Defining and Designing Navigation Centers According to Current California Legislation

California legislative leaders have recently passed several bills that were signed into law, which will provide hundreds of millions of dollars towards preventing and ending homelessness to jurisdictions throughout the state during the next several months and billions of dollars during the next several years. Among eligible activities are navigation centers, which is a newer and less familiar activity than others such as street outreach, emergency shelter, transitional housing, rapid rehousing, housing navigation, and permanent supportive housing. 

A.     Defining Navigation Centers 

Recent legislation has defined navigation centers as providing 

“temporary room and board with limited barriers to entry while case managers work to connect homeless individuals and families to income, public benefits, health services, permanent housing, or other shelter.”[1] 

            Temporary Housing  

Navigation centers provide temporary housing, which means 

“housing that does not qualify as permanent housing as defined under subdivision (l), including, but not limited to, emergency shelters or navigation centers as defined under other federal, state, or local programs. All programs providing temporary housing funded pursuant to this chapter shall have partnerships or other linkages to case management services to connect homeless individuals and families to income, public benefits, health services, and permanent housing.”[2] 

            Limited Barriers 

Navigation centers must have limited barriers to entry according to recent legislation.[3] Limited barriers involve core components of Housing First, as described in subdivision (b) of Section 8409 of Title 25 of the California Code of Regulations and subdivision (b) of Section 8255 of the Welfare and Institutions Code and described in paragraphs (1) to (6), inclusive, of subdivision (b) of Section 8409 of Title 25 of the California Code of Regulations. 

Subdivision (b) of Section 8409 of Title 25 of the California Code of Regulations states that “all ESG-assisted projects shall operate in a manner consistent with housing first practices including the following: 

(1) Ensuring low-barrier, easily accessible assistance to all people, including, but not limited to, people with no income or income history, and people with active substance abuse or mental health issues;

(2) Helping participants quickly identify and resolve barriers to obtaining and maintaining housing;

(3) Seeking to quickly resolve the housing crisis before focusing on other non-housing related services;

(4) Allowing participants to choose the services and housing that meets their needs, within practical and funding limitations;

(5) Connecting participants to appropriate support and services available in the community that foster long-term housing stability;

(6) Offering financial assistance and supportive services in a manner which offers a minimum amount of assistance initially, adding more assistance over time if needed to quickly resolve the housing crisis by either ending homelessness, or avoiding an immediate return to literal homelessness or the imminent risk of literal homelessness. The type, duration, and amount of assistance offered shall be based on an individual assessment of the household, and the availability of other resources or support systems to resolve their housing crisis and stabilize them in housing.” 

Section 8255 of the Welfare and Institutions Code states that 

“Housing First” means the evidence-based model that uses housing as a tool, rather than a reward, for recovery and that centers on providing or connecting homeless people to permanent housing as quickly as possible. Housing First providers offer services as needed and requested on a voluntary basis and that do not make housing contingent on participation in services.” 

            Supportive Services 

Navigation centers, as previously noted, should have “partnerships or other linkages to case management services to connect homeless individuals and families to income, public benefits, health services, and permanent housing.” Case managers work with individuals and families to connect them with supportive services. 

B.      Designing Navigation Centers 

Forethought is key to designing a navigation center, which should involve

1.      Determining the right mix of low barrier emergency shelter beds and community commitment for identifying and providing affordable housing units including permanent supportive housing;

2.      Designing a quick and effective pathway to permanent affordable housing including permanent supportive housing;

3.      Employing a street outreach and engagement approach that focuses on those persons who are languishing on the streets, becoming more and more debilitated, and at risk to injury and death;

4.      Providing housing navigation for every individual and family;

5.      Leveraging mainstream resources to connect homeless individuals and families to income, public benefits, health services. 

1.      Determining the right mix of low barrier emergency shelter beds and community commitment to identify and provide permanent housing including permanent supportive housing for persons who are homeless 

Too many shelter beds and too few available permanent housing units/beds will limit the success of a navigation center if success is to house permanently a significant number of persons who are sleeping on the streets, including those who are languishing and becoming more and more debilitated. Jurisdictions can use their local homelessness data to determine the number of beds needed for a navigation center. However, this determination also reveals the number of permanent housing beds needed.  

Too many shelter beds can stem from a well-meaning effort to have enough beds for everyone who is homeless and to provide overflow beds when needed. For example, having enough beds for everyone when the weather is threatening to the health and well-being of persons sleeping on the streets is crucial. However, is the provision of such beds the role of a navigation center? 

            Housing Search is Critical to Success 

Housing search is critical to the success of a navigation center. Property-owners who rent generally use screening criteria that makes it difficult for persons who have experienced, or are experiencing, homelessness to be competitive for a rental unit because they often have low incomes, unstable housing histories, credit problems, and other issues that make them riskier renters to property-owners. 

Housing search needs to be an activity that involves a wide-range of community stakeholders who are committed to building successful partnerships with property-owners that help mitigate the issues noted above to achieve more rental units for persons who have experienced homelessness. Strategies to work with property-owners have been recently updated by the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness.  

If a navigation center is only going to be able to offer permanent housing opportunities to a limited number of persons who occupy its shelter beds, the reputation of the center will likely garner more community opposition than support over time. If hundreds of persons are served and few are permanently housed, the center will likely recycle persons from the streets into the center and back on to the streets and will be viewed as part of the problem than part of the solution. 

Thus, right-sizing the navigation center is crucial. Overwhelming the center with hundreds of persons who cannot be offered a permanent housing opportunity will not only cultivate an unwanted reputation among community stakeholders but among the homeless community as well. 

The navigation center will primarily become a place where persons who are homeless can manage their lives on the streets instead of ending their experience of homelessness on the streets without offering enough permanent housing opportunities. It will be a place to come primarily for meals, showers, and mail, which the public will notice as they watch a steady stream of persons pushing carts or carrying their belongings along the streets leading to and from the center each day. 

Right-sizing a navigation center now, during a planning stage, is much better than down-sizing it later. 

2.      Designing a quick and effective pathway to permanent affordable housing including permanent supportive housing   

It is essential that navigation centers be an effective, housing-focused response that assesses the quickest housing outcome possible for each individual and family seeking shelter. 

            Designing a Quick and Effective Pathway is Crucial 

Therefore, designing a quick and effective pathway to permanent affordable housing including permanent supportive housing is crucial. The navigation center should be tailored to support rapid and effective movement towards permanent housing with housing navigators implementing a low barrier as described above in Subdivision (b) of Section 8409 of Title 25 of the California Code of Regulations to achieve rapid and effective movement is critical. 

Without a quick and effective pathway, individuals and families will likely stay much longer in the center’s beds, which limits the number of persons who can occupy the beds over time. Increasing the number of beds to eliminate this problem, will likely result in longer stays in the increased beds as well without a quick and effective pathway to permanent housing. Costs will increase to operate the center and so will any on-going community opposition. 

3.      Implementing a street outreach and engagement approach that focuses on those persons who are languishing on the streets, becoming more and more debilitated, and at risk to injury and death 

Specially trained street outreach and engagement workers should go out into the community and seek out those who are languishing on the streets, becoming more and more debilitated, and at risk to injury and death. Such persons are unlikely to come to the navigation center on their own. 

            Refusals of Resources Can Rapidly Shift to Reception of Resources 

Workers need to be aware that refusals of their services can rapidly shift and that initial rejections of their contacts can eventually lead to acceptance of the resources that a navigation center can provide. Explaining the low barrier approach can be persuasive. 

Also, persons who have been living on the streets for long periods of time do not want to be separated from family members, friends, or pets. They do not want to be separated from their possessions. Navigation centers that do not require such separation and safe storage for possessions will likely make it easier for workers to persuade those languishing on the streets to leave the streets. 

4.      Providing housing navigation services for every individual and family 

Understanding how housing navigation can differ from case management is key to the success of a navigation center. Thus, housing navigators are essential for a successful navigation center while case managers are not. 

Housing Navigation is Essential to Success 

Housing navigation differs from case management in that the primary focus is assisting the individual and family with obtaining permanent housing as quickly as possible; whereas case management is longer term and ongoing to aid the individual with maintaining their housing once achieved, which is consistent with a Housing First approach. 

The vital tasks of a housing navigator includes working with the individual and family with developing a housing plan, addressing the barriers identified during the plan or during regular navigation activities, and assisting the individual or family with acquiring documentation and completing forms required for housing. Other vital tasks include attending property owner meetings, setting appointments, and assisting with completing paperwork needed around housing applications. Navigation may also include securing housing inspections and utilities. Navigators should provide assistance until a case manager, if needed, is assigned to the household to help with maintaining the housing.  

5.      Leveraging mainstream resources to connect homeless individuals and families to income, public benefits, health services 

One other vital task of a housing navigator is to leverage mainstream resources to connect individuals and families to income, public benefits, and health services. 

            Leveraging Mainstream Resources is Necessary 

Leveraging mainstream resources are necessary to help reduce the costs of operating a navigation center. Paying for case management staff to provide services that are available through public systems of care can be costly. Services provided by public systems of care generally include education, employment, health care, mental health care, public benefits, and substance use counseling and assistance. 

Housing navigators can help individuals and families connect to these services but not provide these services, which case managers usually do. Thus, as previously noted, case managers are needed to help households maintain their housing after they obtain their housing upon leaving the navigation center. 

Home-based case management, instead of navigation center-based case management, is essential when a Housing First approach is implemented, which is a requirement for navigation centers as noted in California legislation. Housing navigators can focus on getting individuals and families permanently housed as quickly and effectively as possible knowing that home-based case management can help ensure that households remain in their housing. 

C.      Next Steps 

Next steps to help ensure that a navigation center is successful include: 

1.      Recruiting a wide-range of community stakeholders who are committed to building successful partnerships with property-owners that help mitigate the issues that persons who are homeless face trying to become a renter 

Relying only on housing navigators to build successful partnerships with property-owners will result in limited partnerships. A wide-range of community stakeholders need to work together to help ensure that as many partnerships as possible are established with property-owners, which will help get the word out to the public and persons who are homeless that the navigation center works. 

2.       Establishing performance measures related to housing outcomes 

Performance measures should involve tracking client length of stay in shelter beds, the number of persons permanently housed, and recidivism. Client length of stay in shelter beds should decrease over time, and the number of persons permanently housed should increase over time, if the number of successful partnerships with property-owners increase. 

3.      Maintaining the purpose of the navigation center over time 

The purpose of a navigation center is to assess the quickest housing outcome possible for each individual and family seeking shelter. This purpose can easily become lost over time if performance measures related to housing outcomes are not met. 

As a result, the purpose can inadvertently shift to managing the lives of persons who are homeless. If the understanding in the community is to send everyone who is homeless to the navigation center, maintaining the purpose of the navigation center over time is unlikely. 

Housing navigators and other center staff will likely be overwhelmed with providing meals, showers, and mail to a steady stream of persons pushing carts or carrying their belongings along the streets headed to the center. If this happens, navigation centers will become more of a drop-in center that will likely increase its capacity to provide meals, showers, hygienic supplies, laundry machines, mail, and telephone and computer access because of the shift in purpose. 

D.     Summary 

One intent behind the recently passed legislation regarding homelessness was to create navigation centers that are designed to provide a quick and effective pathway to permanent housing. Legislation calls for them to be tailored to support rapid movement towards permanent housing by implementing a low barrier approach. 

How successful a community is with building successful partnerships with property-owners will likely determine how successful the navigation center is. Less success will likely result in a navigation center moving away from the legislative intent over time to more of a drop-in center that will likely be disappointing to the legislative leaders who have been working hard to adopt new and innovative solutions to help end homelessness.



[1]SB 2 Homelessness Funding Implementation Proposed Trailer Bill Language, p.4.

[2]SB-850 Housing, p. 16.

[3] SB 2 Homelessness Funding Implementation Proposed Trailer Bill Language, p.2.

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