The Seattle Office of Civil Rights is accused of using faulty data in reporting that between April and September, 79 percent of people offered shelter either declined or were ruled “ineligible,” some because of criminal records or lack of identification.
Outside City Hall, Seattle’s approach to cleaning up unsanctioned homeless camps has become a political flashpoint.
This week, it also become a flashpoint inside City Hall. Seattle’s civil-rights office raised concerns that the approach is “moving people from one outdoor encampment to another,” while Interim Mayor Tim Burgess and his administrative office pushed back on the report as using inaccurate and misleading data.
In a report sent to City Council members this week, the Seattle Office of Civil Rights (OCR) gave the city some credit for better following its own rules on cleanups. But the report states that between April and September, 79 percent of people offered shelter either declined or were ruled “ineligible” because of their criminal records, lack of identification or other complications.
That number is far higher than the rate cited by the city’s Navigation Team, which conducts outreach to unsanctioned homeless camps and removes them when deemed unsafe.
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The two city departments — both tasked with assessing the critical work of getting people out of camps and into housing — can’t seem to agree on how to measure success.
Officials with the Navigation Team, overseen by the city’s Department of Finance and Administrative Services (FAS), say the civil-rights office’s calculations aren’t accurate because they’re based on a completely different data set.
The Navigation Team and FAS, Burgess said, “pointed out those errors, and OCR chose not to incorporate those comments in their report. I cannot explain why OCR issued a report that is incomplete and inaccurate. I just do not have an explanation for that.”
At the center of the dispute is a schism over data analysis, but the broader question before officials is whether outreach efforts are effective. The city has faced intense scrutiny from critics who say the city is more focused on removing the camps than helping their residents.
FAS staff said Friday the civil-rights office used only part of the outreach data collected by the Navigation Teamand excluded data collected by Seattle police officers, who also work as part of the Navigation Team.
Moreover, the civil-rights analysis excludes offers of shelter accepted on the day of a camp’s removal; there have been at least 143 such removals since February. “In the experience of the Navigation Team, there is significant uptake of these day-of referrals,” says Chris Potter, FAS operations director.
Other staffers are more pointed with their criticism.
“Our data is more inclusive than what REACH can produce,” said Navigation Team manager August Drake-Ericson. “OCR quite frankly should have reached out to us for data, and not to REACH for data, because they would have gotten a better reference frame.”
REACH is a program providing outreach and help to chronically homeless and addicted adults.
In an emailed statement, Brenda Anibarro, author of the OCR report, acknowledged the discrepancies, but did not explain why the report did not use the full Navigation Team data.
“The purpose of OCR’s effort was to determine whether the city was in compliance with protocol,” she said. The department expects to issue a clarifying report to resolve the discrepancies in the coming weeks, she said, but stands by the report’s overall findings.
The report comes at a critical juncture in the long-standing debate over the city’s management of unauthorized camps.
Earlier this week, dozens of activists camped out at City Hall in protest after a proposal by Councilmember Kshama Sawant to block money for camp removals was excluded from the council’s 2018 budget proposal.
Budget committee chair Lisa Herbold replaced Sawant’s version of the amendment with a proposal that calls for increased scrutiny of the removal process and weekly reports on how the city follows its own protocols for removing camps.
Burgess responded with a forceful memo to council members, warning that stopping the removals “will create an elevated public health and safety risk to the people of Seattle.” It was signed by nine city department heads.
The city’s Navigation Team has been “exceptionally successful” at getting services to homeless people, Burgess said in an interview.
The civil-rights office has been monitoring the removals since last year, when former Mayor Ed Murray acknowledged shortcomings in unauthorized camp cleanups.
An August 2016 Seattle Times report found the cleanup process was hindered by bureaucratic failures, including poor scheduling and camper complaints of lost belongings and personal keepsakes. The city’s struggles to carry out the cleanups humanely and comply with their own protocols continued into December, according to handwritten notes reviewed by The Times.
In February, the city launched the Navigation Team, composed of outreach workers and officers, to try to streamline the removal process but also to offer consistent outreach and resources.
Despite the conflicting data on shelter referrals, the rest of the recently issued OCR report found the city was in compliance with the new rules governing camp removals. Burgess said he was pleased the report indicated the city is following those rules.
“My conclusion from reading their report, the Navigation Team is doing exactly what we asked them to do,” Burgess said.