The Navigation Team, the controversial group of police officers and outreach workers who for the last three years have referred people living outside to shelter and cleared homeless encampments, is kaput.

Now, after a week of political back-and-forth between the executive and legislative branches of Seattle government, there are few answers about how the city plans to approach unsheltered homelessness through winter and whether proposed changes to the team will address long-standing criticisms from homeless advocates.

Earlier this year, a pandemic and an uprising against racial injustice put the debate over the Navigation Team into sharp relief, and in August, the City Council voted to eradicate funding for the team, against the mayor’s wishes. On Wednesday, the mayor’s office announced it would suspend the Navigation Team’s work immediately.

On Friday, as the council reviewed Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposed 2021 homelessness budget, new questions arose: What’s going to happen between now and January, now that there’s no Navigation Team? How is the city’s new homeless outreach strategy different from what we already had? And what’s going to happen with encampment removals next year?

Friday’s budget session may have spurred even more questions on those subjects — even as COVID-19 lingers, winter looms and an existing homelessness crisis has become even more severe for thousands of people living outside.

The next three months

City Council members and the mayor’s office have feuded over the Navigation Team since it launched in 2017 as a way to tackle unsheltered homelessness in the city. Supporters of the team praised its effectiveness in clearing homeless encampments that had sprawled or created mess in residential neighborhoods or near businesses. Critics said the team’s approach was inhumane and futile without enough shelter or housing.

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More than 3,700 people live unsheltered in Seattle on any given day, based on the 2020 point-in-time count of homelessness.

Manaia Muńoz left, and April Palileo say
the Denny Park encampment is peaceful and friendly.  Friends, both are working toward getting apartments or some permanent housing. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)
Manaia Muńoz left, and April Palileo say the Denny Park encampment is peaceful and friendly. Friends, both are working toward getting apartments or some permanent housing. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)

Last week, the City Council overrode Mayor Durkan’s veto of a package of legislation stripping some funding from policing and putting it toward community investments. Included in the defunding package was the demise of the Navigation Team with much of its remaining 2020 money reallocated to the city’s existing outreach contracts.

On Wednesday, Deputy Mayor Casey Sixkiller released a letter to the council with pointed criticism of their actions. Defunding the Navigation Team, the city’s primary way of removing encampments, opened the city up to legal liability without a formal or court-tested way to replace those functions, Sixkiller argued.

Nevertheless, Sixkiller wrote, the Navigation Team’s work would be suspended immediately and the next 30 days would be spent figuring out how to wind down the team and what to do with items stored from previous removals.

Councilmember Lisa Herbold said she was worried about what eliminating the Navigation Team would mean without the other piece — the expansion of existing outreach workers’ contracts.

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“I’m very disappointed that they’re doing one piece of it but not the other,” Herbold said. “And I just feel like it’s people who are going to suffer and I don’t know why that is.”

During Friday’s budget meeting, Sixkiller told the council that the mayor’s office was still trying to figure out what to do with the Navigation Team’s remaining funding.

“I would just remind council that that is entirely coming from salaries of employees who are still on the same payroll,” Sixkiller said. “So we are still in the process of working through that process with those impacted employees.”

In an email, mayoral spokesperson Kelsey Nyland again pointed to the City Council’s decision to defund the Navigation Team. The decision “leaves the City without staff to address and coordinate the response to encampments,” Nyland wrote.

Dan Huntington says he’s been living on the street for 20 of his 35 years.  Camped at East John and East 15th, he says the neighborhood doesn’t mind their presence and it’s safe. Pigeons are eating the remnants of his breakfast. The encampment is relatively clean with trash picked up by residents. Bathrooms are found in a couple of nearby stores. He says no navigation team has visited to talk to residents. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)
Dan Huntington says he’s been living on the street for 20 of his 35 years. Camped at East John and East 15th, he says the neighborhood doesn’t mind their presence and it’s safe. Pigeons are eating the remnants of his breakfast. The encampment is relatively clean with trash picked up by residents. Bathrooms are found in a couple of nearby stores. He says no navigation team has visited to talk to residents. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)

New outreach strategy

To do the work of organizing outreach contracts and continuing some city outreach to homeless encampments, the mayor’s office has proposed a new eight-person team with positions that bear many of the same titles of the nonpolice positions on the Navigation Team. It’s unclear to what extent the team will be involved in future encampment removals.

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Included in the proposed team are outreach workers with different roles, a coordinator among different city departments, a team lead, a data analyst and a full-time communications role.

Sixkiller and Human Services Department director Jason Johnson told the council the new strategy has been informed by the kind of work the Navigation Team had been doing since the pandemic began: fewer removals and a renewed focus on outreach and distributing hygiene supplies.

The new team would still coordinate with Seattle police and “command decisions are made by Chief [Adrian] Diaz case by case,” Johnson said.

Council members questioned how the new team was different from the old Navigation Team — and whether funding for the new team would continue to go toward encampment removals.

During one tense exchange in which Council President M. Lorena González chided Sixkiller and Johnson for interrupting her female colleagues, Sixkiller said some of the new team’s funding would be put toward coordinating encampment removals, though he said he couldn’t commit to how much.

Recent discussions have shed little light on exactly how the proposed new team would work and what will happen through the end of 2020, advocates and businesses say.

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One of the biggest concerns of outreach providers is whether it will become easier to make shelter referrals, according to Alison Eisinger, executive director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness. Providers have long described a struggle to make shelter referrals while the Navigation Team oversaw the limited shelter beds available and filled them with people from encampments they removed.

Eisinger questioned whether the structure of the new team would change that process.

“For the thousands of people left outside, what’s happening around the budget and the gamesmanship around policy is irrelevant,” Eisinger said. “What matters is, is the Durkan administration finally going to listen to the knowledgeable, close-to-the-ground experts and focus city resources on effective care, neighborhood-based problem solving and increasing better places for people to be?”

Dozens of tents are at the Denny Park encampment, considered relatively safe by residents, though thefts have occurred. It’s also a pretty clean site and is next to Seattle Parks and Recreation’s headquarters. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)
Dozens of tents are at the Denny Park encampment, considered relatively safe by residents, though thefts have occurred. It’s also a pretty clean site and is next to Seattle Parks and Recreation’s headquarters. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)

Business leaders say they’re also left in the dark about how to handle problem encampments moving forward.

“This feels like a political tug of war, with the legislative and the executive branch focused more on winning political points than on finding common solutions,” said Erin Goodman, executive director of the Sodo business improvement area. “It’s time for our government to come together to create policy that will get us through this crisis.”

Goodman said she no longer knows who to call if a business is dealing with an obstruction. Don Blakeney is vice president of advocacy and economic development for the Downtown Seattle Association.

“When the council unfunded the Navigation Team, there wasn’t a plan over what to do next and we need a plan,” Blakeney said.