Some Seattle City Council members who voted to defund the Navigation Team Wednesday praised the effort as a culmination of years-long activism seeking to stop the removal of unauthorized homeless encampments.
“We want to eliminate the sweeping of homeless people and do actual outreach, and that’s why we’re talking about disbanding the Navigation Team,” Councilmember Kshama Sawant said before the vote.
But few believe defunding the team — the group of police officers and other city employees who try to refer people to shelter before removing their camps — will actually end the city’s practice of taking down encampments.
Councilmember Lisa Herbold, who voted to strip the Navigation Team’s funding, said as much Thursday.
“Remember, only a portion of encampment removals are actually being done by the Navigation Team,” Herbold said. “There’s a whole other subset that are … done by police officers, and I think as long as the executive continues to see this as a policing issue, we can expect, whether there’s a Navigation Team or not, for police officers to continue doing what they’re already doing.”
Herbold added, “But hopefully it will not morph into sort of a rebranded Navigation Team to replace the functions the council is saying we no longer support.”
The Navigation Team has stirred controversy since its inception in 2017. While supporters have praised the team as an effective way to remove unauthorized camps, critics have deplored its efforts as inhumane in the absence of sufficient housing. Under Mayor Jenny Durkan, the team has grown in size and increased the frequency of short-notice camp removals.
The proposal to pull funding from the Navigation Team was added to contentious legislation to cut the police budget amid local and nationwide protests against the deaths of Black people at the hands of law enforcement. The council voted unanimously to remove police from the team, and then voted 5-4 to strip the program of all funding. The proposal faces a final vote by council members next week.
In the years before the vote, the council had long debated with the Navigation Team about whether it was moving people into shelter effectively.
In the first three months of 2020, just 24% of people engaged by the team were referred to shelter, and only 22% of that group, 44 people, made it into shelter within a 48-hour period after the encampment removal.
But between April and July of this year, while the Navigation Team had halted most encampment removals during the spread of COVID-19, individuals referred to shelter went up 83%. The number of people who actually arrived at shelter increased to 149.
The mayor’s office, which supports maintaining the Navigation Team, has said the council legislation would “hamper the City’s ability to address encampments with significant public health and safety issues.”
Durkan spokesperson Kelsey Nyland said the council has not provided an alternative to addressing problematic encampments and leaves the city at a loss over what to do about them in public spaces.
Nevertheless, the rules that govern the work of the team — and any city department addressing encampments — haven’t changed. Police officers can still technically enforce encampment removals through existing obstruction laws, and the funding for parks crews to clean encampment debris hasn’t been touched.
Sara Rankin, law professor and director of Seattle University School of Law’s Homeless Rights Advocacy Project, said she believes an absence of the Navigation Team would mean that removals would continue and just become less visible.
“I am confident that the widespread persecution and displacement of unsheltered people will persist,” Rankin said. “It will just evolve.”
Last year, the city trained 100 police officers who weren’t assigned to the Navigation Team on how to get people to move along if they are obstructing the sidewalk or other rights of way, how to connect with the Navigation Team and which laws to cite if arrests were necessary. Parks crews are also able to confiscate litter and items from encampments on park land.
“This does nothing to the Police Department’s ability to sweep,” Rankin said. “Nothing.”
Breanne Schuster, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Washington, said the vote was a “critical first step toward decriminalizing homelessness.” But as to whether it would actually end encampment removals, Schuster suggested it was too early to tell.
“It’s imperative that the Navigation Team isn’t replaced with another entity that engages in the same content or has the same intent in effect … which is destroying people’s belongings and threatening them with arrest,” Schuster said.
Before the creation of the Navigation Team, few people in city government had the skills or desire to handle unsanctioned encampments, said Scott Lindsay, former public safety advisor under the previous mayoral administration.
“We were really dealing with a number of departments — [the Washington State Department of Transportation], Parks, [the Seattle Department of Transportation] — who had no experience, capability or desire to work in this very tough area and no personnel to do it,” Lindsay said.
“They would call the police … and under the old model some patrol officer with no training or experience comes out and tells somebody to leave and then WSDOT or Parks comes to take their material and throws it out,” he said.
Lindsay said that five years ago, getting people into shelter with outreach contractors alone was difficult without police officers present. The new legislation, he said, could simply turn back the clock.
“Without specially trained police that are used to working with this population … you’re asking to turn this back over to patrol officers,” Lindsay said.
Erin Goodman, executive director of the Sodo Business Improvement Area, said the functions of the Navigation Team could still technically continue in any other department under the city’s rules for addressing homeless encampments.
“Obstructions are still going to need to be removed,” Goodman said. “True public health or public safety concerns are still going to have to be dealt with.”
The real issue, Goodman said, is that there are too few places for people to go. With a bottlenecked shelter system and a dearth of housing, shelter referrals often don’t translate into paths out of homelessness.
“The issue is not with who’s doing the outreach,” Goodman said. “The issue is that there’s not enough housing.”
Joe Hurtado, 50, who camps on Beacon Hill above I-90, said he believes the Navigation Team “had a good purpose.” He doesn’t support defunding them, even though he estimates he’s been moved by the city three times a year on average for the three years he’s been homeless in Seattle.
“They do kind of eliminate the gathering of too many people in one spot,” Hurtado said of the team. “It gets too crazy.”
But he hasn’t always also gotten help getting into shelter during a camp removal. During Hurtado’s most recent removal in January, he said he asked to get a referral to shelter, but outreach workers called two shelters and both were full.
“They come talk to you, they give you a card and they say talk to these people,” Hurtado said, “and nine times out of 10 they’re full.”