This year, there’s been a lot of buzz surrounding the city of Seattle’s Navigation Team. As homeless encampments grew across Seattle, the team of police and outreach workers found itself under immense scrutiny for the role Seattle police officers played in encampment outreach and removals.

The controversial team was created in 2017 to clear homeless encampments and refer people living outside to shelter. It came to an abrupt end at the beginning of October after political sparring between Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office and the Seattle City Council.

The City Council first voted unanimously to remove police officers from the team amid protests about police violence against Black people and then voted 5-4 to defund the team altogether in early August. Durkan vetoed the measure. Finally, on Sept. 22, the City Council overrode Durkan’s veto, making the Navigation Team’s dissolution a sure thing.

Since then, city officials created a new city-funded team that was approved by City Council to replace the Navigation Team and continue citywide coordination and outreach to homeless encampments.

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“We’re really in an unprecedented moment where we have so many more resources coming online in the next 12 months that we can really approach this in a way that leads with outreach and connections to both shelter and permanent supportive housing,” said Will Lemke, spokesperson for the city’s Human Services Department.

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But some homeless-service providers are skeptical that this 2021 team will actually be much different from the last — especially while some details remain to be worked out.

“I don’t think they are gone,” said Derrick Belgarde, deputy director of Chief Seattle Club. “I think they are getting re-retrofitted, which I think is a disappointment because other people have always done outreach.”

After the Navigation Team’s abrupt end, we received close to 200 questions from readers, many wondering what this change will mean for homeless outreach in Seattle. Below, we’ve tried our best to answer the questions that came up the most. If these answers create even more questions, email Project Homeless’ engagement editor Anna Patrick at apatrick@seattletimes.com.

What is the city’s current approach to handling encampments in light of the pandemic?

Very early into the coronavirus crisis, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a list of guidelines for cities and homeless service providers to minimize the risk of spreading the virus in homeless communities. The CDC recommends “if individual housing options are not available, allow people who are living unsheltered or in encampments to remain where they are.”

The city of Seattle has been following the CDC’s guidelines since March, allowing encampments to remain intact for the most part, according to Lemke. From April to September, the Navigation Team removed seven encampments. That’s compared to 451 removals during the same time period last year.

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What was the city’s approach to encampments prior to COVID-19?

Prior to COVID-19, the Navigation Team performed regular homeless encampment removals on behalf of the city. Since October 2018, the Navigation Team removed 1,211 encampments, according to city data.

Encampment removals were prioritized and determined based on what the Navigation Team considered to pose “the most health and safety concerns,” said Lemke, who was on the team. But many homeless advocates and service providers criticized the team, saying an outreach approach that consistently moves people hurts the work of homeless service organizations trying to help people get off the streets. It often takes several visits to build the trust of people living in encampments, advocates and providers say, and it is hard to find those same people once they are forced to move. And requiring people to move when there is not enough permanent housing, or even temporary housing, creates additional trauma and hardship for the people being forced to move, advocates say.

How many people were on the Navigation Team?

The team was first created in 2017 and grew in size under Durkan’s leadership. Most recently, the team consisted of about 25 people. This includes in-house Human Services Department outreach workers, field coordinators, data analysts and 13 Seattle police officers.

“If people were deep in a green belt or in a situation where they didn’t block sidewalks or if they weren’t in a dangerous situation, the team would not prioritize those encampments for removal,” Lemke said.

City of Seattle Navigation Team member William Lemke, left, helps Arnold Lopez move his belongings out of Lopez’s encampment during a 2017 removal.  The Navigation Team was disbanded this summer over concerns about the role of police on the team. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)

Was the work of the Navigation Team related to the city’s Find It, Fix It app?

Not directly. The Find It, Fix It app was created by the city’s Finance and Administrative Department, and it was intended as a way for citizens to easily report breaks in the sidewalk or other infrastructure concerns.

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When people used the Find It, Fix it app to report concerns related to homeless encampments, that information was collected by the city’s Customer Service Bureau, which would then send the reports to the Navigation Team. The Find It, Fix It reports “did not dictate where the team would do its work,” Lemke said. But it might inform the team’s decisions on where to send outreach workers.

Over the years, Lemke said, false campaigns and messages were spread around the city saying that if you reported a homeless camp it would lead to a removal. “And that just is not how that worked,” Lemke said.

Does the end of the Navigation Team mean an end to encampment removals?

In short, no.

Even during a pandemic, while the CDC recommends keeping people where they are, the city has removed encampments. A spokesperson for the Human Services Department, Kevin Mundt, recently acknowledged to The Seattle Times that the department’s new plan for encampment outreach “recognizes that there may be circumstances in which moving people is necessary, even in a pandemic.”

In an interview with The Seattle Times in August, Sara Rankin, law professor and director of Seattle University School of Law’s Homeless Rights Advocacy Project, said she thinks an absence of the Navigation Team would mean that removals would continue and just become less visible.  

“I am confident that the widespread persecution and displacement of unsheltered people will persist,” Rankin said. “It will just evolve.”

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What will replace the Navigation Team?

Following the dissolution of the Navigation Team, Seattle City Council approved a temporary plan in October to oversee outreach work for the remainder of 2020.

The plan consists of a new, eight-person “Unsheltered Outreach and Response Team” housed within the city’s Human Services Department. Unlike the Navigation Team, the team does not include members of the Seattle Police Department.

During budget season for 2021, Durkan’s office proposed that the new team continue its work as a formal replacement for the Navigation Team. In November, Seattle City Council approved the budget, including a new city team, and Durkan signed it.

How will this new replacement team work?

Rather than conducting its own outreach, this new team will serve as a central coordinating body that works with city-contracted outreach providers and other city departments to connect people living outside to resources and coordinate litter and debris pick-up.

Many of the details around how this team will operate are still being worked out. Compared to before, the city says that more funding will be dedicated to help people access mental-health services, offer flexible financial assistance and more.

How will this new plan approach new encampments?

It remains to be seen how this new team will approach the handling of homeless encampments following the COVID-19 crisis.

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While the pandemic continues, the city says this team will work with city-contracted agencies “guiding outreach and engagement to encampments across Seattle.” The city says that it will continue to follow the CDC’s guidelines to allow encampments to remain intact except for dire public health and safety issues.

August Drake-Ericson, operations manager with Seattle’s former Navigation Team, speaks with someone living in a tent at a homeless encampment in Seattle during a 2017 camp removal.
(Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)

Will the new plan operate in relation with the Seattle Police Department?

Seattle Police Department officers will no longer be embedded on the team. But city officials are saying that police officers will be available to assist if outreach providers or city departments request support.

How did the former Navigation Team measure success?

Success was largely measured by how many people were referred to and placed in overnight shelter, according to the city. Those results have been spotty and difficult to measure at times.

According to the city, the Navigation Team referred more than 1,275 individuals to shelter from the beginning of 2019 through September 2020. But referring someone to shelter doesn’t mean they’ll go. For example, from the beginning of April until the end of June, at least 149 people referred to overnight shelter by the Navigation Team stayed at least one night in the shelter they were referred to.

And overnight shelter is not the same as long-term, permanent housing.

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“In housing-first principles, it’s: ‘Everybody deserves a house, a home,'” said Derrick Belgarde, deputy director of Chief Seattle Club. “It doesn’t mean everybody deserves a congregate shelter bed. That’s not a housing-first principle.”

It’s important to not equate someone refusing a shelter-bed referral, Belgarde explained, to someone refusing a permanent home.

How effective was the team? 

That’s a tough question to answer and depends on who you ask.

If you ask a representative for the city’s Human Services Department, they’ll say that the creation of the Navigation Team created many firsts for the city. Previously, the city didn’t have a central body overseeing encampment outreach and removals. Before its creation in 2017, separate city departments — like Parks and Recreation and Seattle Department of Transportation — would perform their own encampment removals and it didn’t come with outreach workers trying to connect people to shelter and so on. The team also built a thorough database for tracking the effectiveness of its outreach efforts and gaining a clearer picture of shelter bed availability.

Chloe Gale, who runs homeless outreach provider REACH, said that the team’s ability to coordinate work among city departments and to create a center for communication was very helpful.

“I do think that kind of city department organizing is useful and necessary, so that departments are not stepping on each other’s toes,” she said.

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However, the team’s heavy focus on encampment removals and displacing people was seen by many homeless outreach groups and advocates as disruptive to their work and counterproductive to actually reducing homelessness and helping people find a path into permanent housing.

“The focus of the Nav Team over the last several years was really on encampment removals, and I think that became less effective,” Gale said. “… That [approach] doesn’t make sense in an era of COVID, when we don’t have enough places for people to go. We need to move away from displacement and figure out how do we connect people to long-term stability and housing.”

Jackie St. Louis, right, former outreach coordinator for the Navigation Team, walks with a fellow city employee to check on the homeless residents of a safe parking zone in 2018.  (Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times)

Who else is doing outreach work?

One of the biggest misconceptions surrounding the city’s Navigation Team is that it was the only team providing outreach work and support to people living outside.

The city funds the work of 11 outreach programs run by eight organizations that regularly work with people living outside in Seattle. Many outreach groups focus on particular segments of the homeless population. For example, the outreach workers for Chief Seattle Club work with American Indian and Alaskan Native people living outside. The Downtown Emergency Services Center’s HOST program works specifically with people with mental illness.

And this count only includes organizations receiving city funding, which totaled more than $8.8 million in 2020. Other organizations, like Operation Nightwatch, don’t receive city funding. That means Operation Nightwatch’s daily outreach work and nightly shuttles to transport people to shelter is left off the list.

Belgarde with Chief Seattle Club said the homeless-service organizations providing street outreach are more equipped than the city’s outreach team to offer nuanced support and to build trusting relationships with people.

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“To think you’re just going to go out there and say, ‘Hey, come follow me. I’m going to lead you to a shelter to help get you off the streets.’ It’s foolish,” Belgarde said of the Navigation Team’s approach.

How do people living outside access services without the aid of the Navigation Team?

“People seem to mistake what people out there on the streets in encampments are really in need of,” said Belgarde. “They’re in need of a lot of things. But one thing they’re not in need of is information.”

To survive outside, people learn quickly where meals are offered, where overnight shelter is located and so on. That’s always been the case, Belgarde explained. The Navigation Team wasn’t the only way that a person living outside could try and connect with services.

In addition to the many outreach programs, King County operates a 2-1-1 phone number, which people can call to connect with emergency services available in the county and to learn about what they might qualify for and where to find help.