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Rantz: Sparks fly as Mosqueda slows tent cleanups with huge staff cut to Nav Team

Seattle's Navigation Team contacts residents of a homeless encampment. The team offers services and housing to campers, and sometimes will order clean ups if the camps are unsafe. (Jason Rantz, KTTH)

The Seattle City Council just significantly cut the Navigation Team’s ability to provide safe cleanups of dangerous encampments and placement for the homeless, even as the team saw nearly double the success of getting individuals off the streets.

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Pushed through by Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda, with a 5-4 vote, the Seattle Council cut nearly $500,000 from the Navigation Team, the group responsible for connecting services with the homeless, while cleaning up encampments that pose significant health risks.

This 2019 budget cut means a loss of four current staff members with the Navigation Team.

After they were given additional funding this year, the team increased their number of sweeps (which they refer to as clean-ups) and increased their staff. Cutting the funds — $480,000 in 2019 and $244,000 in 2020 — significantly rolls back the sweeps, which is on pace to get double the amount of homeless into shelters this year than last.

“To take away the Navigation Team’s ability to operate in the field, and decrease the navigation’s effectiveness, is head scratching,” said one city staffer to the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH speaking on the condition of anonymity, as they’ve not been cleared to speak with the media. “This cuts to the heart of what they do … it hurts the ability to do cleanups and get people inside.”

Councilmember Kshama Sawant, a harsh critic of the team, enthusiastically supported Mosqueda’s plan, claiming they make the homelessness situation worse, while serving corporate interests.

“The Navigation Team does nothing but sweep homeless people…” claimed Sawant at the council meeting.

Sawant isn’t merely wrong, she’s lying. This is a long-used talking point in her crusade against the cleanups. She has previously leaked cleanup schedules to like minded activists, resulting in delays getting homeless into safe housing.

The Navigation Team, which includes case workers and SPD officers, connect homeless people with services, in addition to cleaning up encampments full of human waste, used needless, garbage, and rodents. I did a ride along with the Navigation Team and personally witnessed a couple go from an encampment to a Tiny Home Village. They didn’t appear to be worse off with access to a Tiny Home with heat, power, a bed, shower, and dedicated case workers helping them get back on their feet.

Councilmember Bruce Harrell called out Sawant’s rhetoric.

“I don’t think now is the time for grandstanding,” Harrell said. “Reducing the Navigation Team makes no sense to me at this point.”

He later called the Mosqueda plan “ill-advised” while Councilmember Sally Bagshaw called on expanding the Navigation Team even more.

“What you got here is going well,” Bagshaw pushed.

Still, Mosqueda and Sawant were joined by Councilmembers Lorena Gonzalez, Mike O’Brien and Lisa Herbold. Of the five council members who voted to cut the budget, only Herbold has done a ride along with the Navigation Team.

In an email to the Council and their staff, Deputy Mayor Michael Fong slammed the move, imploring them to reverse their decision.

“As winter approaches Seattle, the nearly half a million dollar cut proposed by Councilmember Mosqueda and passed Council today would be detrimental to the only multi-disciplinary coordinated program in the City working to connect people and families experiencing homelessness to shelter and services in every district throughout the City,” Fong wrote. “Because we have already expanded the team and filled the positions, this cut means losing positions that are helping to connect individuals with safer living alternatives such as the hundreds of new shelter beds and tiny houses that have opened this year. Mayor Durkan strongly opposes this cut and hopes the Council reverses this harmful decision to cut the Navigation Team.”

To deflect from the criticisms of cutting staff, both Herbold and Gonzalez claimed to not know the staff being cut had already been hired, something city insiders believe was a performance to give themselves political coverage. Indeed, how out of touch are they with the Team, if they’re surprised by some basic staffing details?

Mosequeda recently pushed for a pricey study looking at mass tents to house the homeless. Sharon Lee of the Low Income Housing Institute, a partner with the City of Seattle, harshly criticized that idea as dangerous, inhumane and likely to spread disease.

While the cleanups have been controversial with some on the council, many Seattle residents and businesses have praised the actions, which have resulted in homeless people being connected with actual services. Indeed, they’re on pace to place 400 homeless people in shelter.

The cuts would be used to fund higher wages for contracted city social workers (2 percent increased rates across general fund contractors, regardless of their effectiveness). In other words, the council cut four jobs to give very small increases in pay for others.

The Navigation Team jobs likely to be cut include the field coordinators, which run the team in the field, managing site inspections, making site observations, managing the cleanups, and making sure personal belongings are put into storage. These are some of the exact responsibilities the current Navigation Team critics demanded be taken.

“By supporting this measure going forward, I want to be clear I’m still supporting … an expansion of the Navigation Team,” O’Brien said before voting to effectively cut the Navigation Team.

Listen to the Jason Rantz Show weekday mornings from 6-9 a.m. on KTTH 770 AM (or HD Radio 97.3 FM HD-Channel 3). Subscribe to the podcast here.

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