New data from Seattle’s Navigation Team shows the fruits of the city’s expanded outreach and removal efforts around homeless encampments, but still leaves the long-term effectiveness of those efforts in question.

As the Navigation Team has expanded and started working seven days a week, data released Thursday shows a 16% increase in the number of unique individuals contacted by the team, and a 10% increase in the number of people referred to shelter, in the second quarter of 2019 compared to the first part of the year. The city attributes much of those improvements to the addition of so-called system navigators to the team.

The team’s most recent numbers also reflect more people being referred to enhanced shelters, which offer a range of services and are open expanded hours, over traditional mat-on-the-floor overnight shelters. 

In a statement, Mayor Jenny Durkan said the Navigation Team was doing “life-saving work.”

“The investments we have made are having an impact,” she said.

The Seattle Times’ Project Homeless is funded by BECU, The Bernier McCaw Foundation, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Campion Foundation, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, Raikes Foundation, Schultz Family Foundation, Seattle Foundation, Seattle Mariners, Starbucks and the University of Washington. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over Project Homeless content.

But the new numbers don’t capture more detailed information that advocates and some City Council members, including Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda, have demanded.

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“It still does not accurately indicate whether or not people who were referred to shelter actually were accepted,” said Mosqueda, and whether “the folks at the shelter have the resources and support to get them (homeless people) into housing.”

As the Navigation Team has expanded from 22 to 38 people, it has shifted from targeting big encampments where residents got 72-hour notice of cleanups to smaller “obstruction” or “hazard” encampments that don’t require advance notice. Under city rules, the no-notice cleanups also don’t require camp residents to be offered shelter beds, although the city said it tries to do so.

Overall, there was a 71% increase in encampment removals, year over year.

Some advocates, including the city’s own LGBTQ Commission, have expressed concern that the city’s strategy only results in people being moved around. Council members have expressed similar unease, with Councilmember Mike O’Brien wondering at a recent council meeting whether the city was playing a “game of cat and mouse.”

The city has improved its data-collection practices since the Navigation Team launched in February 2017, making it difficult to compare 2019 numbers to years past, another frustration of Mosqueda’s. She has called for an online dashboard to easily track month-over-month or quarter-over-quarter comparisons.

Once people receive shelter referrals, it’s then on the shelters to connect them with housing, according to Navigation Team spokesperson Will Lemke.

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It’s the Navigation Team’s responsibility to connect people to shelter, to get people out of these unsafe conditions,” Lemke said. “It’s not their responsibility to make sure someone stays the night.” 

The Navigation Team’s most recent data shows 21 more people referred to shelter from April to June compared to the first part of the year. Overall, 224 people were referred to shelter in that time period, and more are getting into enhanced shelters.

However, basic shelter beds — often located in facilities that don’t allow couples to stay together or pets, for example, and so are less popular options — were far more likely to be available than the coveted enhanced shelter spaces.