A new Seattle city auditor’s report says that city officials could be doing more to address the problem of trash generated by unsanctioned homeless encampments.
As complaints about trash and needles fuel political angst around the region’s homelessness crisis, the auditor’s report, released on Monday, notes that the Navigation Team’s response to the issue has, in large part, been driven by residents’ complaints.
That could be a problem, the report said. A system that heavily relies on reacting to complaints can “result in underserving certain areas of the city,” the auditor’s report said.
Instead, the Auditor’s Office recommends that the city develop a more systematic way to monitor different geographic areas for trash.
The city should also adopt strategies to address specific trash hot spots, the Auditor’s Office wrote, as well as prohibit camping in environmentally sensitive locations, use outreach agencies to recover needles and try to deter metal theft.
In a written response included in the report, the office of Mayor Jenny Durkan disagreed with the auditor’s characterization of its work around encampments as “reactive in nature.” Community reports are only one factor in decisions to plan cleanup work around encampments, the mayor’s written response read.
The city also has several proactive programs to tackle encampment garbage, the Mayor’s Office wrote, such as Seattle Public Utilities’ ongoing work around litter and illegal dumping, Seattle Parks and Recreation crews conducting daily inspections of parkland and Seattle community police and bike officers who move people and encampments along from public rights of way, though the latter has been criticized by homeless advocates.
“Mayor Durkan has significantly expanded City programs to create safe and clean neighborhoods and connect services to those living unsheltered,” Mayor’s Office spokesperson Kamaria Hightower wrote in an emailed statement. “Since 2017, the City has removed millions of pounds of needles, waste, garbage, and debris from the public rights-of-way. We must continue to build on those investments while providing connections to shelter and services for our neighbors living outdoors.”
But community police and bike officers’ role in moving the city’s homeless off of city sidewalks — a strategy the city began to more formally embrace starting last spring — may have had unintended consequences, according to the auditor’s report.
In reviewing quarterly reports from the city’s contracted outreach providers, the Auditor’s Office wrote that a third of those providers indicated that increased police activity in moving people out of public spaces “have made it more difficult for outreach workers to find some of their clients” and “might drive individuals to harder-to-reach areas.”
“That’s consistent with a finding from earlier audits,” said Councilmember Andrew Lewis, chair of the city’s Select Committee on Homelessness and Housing Affordability. “One of their earliest recommendations was to emphasize the use of EMTs, first responders over using police as the key component of the Navigation Team.”
The Navigation Team conducted 303 encampment removals in the fourth quarter of 2019 — twice as many encampment removals as it did during the same time the previous year, according to a city memo distributed to council members. The additional expanded community police team and bike officer removals could bring the fourth-quarter total to 550, according to council staff.
In addition to its other recommendations, the Auditor’s Office also suggested that the city expand its purple bag program, in which outreach workers give people in unsanctioned encampments trash bags that they can then fill and place outside for collection. The city currently distributes purple bags to eight unsanctioned encampment sites, though the auditor recommended adding more.
To that end, the City Council included an additional $115,000 funding in the city’s 2020 budget to expand the purple bag program, which would potentially allow service to an additional dozen encampments, according to Councilmember Lisa Herbold.
With an aim to decrease human waste on the street, the city also put $1.3 million toward five mobile bathroom facilities, inspired by a similar program in San Francisco.
But rather than shift the Navigation’s Team strategy around encampment trash removal, as suggested by the city auditor, the city should just invest more resources in heavily impacted areas, said George Scarola, Seattle’s former homelessness director under Mayor Ed Murray.
“If we’re not going to do more resources, reshuffling slightly how the Navigation Team does its resources is not going to have a material effect on this problem,” said Scarola, who’s no longer with the city.
The City Council’s Select Committee on Homelessness and Housing Affordability is scheduled to discuss the auditor’s report next month.