In the culmination of years of activists’ efforts to stop removal of homeless camps, the Seattle City Council voted Wednesday to dismantle the city’s Navigation Team, a team of police and outreach workers who try to get homeless people to accept shelter before removing their camps.
During budget-cutting sessions, the council unanimously voted to remove police from the team, and split 5-4 on a second vote to eliminate funding altogether and redirect it to nonprofit service providers.
That decision is folded into a larger set of budget revisions spurred by the economic fallout of the pandemic, with a final council vote scheduled for Monday.
In a statement, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office said she opposed the cut, and “is concerned that the Council has voted to eliminate this entire unit without a plan to bridge the gap with outreach services to address the impacts of unmanaged encampments.” She said it would force 10 layoffs.
Currently, homeless-camp removals are largely suspended due to COVID-19 — there have been six sweeps since the beginning of the pandemic, according to a Human Services Department spokesperson.
But the council’s move is a victory for activists, who have worked for over a decade to push the city to stop removing encampments. They’ve lobbied City Hall, protested outside encampments scheduled to be removed and even linked arms to physically block the police from entering camps.
It is also likely to frustrate business groups and neighborhoods that have lobbied for an expanded Navigation Team and for the city to be more aggressive in removing camps.
“Cutting the major functions of the Navigation Team is irresponsible,” Mike Stewart, executive director of the Ballard Alliance of businesses, wrote in an email. He pointed to the team’s removal this spring of a large camp in Ballard Commons Park that was also the site of a hepatitis A outbreak.
“If not for the Navigation Team, the consequences for both sheltered and unsheltered residents of North Seattle would have been dire.”
Councilmember Lisa Herbold has questioned the Navigation Team’s tactics for years, and said she felt as if her efforts to change the team over the last four years have failed.
“I received a call this morning from the executive [Durkan’s office] referencing those efforts,” Herbold said, which she saw as encouragement to vote “no” on defunding the Navigation Team. “I don’t feel like those efforts have produced results.”
The council voted unanimously on an amendment to remove the police from the team. Councilmembers Andrew Lewis, Dan Strauss, Alex Pedersen and Debora Juarez voted “no” on the amendment that would eliminate the team and redirect funding,
“It’s clear that the presence of sworn officers has undermined the effectiveness of the Navigation Team,” Lewis said. “I’m just not there yet in completely getting rid of the human services component of the Navigation Team… I am interested in seeing what a police-less Navigation Team could look like.”
The team was formed under former Mayor Ed Murray’s administration as a new way to address an old – but still growing – issue of public tent camping. A 2016 investigation by The Seattle Times found the city’s previous methods for clearing camps was disorganized and chaotic, resulting in few referrals to shelters and a lawsuit over campers’ lost belongings.
The team was designed to coax homeless people into shelter with repeated visits by outreach workers and police. Rules set city departments required the team to make repeated visits and offer shelter beds before a camp could be cleared, with exceptions for sites deemed public obstructions or hazards.
As visible homelessness continued to be a political issue, Seattle expanded the team at least twice, adding staff and implementing a seven-day-a-week schedule.
Through 2018 and 2019, the team classified more tent camps as warranting immediate removal without notice to campers, while also posting better results getting people into shelter.
Seattle’s population of unsheltered homeless people, as tallied in the annual snapshot count each January, remained relatively consistent from 2017 to 2020. But supporters of the Navigation Team say its presence helped.
“I think the council’s action fails to recognize the inherent dangers in many of the unauthorized encampments,” said Tim Burgess, a former city councilmember and the interim mayor before Durkan. “And I think they will come to regret it. Because it sends the wrong signal.”
But the team has been under scrutiny since its inception. As a team of law enforcement officers, the mayor’s office required it to respond to complaints about homeless encampments, but as a team of social workers, the City Council demanded it prove efforts had long-term success keeping people off the street, rather than just chasing the same people around the city in a game of cat and mouse.
The team was never able to fully prove that, but it did report one of its strongest-ever performances in 2020’s second quarter (through June), recording having 4,700 conversations with campers that resulted in 408 referrals to shelter. That in turn resulted in 149 of those people actually enrolling in shelter, a figure nearly double the previous peak, in the first quarter of 2019.
The City Council plans to vote on a final budget next week.
Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story misstated the origin of the rules governing removal of homeless encampments. They were created by city departments and not approved by the Seattle City Council.