The Seattle City Council is mulling a replacement to the Navigation Team that would not only remove police from the unit but also empower outreach workers to make direct referrals to shelter.
The Homelessness Outreach & Provider Ecosystem (HOPE) team would coordinate with service providers to provide administrative support and data analysis with the goal of improving outreach to people experiencing homelessness and getting people inside.
The proposal would supplant the Unsheltered Outreach and Response Team that the City Council approved by vote Oct. 26 — legislation that Councilmember Tammy Morales supported to get unreleased homelessness outreach money approved in the 2020 budget revision out the door. That team includes eight people and maintains too much of the Navigation Team structure for Morales’ taste.
“I want to honor the work that our homelessness outreach providers had been doing — honor what we’re hearing from homeless neighbors on the ground,” Morales told Real Change. “Moving forward, we need to not just remove police from the Navigation Team, but restructure it.”
The Mayor’s Office wants to implement the plan approved on Monday, said Kamaria Hightower, a spokesperson for Mayor Jenny Durkan.
“At this time we are focused on operationalizing the outreach plan Council adopted on Monday, which already has the broad support of outreach service providers and the City,” Hightower said. “The goal is to create a more coordinated approach to providing services and connections to shelter for our unsheltered neighbors.”
The Navigation Team was developed in 2017 as a blend of homeless outreach professionals and specially trained members of the Seattle Police Department (SPD). While it was touted as a group that would help manage unauthorized encampments and refer people to shelter, critics said that it was a traumatizing force that swept homeless encampments and destroyed people’s belongings.
REACH, one of the service providers that does outreach for the city, pulled back from the Navigation Team out of concern that its association with the sweeps was hurting outreach workers’ efforts to connect with clients.
As originally proposed, the HOPE team had five members: one manager, a data analyst, a team liaison and two provider and neighborhood liaisons. However, that number got bumped up to eight on Friday, Oct. 30, at the request of Councilmember Lisa Herbold, to match the staffing of the Monday proposal put forth by Councilmember Andrew Lewis.
Herbold and Morales have been participating in talks with the Mayor’s Office and outreach providers to create a replacement for the Navigation Team, which the City Council axed in its budget revisions over the summer.
Durkan issued a scathing release on Sept. 30 announcing that, due to the council’s actions, she would end all work by the Navigation Team by 2021.
“Council voted repeatedly to defund the Navigation Team, which requires the City to suspend operations,” Durkan said in the press release. “While I continue to HOPE Council may choose to address many of the legal and operational concerns raised by stripping funding for the Navigation Team, the City will move forward with the elements of the budget that can be implemented.”
The Oct. 26 proposal was a “first step” to creating a coordinated, citywide response to addressing unsheltered homelessness in the city, Durkan said in a press release.
“As the pandemic continues, we are creating a more coordinated approach to outreach services, and I appreciate the work of Councilmember Lewis on this important priority for our residents and community,” Durkan also said.
The HOPE proposal raised some concerns among councilmembers who questioned the efficacy of advancing a new team structure while service providers and the Mayor’s Office were in the midst of “productive negotiations.”
“Our budget process is not necessarily lined up with those negotiations, which have been fruitful,” Lewis said, elaborating that he hoped that the two “different conversations” would be able to merge and inform one another in the coming weeks before the 2021 budget cycle ends in November.
Herbold asked for a commitment to expand the five-member team to the original eight under the Lewis proposal and ultimately put her name on as a co-sponsor of the bill.
That still raised concerns for Councilmember Alex Pedersen, who noted that the eight-person compromise had just been approved four days earlier.
“This could be interpreted as moving the goal posts after the accord was reached,” Pedersen said.
If it moves forward, the HOPE team would allow service providers to offer their clients shelter directly. The previous model involved an hours-long process, with the city acting as a gatekeeper to tangible services, Morales told Real Change.
Outreach workers have told the councilmember, and said in public comment sessions to the whole council, that first they must find their client, identify what they need, contact the Human Services Department, ensure the spot is still available and then find the client again to get them inside.
“It’s this byzantine process that each outreach worker has to go through,” Morales said.
The former Navigation Team structure didn’t succeed in its goal to get people experiencing homelessness inside, said Alison Eisinger, executive director of the Seattle King County Coalition on Homelessness. “It failed to do a good job of not just matching people with services but factoring in what level of intensity of services people need,” Eisinger said.
Morales knows that reforming the intake system is only one part of improving the homeless services network in Seattle — new housing and shelter options are critical — but views this as a needed step to improve the process and make up for hurt done by past city actions.
“HOPE is how we start to repair the harm that was caused by the Navigation Team,” Morales told her colleagues as she proposed the measure Oct. 30.
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 more in the Nov. 4-10, 2020 issue.