of a navigation center has really taken hold.”

‘It’s poverty management’

Nowhere is there a more severe example of how skyrocketing living costs and a lack of accessible housing can exacerbate homelessness than in San Francisco. (National surveys recently showed that California is home to 129 of the country’s some 274 homeless encampments.)

San Francisco was the first city to establish a navigation center, in spring 2015, as an alternative solution to traditional emergency shelters, and they serve a specific purpose: To give people a place to sleep with few restrictions, where they can also get advice on housing, employment, addiction and other health issues — all in one place.

Nuria Rivera-Vandermyde
MinnPost photo by Jessica Lee
City coordinator Nuria Rivera-Vandermyde: “Across the nation, the concept of a navigation center has really taken hold.”
People aren’t supposed to consider them home for a prolonged period of time. In San Francisco, residents have a maximum of 60 days to secure permanent housing. After that, staff will help them find other temporary shelter.

“The navigation center is a key piece of, what is in many cities, a kind of makeshift system of dealing with a burgeoning homeless population,” said Jennifer Wolch, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley who’s a leading scholar in urban homelessness. “It’s poverty management.”

A temporary solution with (sometimes) poor results

Seattle opened  its first navigation center, with 75 beds in a former office building, last year. With case managers assigned to address each resident’s problems, the location serves as an important link in the effort to connect people sleeping in tents or vehicles with safer shelter. But, like San Francisco, demand has outweighed available resources; many people are using the center’s amenities and services longer than officials anticipated.

“Creating these environments may make it look and feel like the community is taking action to end homelessness on the surface — but, by themselves, they have little impact on reducing homelessness,” a staff report for the Minneapolis council says. “They can prove difficult to close, especially if there are not adequate plans and resources” to help people move on.

To address its homeless crisis, San Diego paid about $6.5 million for three massive tents with bunk beds, showers and social services. (The effort is also similar to what Minneapolis officials could do, though officials have talked about using trailers here.) Yet just 10 percent of people who have left San Diego’s tents have moved into permanent homes, compared to a goal of 65 percent, estimates show.

Though institutional failures are partly responsible for the bottleneck, other factors also at play. Some people may struggle to fill out housing applications fast when their main focus is sobriety, for instance. Or they don’t have government-issued IDs required for certain subsidized housing, and they need to track down specific documents over weeks or months to get them.

Similar problems are possible in Minneapolis, too. Analyzing the case on the West Coast, housing and social-service experts have warned Minneapolis: “Be careful where you put your dollars in a temporary solution because odds are it becomes a permanent solution,” Vandermyde recalled. “We have learned from them.”

A controversial location

Minneapolis officials have yet to finalize where exactly to open a new space for people at the Hiawatha homeless encampment or exactly how much it will cost. 

Describing potential locations for a new navigation center Thursday, Minneapolis’ director of Community Planning and Economic Development, David Frank, said his team needs at least one or two months to build the facility which would include a fence, showers, toilets, beds, storage, security personnel and other amenities after the council’s official green light. That means the status of the people living in tents along Hiawatha Avenue could remain unchanged until as late as November.

One possible location on the city’s radar is a vacant lot on Minnehaha Avenue near the Sabo Bridge in the Seward neighborhood. That idea ignited a tense debate between council members and members of the community this week; two charter schools near the Minnehaha Avenue site opposed the location, raising concerns about the potential of exposing their students to crime and violence. Carrying signs, those opponents filled the full City Council meeting Friday.

David Frank
MinnPost photo by Jessica Lee
Minneapolis’ director of Community Planning and Economic Development, David Frank, said his team needs at least one or two months to build the facility.
Pushback from community groups or neighbors over such homeless centers is not uncommon, said UC Berkeley’s Wolch. “There’s virtually always going to be some opposition,” she said. “The facilities have to be cited in a way that makes sense.”

City officials have studied another possible location for the navigation center, a parking lot at the former Roof Depot warehouse on East 28th Street. That site would come at the cost of mitigating residual pollution and legal restrictions, city officials said. Because the city used $6.8 million in utility fees to buy the property in 2016, it would have had to reimburse that money if the site was instead used for the navigation center.

At the City Council meeting Friday, council members said they will use the next several days to work with city staff on expanding the search beyond the Minnehaha Avenue and parking lot locations, perhaps by talking with private property owners or Hennepin County about other options. The council is set to reconvene and discuss next steps Wednesday.

Frank estimated the price tag of building and running the center for one year between $2 and $2.5 million, not including the cost of providing social services.

Those services would likely come out of partnerships with community organizations, city officials said, while the city works to eliminate barriers to permanent housing. “A dream world doesn’t just mean building housing to get people into housing,” Wolch said. “It means stopping the flow of people into homelessness all together.”