The 22-member Navigation Team, comprising police and outreach workers, was formed in February after a controversial series of homeless-camp sweeps. Can the team get more people into shelters as the number of camps continues to rise?
August Drake-Ericson stood in the middle of Seattle’s largest known unauthorized homeless encampment, making an enthusiastic case for shelter to a man who’d spent the last 27 years living on the streets.
She knew him from previous visits to this camp at Jose Rizal Park, in the shadow of Interstates 5 and 90. A gaunt man with hair dyed light orange, Trung Ngu — who goes by the name “Psycho” on the streets — has moved from camp to camp as the city has cleared them out.
Drake-Ericson’s chance for success seemed slim, but she was persistent: Did he have a case manager? Did he want one? Wouldn’t he like to live somewhere other than a camp?
As cars and trucks rumbled nearby on I-5, Ngu responded with a series of “yeahs,” as if he knew the routine. Maybe, this time, he was ready.
Drake-Ericson is part of the city’s Navigation Team, a collection of police officers and outreach workers who are at the fulcrum of the debate over Seattle’s growing number of tent communities.
TOP: Navigation Team member August Drake-Ericson, left, checks in on Trung Ngu, who is homeless and contemplates agreeing to getting some services offered by the team.
BOTTOM: Peter Fuerbringer, who provides administrative and analytical support for the Navigation Team, speaks during a daily meeting at the Emergency Operations Center. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)
Formed in February after a series of haphazard camp removals last year drew sharp criticism from advocates for homeless people, the 22-member team is tasked with both trying to coax homeless campers into shelters and removing encampments the city has deemed unsafe.
That dual role leaves the team caught between residents and business owners who want the city to shut down the camps, and impassioned activists — including some Seattle City Council members — who demand an end to camp removals they’ve derisively branded “sweeps.”
In five visits in recent weeks, the team exhibited a nuanced approach to working with camp residents. But it is hard to assess the Navigation Team’s chances for long-term success because it has no consistent way of knowing if campers referred to shelter actually make it there or merely go back to a new camp.
And even some supporters question whether the city has provided the team with enough resources and people to tackle the enormity of the problem.
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The camps, estimated at about 400 citywide, are Seattle’s most visible evidence of poverty and of the city’s inability to address the homelessness crisis declared by then-Mayor Ed Murray more than two years ago. They range from a few tents on a street corner to sprawling camps like the one in Jose Rizal, with at least 54 people as of late October.
Removals of homeless encampments intensified last year after violence in some sites, including a January 2016 shooting that killed two and injured three in the massive camp known as the Jungle.
The way those removals were handled, with little notice or sensitivity offered to camp inhabitants, prompted the new approach, with police and city employees joining with workers from REACH, a nonprofit that has long worked with homeless people on the streets.
So far this year, the city has removed 165 camps, including 48 sites that were cleared without notice, such as those that popped up on a street, because they presented an immediate danger.
The city cleared several encampments at least twice this year, including at the Ballard Locks, on the Fourth Avenue South corridor near Safeco Field, and around the Mercer Street onramp to I-5. Many times, a new camp appears within a block of a cleared one.
Contrary to what many citizens hope happens with their complaints, the Navigation Team often tries to keep the camps open, advising residents how to keep the area clean and safe and how they can get other services, said Drake-Ericson. That aspect of the team’s work contradicts the narrative, often cited by council members like Kshama Sawant and “Stop The Sweeps” activists, that the team is aggressively sweeping the city.
That was how Drake-Ericson found herself in Jose Rizal, negotiating with Ngu.
“So this time when I ask those case managers if you’re going to housing, I want to hear ‘yes,’ right?” Drake-Ericson asked, hopefully. He insisted on going to find the caseworker himself.
A few minutes later, Drake-Ericson got the word: Ngu had changed his mind back to no.
“We’ll have no-no-no-no, yes-yes-yes-yes, 20 times,” said Drake-Ericson, “and then you get that one day that it just all clicks and they’ll go, ‘I’ve had enough. We’re going.’ ”
Creating the team
A year ago, the approach to Jose Rizal would have looked very different: An August 2016 Seattle Times investigation found cleanups of unauthorized encampments were disorganized and chaotic, with inconsistent closure notice given to campers. Outreach workers were sometimes sent to the wrong site or arrived long after campers had abandoned it, and excavators were munching up whatever they left behind.
The outreach that was happening at the camps was “almost completely ineffective,” with acceptance rates for shelter in the single digits, said Scott Lindsay, public-safety adviser in the Murray administration.
The need for a different approach was also underscored by public-safety concerns, including the Jungle shooting, incidents of sex trafficking of minors and the 2015 slaying of a homeless woman named Margaret Pitka. She was killed while napping in her tent at Yesler Way and Eighth Avenue.
The Navigation Team is based on police officers and human-services staff working together in what Lindsay, who created the team, believes is a necessary carrot-and-stick approach. The team orchestrates site cleanups, but only if there’s shelter available for everyone in the camps.
Public-health or safety problems can get a camp closed more quickly. Drake-Ericson is always on the lookout for signs: burrows that indicate a rat infestation, a fire set too close to trees. She spotted both at Jose Rizal.
Team members are told to wear boots or protective shoe inserts in case they step on a hypodermic needle, an object regularly found strewn in the camps. Some camp residents take care to use buckets to dispose of their waste, but not everyone does, so stomping through human feces is commonplace; in some corners of a camp, the smell permeates the air.
In confronting these hazards, team members see up-close the difficult conditions people experience in the camps.
At Jose Rizal, Navigation Team leader Jackie St. Louis talked with a man who was living in the dirt and surrounded by garbage bags, his body covered in lesions that he scraped with a plastic coat hanger because, Drake-Ericson explained later, he believed animals were living in each one. The man lives completely unsheltered a few feet from the onramp to I-90, in clear view of the downtown skyline.
“It saddens me that folks (in camps) live like this, so for me there’s this sense of needing to do the best that I can in every interaction to communicate to this individual that there is another way of life,” St. Louis said.
Drake-Ericson can recall encountering three small children at another camp, including one wearing a soiled diaper, who ran into her arms. She broke down in tears.
Despite the emotional aspect of their work, Lindsay stands firm that the ability to close a camp is an important component of getting people off the streets, as he saw with the closure of the Jungle.
“When a deadline was set, and it was clear that the city was going to close the area, suddenly there was a rush of additional people who accepted services, accepted shelter,” he said.
Closing a camp
The more controversial part of the Navigation Team’s work begins with a 72-hour warning that a camp will be closed, such as the one recently posted at an encampment near I-90.
The camp had fewer than two dozen tents and a few ramshackle shanties, but it was hard to miss, perched along the hill flanking the interstate between the mouth of the Mount Baker Tunnel and the exit to Rainier Avenue South.
Tents backed up against a high sound-barrier wall. Everywhere lay the objects of an ordinary life: empty food cartons and drink containers, hundreds of them, a tea bag, a hanger, a coral-colored bra.
Since the start of the year, the city has received more than a dozen complaints about homeless camps around this area. Citywide, almost 5,200 complaints about potential homeless encampments have been filed, alerting the Navigation Team to sites that may need to be shut down.
The problems at the I-90 camp were multiple, city officials said, including fires and trash accumulation. Recently, the team found a woman who appeared to be high and living with an infant; she has disappeared since then.
The day of the camp removal, the team members made their way along the long, muddy path that cut through the middle of the camp. Excavators and cleanup crews began to arrive as the remaining residents packed up their things in a chilly rain.
In clearing out a camp, crews try to preserve personal objects, like photographs or identification, and items not damaged by the weather.
The belongings are kept for 70 days at a facility on Airport Way South.
But people rarely pick up their stuff. The city has stored belongings for 391 people since February; just 38 have retrieved them, according to city data.
While closures are routine to some at the camp, Stephanie Wilson was fairly new to this life. Two years ago, she was living in Port Orchard, a married mother of two. Her marriage fell apart and she went into treatment for alcohol addiction.
“I had a different opinion about homelessness until I became homeless myself,” Wilson said. “Everyone has their own situation. Everyone’s just trying to survive.”
Survival, for now, meant sticking with her friend, Eric Jordan, a middle-aged man in a Sonics jacket, with whom she shared a tent. Jordan moved to the I-90 camp after previously living for eight years at a camp known as the Hillside. He said he’d go into permanent housing “as long as it was my house and my apartment.” In fact, he has a rental-assistance voucher that he has yet to use.
His plan to address the camp’s removal was simple: Stay the night in a motel and return once the cleanup was over.
“How you gonna close off the dirt?” Jordan said.
Like Jordan, Wilson said she would accept an apartment if she could get one. Even just a room of her own. Mainly, she said, as her eyes welled up, she just wanted to feel safe.
Soon the pair were ready to go, their belongings piled against the sound wall. They stood a wooden pallet on its side and used it as a ladder to take a shortcut out of the camp.
Jordan helped Wilson climb up and handed her their bags before climbing up himself. A Seattle police officer on the Navigation Team started handing Jordan the rest of his things — a couple of backpacks, a trash bag, a blue hard-shell suitcase.
Then they were gone. The crews continued cleaning.
Overall, 18 tents and structures were removed and nine people accepted shelter.
Where can people go?
Critics of the city’s encampment-removal policy, like Sara Rankin, of the Homeless Rights Advocacy Project at Seattle University School of Law, aren’t opposed to the Navigation Team. In fact, she believes it could have a positive impact.
But that doesn’t mitigate the effects of the city’s camp removals, she said, which only further scatter both people and potential public-health problems across the city.
“People are not in that circumstance by choice — it’s because they have no other reasonable available alternative,” said Rankin. Closing the camps will literally leave them with nowhere else to go, she said, although Navigation Team data suggests people in the camps often don’t accept shelter offers.
That rate of rejection goes back to Rankin’s other criticism: The city doesn’t have enough so-called low-barrier enhanced shelters, which operate 24/7, do not prohibit substance use and tend to appeal more to people in tent camps. Seattle plans to aggressively add more of these shelters, but most of King County’s 2,866 shelter beds for single adults are still in traditional mats-on-the-floor facilities, requiring people to be sober upon entry, to leave during the day and to separate from partners and pets.
On the day of the I-90 camp cleanup, for example, shelter spots were available for everyone, but only a handful were open at the city’s few low-barrier shelters.
“It’s one thing to have this sort of outreach, but if there’s no place to put these people, there’s not sufficient exit points, then there is a certain sort of futility to it,” Rankin said.
Mark Putnam, director of All Home, which coordinates the region’s efforts to reduce homelessness, remains concerned about the focus on the camps and the cleanups. Instead, he said the discussion should be on adding housing “because ultimately that’s the solution to the encampment issue.”
All Home’s point-in-time homeless count in January found more than 90 percent of those surveyed in King County would take housing if it were offered to them.
Putnam, Rankin and Lindsay all agree the Navigation Team is too small given the scope of the region’s homelessness problem. Lindsay said the intention has always been to double its size, but Seattle’s 2018 budget did not add a second team, as former Mayor Tim Burgess’ budget had proposed. It is budgeted at $5.1 million, including storage of belongings and camp cleanup costs.
San Francisco, which has a tent-camp problem comparable to Seattle’s, has three such teams: one for outreach, one to close large encampments and one to prevent closed camps from re-emerging. San Francisco’s outreach team alone has about 70 people, triple the size of Seattle’s entire Navigation Team.
Who takes shelter?
Four mornings a week, the Navigation Team gathers around a large conference table in the city’s Emergency Operations Center, normally a site for disaster and emergency responses. The setting speaks to the urgency of Seattle’s ongoing homeless crisis.
But nine months into their operations, it’s still difficult to know if the team is achieving its goals.
The team recently gave The Seattle Times its database detailing contacts with people in unsanctioned homeless camps, but the data was impossible to analyze. The records lacked many data fields and had inconsistent explanations of what offers of shelter were accepted.
At the Times’ request, the team provided a refined data set that showed how many people had accepted “alternative living arrangements,” which can include shelters, motels or living with relatives.
The team said those people were 39 percent of all the people they had contact with. But that rate — far higher than the single-digit acceptance rates before the team was formed — could not be independently confirmed because the Times was not provided raw data verifying the total number of unduplicated contacts.
In assessing the team’s performance, the biggest uncertainty is what happens after those referrals are made. The team has no way of knowing how many people simply return to the camps.
That is partly because the team does not have access to King County’s Homeless Management Information System (HMIS), the online clearinghouse of all homelessness services provided in the county.
St. Louis, the team leader, said the Navigation Team knows through contacts with shelters what happened with most of its referrals. Although another city department has HMIS access, the city said it is still working on getting it for the Navigation Team.
But Lindsay admitted the holes in the data are a “big weakness” of the current system and said the Navigation Team is in “startup mode.”
The team’s approach, despite controversy, is likely to continue. During her campaign, Mayor Jenny Durkan expressed support for tent-camp removals if they were accompanied by a surge in shelter beds. Durkan also praised the Navigation Team itself, which she saw doing outreach at the I-90 camp.
As they prepared to close that camp, the team took their successes where they could find them. A woman named Melissa Herrera approached Sgt. Eric Zerr, who leads officers on the Navigation Team. She carried a tiny dog wrapped in a Seahawks blanket. She was crying, her long blond hair blowing in the wind.
TOP: Under the guidance of outreach workers, Melissa Herrera decided to leave the tent camp with her little dog and go to her mother’s home in Burien.
BOTTOM: On Nov. 14, outreach workers with Seattle’s Navigation Team met with the residents of this homeless camp to help them find alternative shelter and other resources. The camp was closed and cleaned out the next day. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)
Herrera told them something was wrong with her leg, and she was ready for help. Zerr put his arm around her shoulders as she cried and gently led her to a marked patrol SUV. The officers wanted to take her to the hospital, but she didn’t want to be separated from her dog.
So instead, they drove her to her mother’s house in Burien, unsure how soon she might be back in a camp.