As part of its commitment to realign the city budget, Seattle City Council voted to end funding for the Navigation Team — police officers and social workers who remove homeless encampments and attempt to get people into shelters. The council voted to defund this team for one reason: It doesn’t work to end homelessness.
In fact, the Nav Team hinders social service providers’ abilities to assist people who are homeless and trying to get off the streets. After years of work to improve the Nav Team’s methods, dozens of front-line homeless service, housing and advocacy organizations like ours called on the Council to make this decision. Defunding the Nav Team will allow Seattle to invest in more effective solutions.
Homelessness has tremendously negative effects on unsheltered people and on our neighborhoods. We cannot afford to continue expensive programs that do not produce real results. Ending homelessness requires that we invest in what works — accessible housing, enhanced temporary shelter such as motels and clinical public-health services. We also need outreach providers who have lived experience of homelessness and other struggles, understand the causal relationship between racism and homelessness, and care about the people who have been pushed onto our streets.
Seattle is home to innovative, effective and nationally recognized homeless outreach programs, including those that integrate medical and substance-use professionals; have staff who reflect the Black and Indigenous people who are disproportionately unhoused; and specialize in responding to acute mental-health crises. These programs are dramatically underfunded relative to the need.
REACH’s neighborhood outreach model is bolstered by local businesses in Ballard, the University District and Sodo. Skilled outreach staff in each neighborhood develop relationships with people who are homeless and serve as a resource for local businesses. They coordinate with a wide range of people, city parks and public utilities staff, police officers, residents, store employees, and business owners to find win-win solutions to sometimes difficult situations. These relationships allow outreach workers to connect people who are homeless with services they need — like housing and health care — and to coordinate community services — like trash pickup and camp relocation — that improve quality of life for everyone.
It is possible to keep shared public spaces safe and clean and meet the needs of our unsheltered neighbors. In 2019, with approximately one-eighth of the funding of the Nav Team, REACH connected with more than 2,400 people — offering everything from friendly conversation to hygiene supplies and information on how to stay safe and healthy. These connections led to meaningful change. Last year, REACH moved more than 400 people into shelter beds, linked more than 200 people to treatment and health care, and replaced 175 lost identification documents.
This relationship-first model fundamentally differs from the Nav Team, which is primarily focused on removing unsheltered people from public view. This often results in detrimental outcomes for the entire community. For example, this spring, the Nav Team moved an encampment in the Chinatown/International District twice in short succession. These moves did not solve neighborhood complaints, as people were just moved elsewhere. In addition, the moves jeopardized public health and safety because people in the encampment lost access to critical medical support and were forced to double up in tents after losing their possessions, in violation of public-health guidance for social distancing.
The need for skilled, localized outreach teams is even more critical during the pandemic. Outreach workers who are trusted by people who are homeless have successfully offered testing, supported strategies to reduce the spread of disease, and helped people move to quarantine facilities when they tested positive or were exposed. We need to scale this work to keep our whole community safe.
Defunding the Nav Team and fully funding localized outreach with skilled teams is not a silver bullet and will not immediately solve the homelessness crisis. But, paired with dramatic investments in affordable and supportive housing, we may have a real shot at lasting change. Let’s invest, and invest big, in what’s working to end homelessness once and for all.