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Navigation Center: Collaboration, safe housing, new beginnings

This article is reprinted courtesy of the blog at 

The Navigation Center is a Native-led, collaborative community response. Red Lake Nation, Metropolitan Urban Indian Directors, Hennepin County, the State of Minnesota, shelter providers in the Minneapolis shelter collaborative, including Simpson Housing Services, and several other organizations united to provide outreach to the primarily Native American community living at the Franklin-Hiawatha encampment and develop plans for the Navigation Center. 

Sam Strong, Director of the Red Lake Planning and Economic Development Department commends the approach of this planning group and their success in creating effective and compassionate change for people experiencing homelessness: “It”™s about partnership ”” building trust to start making a dent in homelessness, finding best practices to get people off the street.”

Designed as a low-barrier and service-rich temporary shelter for adults, the Navigation Center provides a safe and dignified transitional housing option for more than 120 community members who previously lived outdoors at the encampment, respectfully known as the Wall of Forgotten Natives. 

The Navigation Center was constructed over an eight-week period. Guests were welcomed into the Navigation Center during the latter half of December 2018.

“The mobilization involved all the pieces that had to be put into place. All the zoning, planning, and permits. The health inspections. The fire inspections. The city approved $1.5 million for the project. The wheels were just greased by the will to get something done quickly as a community collaborative,” said Simpson Housing Services Executive Director Steve Horsfield. 

“The Native community made this big change happen. All the people who had been at the Wall ”” they had been homeless for a very long time, scattered all the way around town. They decided to come together and take a stand. That is how the Wall of Forgotten Natives was created, by people saying that we are going to come together and show how real homelessness is. It made a big difference. They are why the Navigation Center was built. It was built specifically for them. This was a historical thing that they did,” observed Marian Wright, Navigation Center Shelter Manager, Simpson Housing Services.

What the Center Means to Community

Wilder Research”™s 2015 Homelessness Study highlights the disproportionate impact of homelessness in the lives of Native people: 1% percent of adults in the overall Minnesota population identify as American Indian, but 8% of homeless adults in Minnesota identify as American Indian. This racial disparity in housing stability stems from a history of discrimination and trauma for the American Indian population that extends to present day.  

Horsfield views the Navigation Center as an opportunity for the broader community to come together to provide shelter and support in a culturally competent manner.

He said, “My hope was that we might see two outcomes as a result of this significant representation of people who were sleeping outside at the encampment. First, I hoped that we might see increased attention brought to the issue of homelessness ”“ and unsheltered homelessness in particular. And that we might see something happen around Native-specific services. This is an opportunity for all of us to do some better work alongside our Native brothers and sisters than we have done in years past. 

He added, “We have a talented staff that is committed to building relationships with guests, helping them overcome barriers, and providing connections to housing and services.”  

Simpson as Provider 

Early in the planning process, Simpson Housing Services was selected by the collaborative planning team to provide shelter operational support for the Navigation Center. Given Simpson”™s 37 years of experience providing housing, support, and advocacy to people experiencing homelessness, the agency was recognized as a leader in the field, strongly suited to serve in this role.  

“We are blessed to have Marian Wright as the Navigation Center shelter manager given her 10 years of experience with Simpson and as a Leech Lake tribal member,”Â  said Horsfield.

Dedicated Staff and Volunteer Team 

Central to the successful operation of the Navigation Center has been the selection of its staff.  To date, 31 Simpson staff members, including three case managers, provide support at the temporary shelter. Many Navigation Center staff members have connections to Native American community members and previously provided outreach at the encampment. 

Simpson trains and coordinates volunteers who serve the evening meal at the Navigation Center each day. Breakfast and lunch are self-serve. To date, 100 volunteers are part of a dozen groups serving meals. 

“Everyone has a right to have a safe place to sleep regardless of who they are, where they come from, and what they”™re struggling with.I”™m happy that we”™re able to provide that,” said Wright.

What happens at the Navigation Center? 

The Navigation Center guests reside in heated, indoor structures with cots and partitioned areas arranged by guests for sleeping and daily living. Just a few steps away, two large trailers house a dining hall for meals and office space for guest meetings with shelter staff and community resources. Buildings with heated bathrooms and showers are conveniently located on the premises. Three meals as well as snacks are provided for guests each day. Bedding and hygiene supplies are also available. 

The Navigation Center”™s low-barrier approach incorporates guidelines that create a safe, welcoming, and respectful living environment for guests. The temporary shelter is open 24 hours per day, seven days per week. Individuals living at the Navigation Center are allowed to leave and reenter the premises according to their own schedules instead of predetermined times.  

“Since the beginning, safety has been the focus of the Navigation Center. We have been successful in getting people into a safer environment. We talk to people about taking care of themselves in safer ways. Our best strategy to build safety is through our staff. And our relationships with the police and fire departments continue to be absolutely vital to ensure the safety of our guests,” said Horsfield. Building working relationships between staff and guests is an important part of what happens day-to-day at the Navigation Center.   

“It”™s really important just to be present and available. It”™s important to be welcoming ”” to say hello and greet guests by name. To always put guests”™ needs first. We provide support when it”™s needed and let people know that they are safe where they are. And we let them know we want them to be here rather than outside,” said Wright.  As the staff becomes familiar with an individual”™s needs and goals, they can offer connections to community resources, helping each person create his or her own path of increased stability.  

“Whatever we can do to help people become more stable than they were before they got here will be worth it. Whether it is getting them connected back to their doctor, getting them back on their medication, or getting their ID, birth certificate, or social security card. Having a Rule 25 [chemical use assessment] done, getting into treatment, applying for an apartment.  Getting an eviction off their record.  We want to help people get as stable as they can be,” stated Wright.

Housing First and Harm Reduction 

The Navigation Center ”” and all of Simpson Housing Services”™ shelter and housing programs ”” operate from a dual philosophy of Housing First and Harm Reduction.

The Housing First model is based on the concept that people first need a stable place to live before addressing other issues such as substance use, mental health concerns, employment or other barriers.  

Navigation Center staff utilize a harm reduction approach in their working relationships with guests, introducing helpful steps aimed at reducing risks of an individual”™s behavior.

Harm reduction is often applied to people who actively use drugs. Guests who use drugs or alcohol are welcome and have access to different kinds of supports designed to help them stabilize and reduce harm associated with substance use. 

This harm reduction approach creates a caring and accepting environment where people are more likely to seek safe shelter and take steps to reduce harm, according to Marian Wright: “As we provide this support, we are letting them know they are important. You deserve this help. You are human. We say, ”˜I know you are struggling, but you can stay here. What can we do to help you get a little bit more stable?”™ Whether that means to help them use less, encourage them to use safer supplies, get connected with a Native navigator or talking circle, or get them connected to a mental or chemical health support group. Whatever it takes to keep people safe and get them a little more stable than when they came in.”Â 

Community Resources 

Guests may voluntarily connect with on-site community resources focused on stable housing, health care, mental and chemical health, and other needs. The Navigation Center is inclusive of traditional Native practices, and on-site Native navigators work closely with guests to discuss needs, offer clinical support, engage in prayer and ceremonial work, and access other culturally competent resources. Community resources are added at the Navigation Center based on guests”™ needs and interests.  

The Navigation Center is a collaborative effort to provide safe, temporary shelter for community members. By offering support and connections to community resources, it is hoped that each guest will experience enhanced stability and well-being, now and beyond the Navigation Center. 

The Navigation Center remained open for guests through May 2019. In June, Red Lake Nation plans to break ground for permanent housing on the site. 

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