Some members of the Seattle City Council and the Mayor’s Office have reached a tentative agreement on how to address outreach to unsheltered encampments through the end of 2020.
The deal, which came in the form of a budget proviso proposed Monday by Councilmember Andrew Lewis, followed weeks of public sparring and confusion over the demise of the Navigation Team, the controversial group of police officers and outreach workers once responsible for clearing homeless encampments and, along with city-contracted outreach, referring people in encampments to shelter.
Outreach providers and homeless advocates had long raised concerns over the team’s frequency of removals, the presence of police officers on the team and difficulties with shelter referrals through the city. In August, the council voted to defund the Navigation Team as part of a bigger package of bills aimed at scaling down the police force and investing in community initiatives.
The council then overrode a mayoral veto on the legislation, after which the Mayor’s Office announced the team would be shut down.
With a more permanent plan for homeless encampments being hammered out in 2021 budget discussions, the proposed budget proviso suggests a temporary bridge until next year: increased funding for outreach contracts and a city team to coordinate the response to unsheltered homelessness through the end of 2020.
Under the new plan, a result of conversations among councilmembers Lewis, Tammy Morales and Lisa Herbold, as well as Deputy Mayor Casey Sixkiller and city-contracted outreach providers, no city human services workers would conduct outreach work in encampments, save for item storage. The proviso caps the city team at eight full-time workers who would largely sit behind desks and coordinate with contracted outreach providers and other city departments.
No police would be involved in the outreach either, according to Lewis. The city would still be able to conduct encampment removals — though they’ve largely been halted during the spread of COVID-19 — and Lewis said concerned business owners could call the new team if they had issues with specific encampments.
“There is agreement among the parties where a removal may be appropriate and may be warranted,” Lewis said. “But is there a way to do it that centers the expertise of the provider community? And can we avoid an overuse of the strategy like that, which is something that critics of the Navigation Team were very concerned about?”
In an emailed statement, mayoral spokesperson Kamaria Hightower characterized the proviso as a “first step in addressing Mayor [Jenny] Durkan’s significant concerns about the elimination of all City resources to coordinate outreach and mitigation of health and safety impacts at unmanaged encampments.”
“In the coming weeks, the City will prepare to operationalize this plan to scale outreach, shelter, and address the most hazardous encampments that pose a risk to encampment residents or surrounding communities,” Hightower said. She added that encampments that “present significant public safety or health risks may continue to need the support and services of the Seattle Police Department.”
“This bill would attempt to reduce the number of such cases by expanding outreach,” Hightower said.
Chloe Gale, co-director of the city-contracted outreach program REACH, said she was glad the council and the Mayor’s Office were working together. While the Navigation Team was still conducting encampment removals and shelter referrals, REACH staffers had raised concern about people accessing shelter beds through the team and having to compete for limited resources.
“I think we can do a better job of responding on the street in a more coordinated way, but it’s really the first step and we have to keep working on places for people to go,” Gale said.
The proviso budgets $245,000 for the new team and $1.067 million for expanded outreach contracts, following the council’s summer plan to increase funding for outreach as it shuttered the Navigation Team.
Councilmember Morales said in an emailed statement that she was glad to “finally get the dollars out the door.”
“It was always our intent, as stated during those discussions, to get resources to the experts who were already leading on this work while continuing to fund things like litter pick up,” Morales said. “Personally, I’m looking at how we can permanently support those experts through the 2021 budget, and ensure that the Navigation Team discussion is finally over.”
The full council is expected to vote on the proviso next week.