There was a time — back when the Navigation Team was focused on relationship building and run by the seasoned homeless outreach workers at REACH — when it seemed like Seattle’s approach to unsheltered encampments might be on the right track.
But that time has long since passed.
In November of 2015, Mayor Ed Murray declared a state of emergency on homelessness, saying all residents should have access to shelter. That, obviously, has not happened. While the state of emergency persists, whatever sense of urgency that edict once offered has since faded.
More than four years later, our annual point-in-time count found that 47 percent of King County’s 11,751 homeless people are still unsheltered.
It turns out that when you don’t have enough places for people to go, what we call “homeless outreach” mostly just shuffles people around.
Since Mayor Jenny Durkan took office, we have seen a dramatic expansion of police involvement in homeless sweeps. Instead of getting people into shelter, a task that takes time, relationship building and trust, Seattle has turned to an unhealthy reliance on intimidation and force.
In May of 2019, REACH recognized this and largely terminated their involvement in homeless sweeps. At that time, according to reporter Erica Barnett, 96 percent of encampment removals focused on “obstructions” and occurred without notice and outreach.
Not long ago, I attended a camp clearance in North Seattle, just a few blocks from where I live. The encampment sat just off of Interstate 5 in a remote wooded corner of at the North Seattle Community College for more than a year without most people noticing it was there.
The encampment was posted for “cleanup” in three days, making it one of the increasingly rare campsite removals that actually receive notification.
By the time the Navigation Team arrived — meaning the police — the vast majority of campers were already gone. Volunteers were helping the handful of people left move their gear before the
9 a.m. sweep.
Six police officers literally marched in line into the site, and then proceeded to stand around and chat while a few photos were taken for the official record.
The last thing any of these campers wanted or needed was to talk to a cop. It was an expensive and unnecessary show of strength after almost everyone had left. That is all. The homeless outreach that the Navigation Team once provided has degenerated into an empty optics of force.
While getting accurate information from the city on the cost and scale of homeless sweeps is difficult to impossible, what we do know is that the vast majority of sweeps now occur without notice, and that they look less like homeless outreach than a police action.
This undermines the relationship building and trust that is essential to any data-driven approach to getting unsheltered homeless people inside.
At a time when city spending on public safety dwarfs funding for housing and human services, the demands from Decriminalize Seattle and King County Equity Now to defund the police by 50 percent and reinvest those dollars in our communities promises to reestablish balance in our public priorities.
Councilmember Tammy Morales has called for not just removing the police from the Navigation Team, but for defunding the team entirely. We agree. The Nav Team is irreparably flawed and distrusted by those who it was designed to help.
The Navigation Team’s Sargent Eric Zerr was paid $331,413 last year to lead this work. It’s hard to believe that money would not be better spent somewhere else.
Defunding the Navigation Team would free up $8.4 million dollars to fund skilled community-based homeless outreach and desperately needed shelter.
Real Change has endorsed the demands to cut police funding by 50 percent, and supports the campaign led by the Seattle King County Coalition on Homelessness (SKCCH) to end the Navigation Team as it presently exists.
When Murray declared a state of emergency in 2015, he was right about one thing: All residents should have access to shelter. Defunding the Navigation Team is an essential and overdue step toward making that vision real.
Tim Harris is the Founding Director Real Change and has been active as a poor people’s organizer for more than two decades. Prior to moving to Seattle in 1994, Harris founded street newspaper Spare Change in Boston while working as Executive Director of Boston Jobs with Peace. He can be reached at director (at) realchangenews (dot) org
Read more of the Aug. 5-11, 2020 issue.