The Seattle city auditor recommended the city expand access to 24-hour bathroom and hygiene facilities to mitigate the public health risks of unsanctioned homeless tent camps and improve coordination among outreach teams.
A new report by Seattle’s auditor found the city’s outreach efforts to quickly help people move from unauthorized tent camps and into shelter are disjointed and hampered by a lack of resources.
To improve the city’s ability to prevent people who are new to the streets from staying there for long periods, Seattle should centralize and improve communication among the various groups providing outreach, according to the report released Thursday.
It is the second report by the city auditor to take a critical look at Seattle’s street outreach, which is spread across three city departments and a half-dozen city-contracted nonprofit service providers. At the heart of those efforts is the city’s Navigation Team, a collection of police and outreach workers who work in the city’s unsanctioned street encampments and enforce city protocols for removing the camps.
The city does not consistently coordinate with the groups conducting outreach, such as the Union Gospel Mission. The gaps are especially evident with people who have been homeless for short periods of time, the report states.
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The report, which was requested by the Seattle City Council, comes as Seattle’s efforts to address an estimated 400 unsanctioned tent camps continues to roil city politics in advance of November’s city council elections. Businesses and neighborhood groups are sharply critical of what they see as a slow response, while advocacy groups say the solution to a homeless crisis declared more than three years ago is more affordable housing.
Seattle could reduce the number of people living in unsanctioned camps if the city gave the Navigation Team authority to divert people from shelters by spending money for things like one-time rental assistance and travel, which would allow homeless people to return to family elsewhere. Seattle already has adopted that strategy, but it has implemented it more slowly than Pierce County, where it has proved to be cost-effective.
In a statement, Kamaria Hightower, a spokeswoman for Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, emphasized the mayor’s support for the Navigation Team, and said the city “will continue to work across outreach teams to get people the help they need.”
The report also addresses public-health issues associated with street homelessness, detailing what officials found during several visits to local unsanctioned encampments. Officials with the office found exposed hypodermic needles left in plastic bags waiting for pickup, people living without access to working toilets and other conditions posing a “serious risks to public health and safety.”
How to deal with those public-health issues remains part of a still-heated debate over the city’s anti-homelessness strategies. Last year, the city’s Human Services Department reduced funding for hygiene and toilet facilities when it rebid contracts to services providers, before the Seattle City Council restored some of it. The city later decided to fund five hygiene centers through 2020. The King County Board of Health last fall unanimously endorsed a petition to have homelessness declared a public-health disaster.
To mitigate the health risks, the audit report suggests Seattle look for news ways to expand access to enhanced homeless shelters, which operate around the clock, as well as hygiene centers and 24-hour toilets facilities.
All but six of the facilities supported with city funds now are closed at night, the report states.
Staff reporter Vianna Davila contributed to this report.