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Clean-up vs. outreach — A 2020 budget battle builds over team on frontlines of Seattle’s homelessness response

“A member of the Navigation Team checks to see if anyone is in this tent and is interested in a to-go bag of food and water provided by neighbors,” the city says of this image posted to The Navigation Team is also the city’s answer to clearing illegal encampments. (Image: City of Seattle)

A Kshama Sawant budget proposal to defund the city’s crew assigned to clearing out homeless encampments has the mayor’s office firing back but the Seattle City Council still might move to cut back the team.

Sawant’s proposal discussed Thursday would move more than $8 million lined up for the homeless response Navigation Team to “redirect those funds for other homeless services.”

A competing proposal from West Seattle rep Lisa Herbold would attach quarterly performance measurements to the mayor’s funding of the program.

It is also possible additional proposals for cutting back — or growing — the Nav Team will emerge as the budget process plays out into November.

The city describes the Navigation Team as “a specially trained team comprised of outreach workers paired with Seattle Police Department (SPD) personnel.”

The proposals come as the council is busy this week and next with “issue identification” hearings as the seven district representatives and two at-large members prepare their rosters of additions, cuts, and updates for Mayor Jenny Durkan’s $6.5 billion 2020 budget proposal.

Thursday’s sessions included homelessness and budget issues for the city’s Human Services Department.

Friday will bring “issue identification” for proposals related to the Seattle Department of Transportation and Durkan’s “Fare Share” plan that would create a minimum wage for drivers and add a 51 cent fee to every Uber and Lyft ride in Seattle to pay for streetcar, housing, and industry regulation.

Meanwhile, Thursday night brought a public hearing on another Sawant budget proposal that faces plenty of challenges — a $12 million plan to expand the city’s Tiny House Villages and to block plans to move two existing tiny house facilities.

While it seems likely that Sawant’s Nav Team proposal won’t find many backers among her council counterparts, Mayor Durkan’s office has gone on the offensive over any cutbacks.

“This program is one of our most effective efforts to reach our unsheltered population and other services and supports while balancing the individual and unique needs of people experiencing homeless, and maintaining public health, safety and access to sidewalks, parks and open space in our community,” Deputy Mayor Mike Fong wrote in distributing a City Hall memo in defense of the Navigation Team.

In the memo — posted here by Seattle City Council Insight — the mayor’s office documented that the team made more than 200 shelter referrals in the most recent quarter:

But the memo also provides insight into just how “complaint based” the Nav Team’s work has become with much of its 2019 encampment removal work coming in areas where the city’s Customer Service Bureau received the most calls:

In July, outreach providers asked to change their “relationship” with the city’s Navigation Team “citing morale issues among its workers and concerns about the team’s efforts to provide trauma-informed care,” Real Change News reported.

CHS reported on the first work by the Navigation Team around Capitol Hill in February 2017 as the team cleared encampments along I-5. The city’s 2019 budget expanded the team and its growth sparked controversy over the summer as its efforts shifted away from outreach further toward emergency and complaint-based clean-ups as the group added four new hires, growing to 38 employees to respond to clean-up and sweep situations seven days a week.

Around Capitol Hill’s core, homelessness outreach is being picked up by the private sector. In April, Evergreen Treatment Center’s REACH program was selected to restore homelessness outreach services for Broadway businesses with support from the city budget under an effort managed by the Broadway Business Improvement Area, headed by Sawant D3 opponent, Egan Orion.

UPDATE: In a statement, Orion said he supports the Nav Team but called for an end to “inhumane, no-notice sweeps” —

I support the Navigation Team in its role of providing outreach and service providers for our unsheltered neighbors. However, recently the makeup of the Navigation Team has shifted principally towards law enforcement. I do not believe we should be funding inhumane, no-notice sweeps. Instead, we should make sure that we are directing city funds towards supporting homeless outreach workers and building permanent supportive housing so that we are connecting vulnerable neighbors to the shelter and services they deserve.

At an April forum on Capitol Hill homelessness organized by Orion, Navigation Team encampment response manager August Drake-Ericson said her team receives about 400 complaints per week and they “reach out” to as many as 12 large sites per month.

“We know that we’re addressing (is a) pittance of what needs to be addressed in the city,” Drake-Ericson said.

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10 thoughts on “Clean-up vs. outreach — A 2020 budget battle builds over team on frontlines of Seattle’s homelessness response

  1. this council is completely nuts. sure, lets just let these “camps” fester anywhere and everywhere without any concern for the massive health hazards, trespassing, etc…or even, dare i say, the safety of regular ol’ tax paying citizens who may want to enjoy the city they live in without bumping into strung out thieves, poo, or violent “campers”.

    so, so dumb.

    • I don’t think anyone wants people sleeping on the streets. But humans can’t just be vanished–there needs to be a place for them to go, and a way for them to get there. While this city council may not be perfect, they are tasked with solving a gargantuan problem–the causes of which stretch way beyond what local government can control. How about directing passion around this towards educating ourselves and coming up with productive suggestions?

      • If a strung-out street urchin moves here from Florida to wreak havoc on Seattle, it is NOT the responsibility of city government to solve that person’s underlying problems.

        City government has a limited set of functions, and upholding the law is one of the most basic ones. While the activist class like think we can solve the rest of the country’s big problems with more money, compassion, programs, etc – that is not a realistic perspective by any stretch of the imagination.

        Right now, our city government can barely, fix potholes & broken sidewalks or keep up with lane striping, stop lines and crosswalks (let alone replace crumbling bridges).

        And right now, our city is incapable of enforcing basic laws that affect the quality of life here.

    • I agree. Sawant’s proposal to completely eliminate the Navigation Team is foolish and short-sighted. But she will soon be a lame-duck councilmember and will no longer be able to propose such nonsense.

      Hopefully, the rest of the Council will defeat her proposal and any others that would decrease the work of the Nav Team.

  2. Good. This money is much better spent on shelters, mental health services and rehabilitation… all of which do a much better job of getting homeless people off the streets than bullying and forcing them from encampment to encampment. Talk about a waste of money.

    • Wait until there’s one on your block then come back and let us know how you feel. My workplace was so surrounded by sidewalk encampments – 4 of them – last year that there was no way to get to our building without walking by one of them. I was attacked twice and my 2 female coworkers were each attacked, all by crazy tweakers living in tents on the sidewalk. Those conditions are not HUMANE, Egan, nor are they safe.

    • The Navigation Team IS one way to spend money on the things you suggest, because they are at least somewhat effective in getting homeless into places that DO offer those services. Yes, they do clean-ups too, but their primary mission is to help people gain access to help for their multiple problems.

  3. I am going to say this from experience. I have recently received housing after spending the last 6 months as one of those “street urchins” in the Sodo area. Not all of us out there are drug addicts, no good criminals, or people looking for a hand out . I spent 6 of the longest months of my life fighting to keep what possessions I had while I fought daily to stay in school. Yes, I am online college student getting my bachelors degree and yes I did all that while dealing with being in a tent, my things getting stolen, and these “clean sweeps”. So before you people can go and believe that why you think about everyone of the homeless out there in the streets please check your facts stop assuming that all homeless are the same.