An organization contracted with the city of Seattle to perform outreach for people experiencing homelessness asked to change its relationship with the city’s Navigation Team, citing morale issues among its workers and concerns about the team’s efforts to provide trauma-informed care, documents show.
REACH, a longtime outreach organization that works with the city and the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program (LEAD), among others, requested that workers no longer appear with the Navigation Team on the day of encampment sweeps, as previously reported by Erica Barnett.
However, a January 18 letter and email from REACH co-director Chloe Gale show deeper concerns about the Navigation Team’s focus on shelter referrals over housing plans, increases in rapid enforcement and lack of transparency in decision-making.
“This work is often not in alignment with our program’s values or generally accepted outreach best practices, and we would like to have an outreach contract that is more similar to the other agencies contracted by the city for outreach services,” Gale wrote.
At a June 25 committee meeting, former head of the Homelessness Strategy and Investment Division Tiffany Washington told council members that REACH had asked to step back because of clients perception of seeing outreach workers working with police and how that might impact their ability to engage with clients.
The Human Services Department worked with REACH to “ensure they can continue to deliver outreach services as part of the Navigation Team,” wrote Will Lemke, spokesperson for the Homelessness Emergency Response, in an email.
“This increases REACH’s outreach capacity for the City as they continue to provide advance outreach as part of the Navigation Team,” Lemke wrote. “Outreach is further boosted by the addition of [two] new System Navigators, who were hired earlier this year to compl[e]ment advance and day of clean-up outreach to sites.”
In the letter, Gale cites a focus on shelter referrals over the creation of housing plans. She said clients rarely accept shelter offers, which are often not “an appropriate fit for residents in the encampments.” A move that increased designation of camps as “hazards or obstructions” and enforcement of “emphasis areas” meant that camps could be moved within 30 minutes, not the three days’ notice given to camps without those designations.
That caused mistrust between clients and REACH workers, Gale wrote.
“We do not see a movement in the Navigation Team operations toward more trauma-informed, person-centered outreach, as was discussed last year,” she wrote.
Finally, the team chafed under the lack of input with the Navigation Team. They were not included in operations decisions and often heard of program or policy changes after they had been made, Gale wrote.
“When we have sought flexibility and accommodation on behalf of our staff and clients, we have repeatedly been told that we must comply with Navigation Team directives and our requests cannot be accommodated,” Gale wrote.
Emails also show that at least in one case, a trauma-informed approach was not enough to pause a noticed sweep.
In one email exchange dated the afternoon of May 15, outreach case manager Miguel Chévere requested that Navigation Team leader Jackie St. Louis postpone a sweep after he and a colleague encountered a dead body during their outreach to an encampment near Kobe Terrace Park. The body is believed to be that of Brandon Parrish, a 34-year-old man who, according to police records, had substance abuse issues.
“Folks there seem visibly traumatized by the experience,” Chévere wrote. “In an effort to be more trauma-informed as an operation, I think we, as the Navigation Team, should take this opportunity to focus on providing services to the population in this location instead of displacing them (tomorrow).
“Obviously, I have no power when it comes to deciding whether or not this operation goes forward, but the more thought that my co-workers and I put into it, the more we come to the conclusion that further trauma from displacement runs counter to the welfare of the unhoused population at Kobe Park,” Chévere continued.
St. Louis thanked him for raising the concern and affirmed that his points were valid but denied the request saying there was little he could do.
“The nature of cleans is that equipment and personnel are already scheduled to be at the site and there can be implications should we attempt to call it off,” St. Louis wrote. “This is not to say that we are prioritizing some people over others or equipment over people, but I just want to be as transparent as I can be with you.”
REACH requested the postponement a day before the clean, and St. Louis was referencing the logistics planning, scheduling and resource coordination that ensures that cleans comply with city rules called the Multi-Departmental Administrative Rules, or MDARs, Lemke wrote.
“Given that the clean-up was to start the proceeding day, the operation moved forward as planned to address public health and safety concerns within Kobe Terrace Park,” Lemke wrote. “Navigation Team leadership is engaged with REACH to ensure incidents like this are addressed earlier.
“Again, discovery of deceased individuals has been rare and this circumstance presented new considerations to be taken into account,” Lemke continued, writing that the team had postponed operations previously on the advice of outreach workers.
In later correspondence, he emphasized that the team recognized that such situations should be handled differently in the future.
St. Louis left the Navigation Team on July 19.
Councilmember Kshama Sawant, one of three council members at the June 25 committee meeting that discussed Navigation Team operations and REACH, said she was aware of REACH’s concerns.
Although sources within the advocacy community had been aware of the discovery of the dead body, the council member was not.
“[I]t is an absolutely horrendous example of the inhumanity of the sweeps,” Sawant wrote in an email to Real Change. “It clearly demonstrates that the sweeps have nothing to do with helping homeless people, and that our movement should continue fighting to Stop the Sweeps, to massively expand the investment in publicly-owned quality affordable housing and homeless services by taxing big business and for universal rent control, free of corporate loopholes.”
Trauma informed care is more than just a title — it is a nationally recognized best practice that the city says that it follows, said Alison Eisinger, executive director of Seattle King County Coalition on Homelessness.
“Honestly, when one of the most skilled outreach teams with decades of experience tells the city of Seattle that the mandate that they are insisting on for service delivery is counterproductive to effective care and treatment, we should listen,” Eisinger said. “That says a lot.”
REACH has since shifted to a neighborhood-based model, working with business improvement associations to tailor outreach and service needs to the needs of people experiencing homelessness in those specific geographic areas. They still perform outreach services in advance of sweeps and commit to being present the day-of if requested by the people in the encampment.
The new model began with a relationship with the Ballard Business Improvement Association, and they’ve already seen some successes, such as helping a woman who had been homeless in Ballard for 30 years get into housing in her community, Gale said in an interview.
“The state of Seattle’s narrative around homelessness has become incredibly polarized and most people in this community want to find a way to support people and help support solutions, to help people get off the street,” Gale said. “That included the business community. As far as we’re concerned, we were very clear that we’re not coming in as a security force to move people around.
“We’re coming in looking for solutions,” Gale said.
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
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