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Seattle Navigation Team: Should they stay or should they go now?

Seattle police officers Wes Phillips, left, and Tori Newborn talk with Corvin Dobschutz as part of Seattle’s Navigation Team. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)

Better coordination among outreach teams, more access to hygiene centers, and a third-party evaluation of the Navigation Team. Those are among more than a dozen recommendations submitted by Seattle’s auditor recently.

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The auditor’s report is the second in a series focused on the city’s Navigation Team, as requested by Councilmember Lisa Herbold. The team is a combination of police and outreach workers aimed at helping people living in homeless encampments.

“There have been some in the homelessness advocacy community who have argued that the city should stop funding the Navigation Team altogether out of a feeling that it has not been effective getting people out of unsafe conditions and into shelter, or on the path to permanent housing,” Herbold said. “There are other people who feel strongly that the Navigation Team is a really critical part of the city’s homelessness response, to address unsheltered homelessness.”

Herbold supports the Navigation Team, but is asking for these reports so the city can take a close look at what they’re doing and how they’re doing it to find ways to improve the likelihood that they’re succeeding – getting people into shelter and permanent housing.

This particular report looked at a few key areas, but one of the biggest findings is “the need for greater coordination among not just the Navigation Team outreach workers, but the other outreach workers that the city funds, and that we should be using more of a tactical approach to coordinating those activities,” Herbold said.

Right now the Navigation Team does outreach, as do six other nonprofits that get funding from the city, along with a Seattle Public Utilities Team and increasingly the Seattle Police Department’s Community Policing Teams. SPD’s teams, according to the audit, are now spending 60-80 percent of their time doing work related to people living on the streets in “emphasis zones” designated by the Navigation Team.

That doesn’t include all the volunteers doing outreach with nonprofits which do not get city money. The problem is there is a lack of frequent, tactical communication and coordination between the various groups.

“One of the things that the auditor is identifying is the need to use an incident command system approach to both deploying outreach, as well as problem solving around individuals that people come into contact with during outreach,” Herbold said. “In particular, one of the things they point to, that perhaps we can do a better job at, is helping people who are newly unsheltered, like some other cities have done.”

London’s No Second Night Out program focused on getting first time homeless into a shelter right away, and of those, 75 percent did not spend a second night unsheltered. A similar program in New York also had success by focusing in on people just landing on the streets.

On the coordination front, the recommendation is to move back to using the FEMA Incident Command System, which is what Snohomish County has done for its opioid and homeless response effort. It’s basically regular communication between all departments that work together on their response and have weekly meetings, among other things.

It’s a system Herbold says the Navigation Team originally used in its first several months of operation, but that somehow got faded out when management of the team got shifted to the Human Services Department.

“It was intended to make sure that the department leading that work was really doing it with a people-centered focus, but we certainly didn’t intend for them to stop using those principles that are so important for coordination deployment,” Herbold said.

The auditor also pointed out the need for more hygiene centers, showers and bathrooms, citing an array of public health and safety risks around encampments. Such risks include generators covered by tarps, used syringes, homemade latrines and uncovered buckets of human waste, among several others.

The report recommends the city add significantly more enhanced shelters since they’re 24/7 and have bathrooms, more hygiene centers that also connect people with services and a standard of care for existing hygiene centers.

There are several other recommendations, including a call for the mayor have a rigorous third party evaluation of the Navigation Team approach.

For Herbold it’s about getting results, which includes setting clear expectations and holding the city’s Navigation Team to those goals – just like the performance standards that homeless service agencies have to meet if they want city funding.

“We are requiring this for all of our nonprofit, non-government providers, we need to require that for our own programs as well,” Herbold said. “That is what this has been about for me, continuous improvement towards meeting outcomes. But we need to have a continued conversation about what our expected outcomes are. In my mind, those outcomes shouldn’t be about removing an encampment and having no people be there for the next two weeks until they come back. That is not a satisfactory outcome for anybody.”

She’ll look for answers on what is going to be done with these recommendations when the auditor presents the report to her council committee next week.

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