In a continued sign that Seattle is increasing the speed and frequency of removing homeless encampments, Mayor Jenny Durkan announced Friday that the city’s Navigation Team will both grow in size and operate seven days a week.
The Navigation Team, a collection of police officers and outreach workers who focus on unsanctioned encampments, previously operated Monday through Friday. With new additions, the team will grow to 38 people, almost tripling in size from when it was founded two years ago.
The announcement speaks to the city’s growing, intensive focus on ensuring the swift removal of unsanctioned homeless encampments across Seattle, and is at least the second expansion in the past year of the team, which has a $7.6 million budget in 2019.
The Seattle Times reported last summer that the city had dramatically increased removals of encampments that are considered obstructions or hazards —the types of camps that can be removed immediately without notice or offers of shelter to the camp inhabitants. Obstructions and hazards are defined as those that impede the public’s ability to “safely access rights-of-way,” like sidewalks.
People living in encampments that are not considered obstructions or hazards must receive at least 72 hours’ notice before their camps are closed, as well as offers of shelter, under rules adopted by the city.
In 2017, obstructions made up about one-quarter of the Navigation Team’s removals. Last year, obstructions were 46% of the total removals.
A report sent to Seattle City Council members earlier this month indicated that the trend continues: In the first quarter of 2019, the Navigation Team removed 13 encampments in which residents were given 72-hour notice. The rest of the cleanups, 58, were obstructions — 82% of the total.
As part of the Navigation Team’s expansion, the city’s Human Services Department (HSD) has hired two “system navigators” to reach out to encampments, particularly on weekends, and the department has added other positions for inspecting camps and overseeing cleanups.
The city’s Parks and Recreation Department also recently hired a second field coordinator to work with the Navigation Team and oversee removal of encampments in parks.
The city is not adding any shelter capacity as part of the cleanup strategy, although the mayor’s office noted hundreds of new shelter spaces were added last year. However, those shelter beds are typically at capacity.
On average, 17 shelter beds are open and available to the Navigation Team every day, according to the first-quarter report sent to council members. The city has said there are roughly 400 unsanctioned homeless encampments in Seattle at any given time.
Alison Eisinger, executive director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, criticized the new strategy, calling it a desire by the city to look like it is doing something to address homelessness but effectively shifting people around the city without anywhere to go.
“I don’t know why the Durkan administration insists on doubling down on a strategy that isn’t a best practice and probably won’t work,” Eisinger said Friday.
But Erin Goodman, executive director of the Sodo Business Improvement Area, said the combined strategy of more outreach and more focus on removing the small camps was a welcome idea. Until now, she said, the city has “not scaled up to the size of this crisis.”
“There have been smaller encampments that had very, very significant impacts on the businesses near them that were never getting any sort of attention,” said Goodman, who was on a committee that recommended some of the changes, including the focus on obstructions.
Durkan spokesperson Kamaria Hightower said in an email that the city will now coordinate with homeless shelters on weekends to ensure people can get inside if they so choose. About 28% of people interacting with the Navigation Team accepted a referral to shelter in the first quarter this year, according to the council report.
Some people may never accept shelter, Goodman said. They should keep getting those offers, but the community “can’t be held hostage,” she said.
The Navigation Team has been pushed to increasingly focus on diversion, a strategy that includes one-time financial help, rather than trying to find housing through the homeless-services system. That could mean “reunification with friends and family,” Hightower said, such as transportation to a person’s home community if they are from outside the area.
(Roughly 84% of respondents to this year’s homeless point-in-time count survey said they were living in Seattle and King County immediately before losing their homes; 46% said they were born here or lived here at least a decade).
As part of these changes, the Navigation Team will continue its relationship with REACH, an independent organization that the city contracts with. REACH staff build relationships with camp residents and connect them with services. However, those workers will no longer go to encampments on the day of a removal, REACH Executive Director Chloe Gale said. They will continue to work with encampments but only in the days before the cleanup.
REACH’s decision to step back from removals is notable, Eisinger said. It is because “non-notice, same-day actions are not effective, and they go against national best practices such as trauma-informed work,” she said.
The city is not adding any police officers to the Navigation Team as part of the expansion beyond the 13 officers currently on the team. However, Community Police Team and Bike Patrol officers have been trained on the rules that govern encampment removals, Hightower said.
Police officers can remove hazards and obstructions in public spaces, like parks, said Mark Prentice, another Durkan spokesperson. Officers can contact the Navigation Team if someone at an obstruction cleanup wants services, he said.
The city has also announced an additional $1 million from the state Legislature for the Washington State Department of Transportation to do trash and waste cleanup along Interstate 5 and Interstate 90, common sites of encampments.