After months of asking critical questions of the Navigation Team, the city’s primary tool for clearing encampments and referring people on the streets to shelter, two Seattle City Council members have proposed either defunding it entirely or renewing a proviso to withhold quarterly funding unless the team regularly reports on how it’s improving.

This is just the latest in a series of efforts by some council members over the last two years to rein in the Navigation Team. In November 2017, Councilmember Kshama Sawant proposed cutting almost all cleanups. During last year’s budget discussion, some council members attempted to cut down on the mayor’s proposed expansion of the team.

The Navigation Team is made up of police and outreach workers, who are supposed to help homeless campers by referring them to shelter.

“It’s unfortunate that some members of the City Council want to keep denigrating the Navigation Team’s work,” mayoral spokesperson Mark Prentice said. “And it’s unfortunate they want to keep creating roadblocks that make it harder for the Navigation Team to focus on its lifesaving work of connecting more people with the services and shelter they need.”

The less radical of the two proposals — a proposal by Councilmember Lisa Herbold to tie Navigation Team funding to quarterly reporting, similar to one she successfully added to last year’s budget — appears to have some support among council members.

“The use of provisos by the Council is a standard tool to encourage and facilitate on-going collaboration with the Executive as well as an appropriate oversight mechanism to oversee spending; in this case nearly $9 million in yearly spending — nearly a tenth of our homelessness investments,” Herbold said by email.

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The suggestion to defund the team entirely, proposed by Sawant, was met with opposition from eight city department heads, who outlined the potential consequences of cutting the team’s proposed $8.4 million budget.

 

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“Any reduction to this program will have a significant effect on the City of Seattle’s ability to help people experiencing the crisis of homelessness and maintain the city’s public spaces such as rights-of-way and green spaces,” city leaders such as Patty Hayes, director of Public Health – Seattle & King County, and Jesús Aguirre, superintendent of Parks and Recreation, warned in a memo provided to council members during a Thursday briefing on the proposed 2020 Human Services Department budget.

Not all members of the council are looking to cut the team, however: Councilmember Debora Juarez, representing District 5, proposed adding two new, dedicated system-navigator and field-coordinator positions just for the city’s North End.

When the team launched in 2017, it was made up of 22 police and outreach workers. As of June, it’s grown to 38.

At the same time, the team has shifted its focus from cleanups where residents get 72-hour notice to smaller “obstruction” or “hazard” encampments that don’t require advance notice and also don’t require camp residents to be offered shelter beds, although the city said it tries to do so.

In February, a report by Seattle’s auditor found the Navigation Team’s efforts were out of step with other outreach organizations doing the same work, and limited by a lack of options for people who want to leave the streets but don’t want to go into shelters. The auditor had a list of recommendations to expand what the Navigation Team could do — several recommendations that have not materialized. Herbold’s proviso is partially in response to this auditor’s report.

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In Thursday’s briefing, Councilmember M. Lorena González expressed concerns about the Navigation Team’s current staffing model, and that the mayor included no funding in the proposed budget for additional outreach positions.

“Does it make sense for us, in the context of the overarching conversation we’re having about the Navigation Team, to once again go down the path of expanding it?” González asked.

Will Lemke, spokesman for the Navigation Team, said in an email Thursday that the Human Services Department has completed 30 of the auditor’s 48 recommendations; nine are still in progress; and another nine items will not be enacted as they do not align with the mayor’s office or the department’s goals.

The council is due to vote on the final budget in late November.