Native American-led homeless service organizations in Seattle are refusing to sign or execute new outreach contracts from the city over provisions they say run counter to their missions to serve Indigenous people. 

They say the city is trying to force them into a role some City Council members pushed the city to abandon last year when the council defunded the Navigation Team, the former group of police officers and city workers once in charge of encampment removals.

“It’s just the Nav Team reimagined with us,” said Chief Seattle Club interim executive director Derrick Belgarde, Siletz and Chippewa/Cree. “Their partnerships with the Police Department might have stopped, but really it’s kind of the same goal to go out and do removals.” 

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The nonprofits especially take aim at contract provisions requiring the organizations to work at city-prioritized encampments and conduct outreach at encampments slated for removals the same day. These efforts would take priority over reaching encampments where tribal members and relatives need it most, the groups say.

The city agrees that these groups should serve Native people, said mayoral chief of staff Stephanie Formas in an email.

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“These negotiations are ongoing and we are working with providers on the concerns they raise,” Formas wrote.

The city “aims to balance the day-to-day work of our outreach partners supporting specific communities and clients with the need for targeted, neighborhood and site based outreach,” Formas wrote. “In doing so, we simply want to be able to coordinate efforts among the contracted providers, which could include helping people move out of untenable situations.”

In a letter the organizations sent to Mayor Jenny Durkan’s administration Thursday morning, Belgarde, alongside leaders from the Seattle Indian Health Board and Mother Nation, outlined their problems with the new contract provisions and urged the city to remove them. The letter also takes issue with the contracts’ new daily data collection requirements that they say will leech time away from work in the field.  

Concerns raised by the Native organizations follow a tumultuous year of political infighting over the defunding of the Navigation Team. In a compromise reached by the mayor’s office and Seattle City Council members last fall, the council passed legislation to set up a new team, called the HOPE Team, that now coordinates encampment efforts with outreach contractors and without the presence of police.  

But rather than collaborating with outreach contractors, the new contract “force(s) community-based organizations into participating in this culture of sweeps,” said Seattle Indian Health Board President and CEO Esther Lucero, Dine’ descendant and Latina.

“And that, to me, that’s completely in opposition to what it means to take an equitable approach,” Lucero said.  

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Seattle Indian Health Board has yet to sign its contract, Lucero said, because of these concerns. 

Formas, with the mayor’s office, said the HOPE Team doesn’t determine removals. She cited a recent encampment removal at Miller Park as an example of how the city is working with outreach providers to address encampments. Outreach spent weeks getting people referred to shelter there, and ultimately just a small number of people declined shelter and moved elsewhere, Formas said.

“Is the position of the providers that there should never be an encampment removal?” Formas asked. “This is separate than the bill that passed City Council and was part of the budget last year.”

Chief Seattle Club already signed its contract with the city, Belgarde said, because of the pressure it felt to meet its payroll. But Belgarde says the organization will not invoice the city for outreach work and won’t take directives about where to go. 

Mother Nation, a Native-led organization that focuses on the needs of Indigenous women, is taking a different approach. Mother Nation executive director Norine Hill, a member of the Oneida Nation of the Thames, said she plans to leave the contract unsigned and walk away. 

Part of the issue is that the Native people Mother Nation serves are often clustered away from the more visible encampments historically prioritized by the city, Hill said.  

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“They have their own places that they go to and they connect together, engage together as a community,” Hill said. “So we would be looking at those places rather than the ones that the city needs us to look at.” 

After abstaining from encampment removals for much of the pandemic lockdown, the city has started to organize more removals with the help of the HOPE Team in recent weeks. For the first half of May, the city scheduled four encampment removals per week.

At a City Council meeting this month, Seattle officials told council members that the city departments responsible for the public land on which the encampments sit, like the Parks Department and Department of Transportation, would call the shots about which encampments to tackle. 

But it’s still unclear how exactly those city departments prioritize encampments, and not just for outreach workers, said Erin Goodman with the Sodo Business Improvement Area. At least with the Navigation Team, Goodman said, she could tell businesses when issues at an encampment might trigger a removal. 

“It’s not really clear right now what the plan is,” Goodman said. “It might not just be for people doing outreach but for the business community and the people on the streets don’t have a sense of what they need to do to address an issue or get assistance.” 

Other outreach contractors are supporting the Native organizations’ requests from the city.

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“I like the recommendations that have been put forward by the Native service providers,” said Michelle Merriweather, Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle president and CEO. “I hope we can all come to the table to discuss a path forward that doesn’t further marginalize those we have been called to help.”

Chloe Gale, co-director of city-contracted outreach team REACH, said outreach workers should be part of the discussions on how encampments are prioritized by the city. She also shares similar concerns to the letter writers that some of the city’s new daily data collection requirements would take away from their other work. 

“We want the decision-making table where the outreach strategies and the concerns of the people living at the site and their needs are also part of the consideration of how and when encampments get responded to,” Gale said.  

REACH has also not yet signed its city contract. 

Correction: The original version of this story misidentified Esther Lucero’s tribal enrollment.