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Seattle’s homelessness response is lacking — Here is some of what is broken

With reporting by SCC Insight

Last week, the Seattle City Auditor released its review of the city’s homelessness response related to early outreach, hygiene services, and evaluation. The report was critical of the city’s execution on all three.

“The City does not currently use a robust systematic approach for managing homeless outreach field operations, which involve nine nonprofit organizations, multiple City agencies, and King County,” the report reads. “Outreach providers, including the Navigation Team, need direct access to diversion resources to better serve newly unsheltered individuals, and the Human Service’s Department’s December 2018 diversion guidelines represent a significant positive step.”

The report is part of an ongoing evaluation of the city’s response to the crisis and comes as Kshama Sawant has moved to block Mayor Jenny Durkan’s nomination of Jason Johnson as Director of the Human Services Department in a battle over how the city manages its homelessness resources. It also comes as Capitol Hill’s business community awaits progress at City Hall on an agreement about how money from the neighborhood’s chamber of commerce will be spent to power a homelessness outreach effort here on Capitol Hill.

Mayor Durkan’s office didn’t have much to say about the issues raised by the report. “Addressing our homelessness crisis is the greatest challenge facing our City, and our Navigation Team is critical to offering shelter and access to services to some of our City’s most vulnerable residents, and in some of the most difficult circumstances,” a statement from the office reads. “Last year, the Mayor expanded the Navigation Team to bring more people off the streets and into safer places. The City will continue its work across outreach teams to get people the help they need, to provide them access to services, and to help them move into safer places.”

During the 2017 budget process, the City Council required the executive branch to begin filing quarterly reports on the homeless response and particularly on the Navigation Team, a team of outreach workers paired with Seattle Police personnel.

While the titles of the reports emphasize the Navigation Team, the review is much broader, taking a look at HSD’s approach to these areas beyond simply what the Navigation Team does itself. And it finds the response lacking.

The auditor faults the city for not having a systematic, coordinated approach to outreach to those who have just become homeless (and as such are much easier to divert out of the homelessness system and back into permanent housing). The city’s own outreach staff is spread across three different city departments:

  • HSD, which manages the Navigation Team;
  • SPD, which has officers associated with the Navigation Team as well as Community Policing Team officers who recently have been assisting with “emphasis areas” where encampments quickly reappear after they are cleared;
  • SPU, which has staff from the Hepatitis Education Project providing weekly outreach and trashbag deliveries to SPU’s encampment trash pickup program sites.

On top of that, there are nine private organizations that provide outreach to the homeless under city contracts (including REACH, which works with the Navigation Center), and six other organizations that provide outreach through their own (non-city) funding.

If you think this might be a mess… you’re right. To quote the Auditor’s report:

Without such an approach, the City cannot ensure outreach work is well-coordinated and effective. We encourage the City to consider reinstating some of the strategic coordination components from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA, Incident Command System (ICS)).

The auditor’s report points out that San Francisco and Snohomish County have both permanently adopted ICS-style central operations center models to manage their homeless response field operations.

One of the results of this lack of central coordination ties directly back to the question at hand: Seattle has no coordinated mechanism for receiving reports of newly-unsheltered people, and also no coordinated mechanism for dispatching outreach workers (their own staff and/or third-party service providers) to offer services to them. The auditor’s report cites the examples of London and New York City that have existing programs to do exactly this.

It’s actually worse than it sounds. Here’s the auditor’s  report on the way the city receives reports:

Currently the Navigation Team is the only City-funded homeless outreach that uses information from requests received by the City for homeless services. The City’s current system for receiving requests for services is decentralized; requests may come in through:
•   Find-It Fix-It App and Customer Service Bureau (CSB) – there are no selections for homeless services on the CSB tools; so CSB staff currently search the CSB requests for various keywords, such as camp, camper, or unsheltered persons, and create a daily Excel file for the Navigation Team to prioritize.
•   Direct requests to the Navigation Team SPD Sergeant – some businesses, organizations, and individuals contact the Navigation Team Sergeant directly; these requests are recorded on a paper pad, and photographs of the notes are texted to the Navigation Team.
•   Direct requests to SPD Precincts – some businesses, organizations, and individuals contact the individual SPD Precincts directly; these requests may be forwarded to the Navigation Sergeant. We also learned that some requests are dispatched to the Precinct’s Community Police Team (CPT) at the discretion of the Precinct Captain.

And the final insult: the Navigation Team is only dispatched to “hazardous” or “problematic” sites, so newly-unsheltered people will only get service from the Navigation Team if they are at one of those sites.

The city acknowledged in its Q2 report that outreach to the newly-unsheltered is a “gap,” but that’s a far fry from the systemic problems that the auditor found.  The auditor also notes that late last year the amazing local organization Mary’s Place, one of the organizations under contract with the city, has set up its own outreach portal and dispatches outreach teams to families that contact it directly. This isn’t the first time that Mary’s Place has stopped waiting for the city to get its act together; it launched its own housing resource center rather than continue to wait for the “landlord liaison” program to reinvent itself into something useful.

The auditor provided a set of recommendations for the city to consider including more communication between providers, and a “robust systematic approach for managing homeless outreach field operations.”

Prioritizing hygiene services
The 2017 outbreak of Hepatitis A in San Diego’s homeless population brought national attention to the importance of hygiene services for the homeless, including access to toilets and showers, to address the public health risks. HSD’s Q2 report (see appendix A) included a long list of city-funded sites where some level of hygiene services are providers, including shelters, day center, parks and community centers. But upon reviewing that list, the auditor discovered that only six of the city-funded facilities that provide restroom access are open at night.

The auditor’s report does some quick math on this situation. The 2018 Point in Time count found 4,488 people living unsheltered in Seattle (not including the people sleeping in emergency shelters). The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, who sets standards for the operation of long-term refugee camps, states that there should be at least one toilet for every twenty persons. By that standard, Seattle needs 224 toilets, spread around the city, to serve its homeless population. We have six.

And it turns out that four of those six are in sorry shape. The two maintained by the Parks Department in Green Lake Park are ok, other than that they are both missing sharps-disposal containers. But the other four, which are portable toilets funded by HSD, were disasters when the auditors checked them out:

The two comfort stations at Green Lake Park had lights, running water, flushing toilets, and were clean and well-maintained. In contrast, the four portable toilets provided by HSD were poorly-lit and had no running water. Three of the four were damaged in a way that adversely affected their usability (e.g., no toilet seat, no sanitizer dispenser, broken ADA rail). The cleaning log for the portable toilet at the Lake City Mini Park indicated that the unit had not been cleaned for ten days. We observed syringe parts in two of the toilets, and none of the six locations had sharps containers.


The auditor also found problems with the shower services being offered to the unsheltered: gaps in geographic coverage,  problematic hours of operation, inconsistency in messaging, signage, ancillary services (e.g. towels),  and standard of care. Also, none of the sites were being leveraged for outreach activities to the unsheltered.

The geographic coverage varies substantially, with no shower facilities at all in District 5.

Provisioning of hygiene services has been a subject of debate between HSD and the City Council. The Council has pushed for making more standalone hygiene services available, while HSD has instead tried to expand availability by transitioning existing basic emergency shelter facilities into “enhanced shelters” that would include hygiene services. But as the auditor points out, while expanding enhanced shelters is good up to a point and definitely something that the city should to, it isn’t scaling up to meet even close to the need of the unsheltered population.

Among its recommendations in the report is looking more closely at deploying “Mobile Pit Stops” as San Francisco has done.

Evaluation plan
Finally, the auditor looked at whether HSD was developing a rigorous plan to evaluate the Navigation Team and it larger homeless response — preferably one done by an independent third party — and to involve homeless people in that evaluation.

HSD’s Q2 report stated that the city was laying out some of the underlying requirements for formal evaluation, such as revising its Theory of Change, and improving its baseline data collection starting in January 2019.  But it stopped short of committing to a formal independent evaluation, citing concerns about the expense. In response, the auditor provided a list of ways the city could possibly get a low-cost or no-cost rigorous evaluation — though quite frankly, given the amount of money being poured into the homeless response, the cost of evaluation ought to be pretty low on the list of concerns.

The city also stayed vague when discussing the role of its clients, people experiencing homelessness, in evaluating its programs:

Inclusion of unsheltered individuals’ voices in the Navigation Team evaluation is a key component and aligns well with the Human Services Department’s community engagement plan to better collaborate with those who have experienced or are currently experiencing homelessness. The engagement needs to include components of equity, inclusion, powersharing, relational, and asset-based approach. One important factor is to understand how those who have experienced or are currently experiencing homelessness would define Navigation Team success. One option being explored is the possibility of engaging in conversation with some of those removed from unsanctioned encampments to better understand their experiences and how engagement might be improved.



Crosscut recently reported on a local poll showing that voters are unhappy with their city leaders for their lack of progress on issues such as addressing homelessness — and they often don’t believe that lack of funding is the problem.

The report from the City Auditor will certainly bolster that view, for better or worse, providing substantial evidence that the city is not executing well on the substantial resources it currently has to address homelessness. And there is plenty of blame to spread around: former Mayor Ed Murray and former HSD Director Catherine Lester, who established the Navigation Team but left accountability and evaluation as an afterthought; current Mayor Jenny Durkan, now 14 months into her tenure, who has failed to make meaningful changes that would address the failures the City Auditor points to; and interim HSD Director Jason Johnson, who previously served as Deputy Director under Lester and had as much of a role in creating the current system, flaws and all, as any of the other city leaders.

Johnson is now Durkan’s nomination for permanent HSD Director, though it’s unclear why he would want the job at this point given the attacks that council member Sawant, some HSD employees, and representatives of some human-service providers under contract with the city have hurled at him since he was nominated by Durkan. On the flip side, the auditor’s report equally raises valid questions as to whether Johnson should have the job in the first place.

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3 thoughts on “Seattle’s homelessness response is lacking — Here is some of what is broken

  1. This piece is essentially a cut and paste of SCC Insight’s diligent work. Aside from copyright issues, it would be helpful to encourage people to follow SCC Insight and pay for Kevin Schofield’s many hours of effort. I don’t have much but I contribute.