Members of the Seattle City Council are questioning why the city spends millions on a special police response to homelessness, called the Navigation Team, when evidence shows that it isn’t getting many people indoors quickly and isn’t involved in the vast majority of encampment cleanups.
The Navigation Team was formed to pair sweeps of homeless encampments with offers of services, be that shelter beds or access to case management. However, the team only responds to 4 percent of sweeps, according to city data.
According to a report to the City Council, only 6 percent of people who receive a referral to shelter from the Navigation Team report to those shelters within 48 hours.
The rest are deemed “hazards” or “obstructions” under the Multi Departmental Administrative Rules (MDARs). Those cleanups do not require any notice, although a “system navigator” who works with the Navigation Team can be called in to offer shelter and other resources.
The small percentage of placements into shelter defeats the purpose of the Navigation Team, which was meant to bring people inside, said Josh Castle, director of advocacy and community engagement with the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI). LIHI partners with the city on tiny house villages, which save spaces for Navigation Team referrals.
“It has unfortunately become apparent that this work is a sweep operation, displacing people and deepening their homelessness and trauma instead of a shelter and referral operation,” Castle said.
The data was concerning, Castle told Real Change.
“It would appear right now that $8 million of funding that went to the Navigation Team last year is being used not to solve homelessness or refer people to shelter, but to move them from one desperate situation to another,” Castle said.
The Navigation Team refers people to shelter only when it has shelter beds available, and shelters full of people primarily referred by the Navigation Team are 97 percent full, according to the city.
If the Navigation Team goes out to an encampment, it blocks off spaces to clear based on whether or not there are beds open for the people that they are displacing. On average, that’s 12 beds total — five “mat on the ground” shelter spots; six enhanced shelter beds that allow pets, possessions and partners; and one space in a tiny house village.
“We’re spending an incredible amount of money moving people from one place to another without actually providing services to them, without actually getting people into shelter,” said Councilmember Tammy Morales. “Then we’re using metrics of success like how much garbage we’ve cleaned up and property we’ve cleaned up rather than the true metric of success, which is how many lives we are saving and how many people are we getting into housing.”
Navigation Team Director Tara Beck struggled to get through the 12-slide presentation as councilmembers cut in to ask pointed questions, despite requests from committee chair Councilmember Andrew Lewis to allow her to finish.
They pressed her on the number of people getting into shelter and called it “disingenuous” to suggest that people who come into contact with police are given the option for shelter that they can accept.
If there are only 12 beds available, on average, it would be impossible for the Navigation Team to clear most larger, unsanctioned encampments, Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda said.
“If we are making an offer of shelter, it doesn’t sound like we’re making a meaningful offer,” Mosqueda said.
The number of people who arrive at shelter within 48 hours is low enough that it costs the city roughly $42,600 per person to fund the Navigation Team to get them inside.
“How can we better utilize $1.9 million a quarter and allocate it to creating tiny homes or advanced shelter?” Mosqueda asked.
It’s possible that the Navigation Team is more effective than the numbers suggest. The percentages of people who arrive at shelter only include those who went there within 48 hours of getting a referral, and they’re only counted if they appear in both the Homeless Information Management System database and the database maintained by the Navigation Team.
However the Navigation Team moves forward, it will have to do so without two of its leaders. According to Erica C. Barnett, both acting director Jason Johnson and operations manager August Drake-Ericson of the Human Services Department confirmed they would be leaving the agency shortly after the committee meeting.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC.
Read the full Mar. 4-10 issue.
© 2020 Real Change. All rights reserved. Real Change is a non-profit organization advocating for economic, social and racial justice since 1994. Learn more about Real Change and donate now to support independent, award-winning journalism.