Rantz: Seattle Councilmember Lisa Herbold tries to slow homeless cleanups

Aug 1, 2019, 5:59 AM
Lisa Herbold's house...
Seattle City Councilmember Lisa Herbold. (Seattle Channel)
(Seattle Channel)

When it comes to homelessness in Seattle, incumbent Councilmember Lisa Herbold has been a thorn in the side of the team tasked with connecting the homeless with resources and cleaning up our streets.

Seattle adds to Navigation Team as it expands homeless outreach efforts

Now that her record is in the spotlight, thanks to her re-election campaign, Herbold is trying to revise her record.

The progressive group People for Seattle is a political organization looking for significant change on the Seattle City Council and they have their eyes on Herbold’s vulnerable seat. They sent out a mailer attacking the council member as “Failing Seattle” with her “divisive politics, excuses, and bad decisions” that they say have failed her district.

The mailer criticizes a number of her questionable decisions, including support of the disastrous job-killing Amazon head tax. But, it also targets her record on combating homelessness, saying “Herbold voted to cut funding for the Navigation Teams tasked with reducing homeless camps.”

People for Seattle recommends you vote for Phil Tavel. The group was founded by Tim Burgess, former interim mayor and council member.

Herbold is now defending herself against the mailer.

“The fact is that I have never voted to cut funding for Navigation Teams,” she said, according to KUOW.

This is demonstrably false.

Herbold very clearly cut funding

Herbold joined four other council members in November 2018 to significantly cut the budget of the Navigation Team — by almost $500,000 in the first year of cuts — aligning herself with Councilmember Kshama Sawant, who claimed no homeless people are helped by the Navigation Team (a patently false statement; I even witnessed, during a cleanup, the Navigation Team connect a couple living on the streets with a Tiny Home in the South Lake Union village).

That cut meant a loss of four current staff members from the Human Services Department (HSD), which the Team operates under. I wrote about it here and it was all recorded on the Seattle Channel.

After they were given additional funding in 2018 from King County, the team increased their number of sweeps (which they refer to as cleanups) and increased their staff. Cutting the funds — $480,000 in 2019 and $244,000 in 2020 — would significantly roll back the sweeps.

“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, at the time, 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.”

The Navigation Team jobs that would have been cut included field coordinators, which run the team in the field, manage site inspections and cleanups, and ensured personal belongings are put into storage. They had already been hired using money from King County.

Only after pressure from the mayor’s office and outside voices, did the council restore the funding.

Seattle Council struggled to decipher their own homeless spending

Herbold could very easily — and honestly — argue she wasn’t happy with the way the additional staffers were hired, making budgetary issues more difficult to vote on, since the funds came from King County and caught her and other council members off guard. But they were hired, and the original vote would have resulted in the loss of jobs. To claim she didn’t vote to cut them is revisionist history.

This fight was just one external fight against the Navigation Team. Internally, however, Herbold has leaned on the Navigation Team to cease some of its work.

Herbold has been no fan of the Nav Team.

City staffers I’ve spoken to believe Herbold has not been supportive of the Navigation Team, working internally to nitpick at their work, with an eye towards stalling their cleanups, which, more recently, have increased. Some even suspect Herbold of leaking information to local bloggers friendly to her office, in order to help her win the media narrative. Beyond puff pieces suspiciously mirroring Herbold’s narrative, I’ve not seen direct evidence of leaks.

But emails, obtained by the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH, do show Herbold repeatedly attempting to stop sweeps from occurring. These sweeps connect homeless people with some form of short-term housing. But Herbold fought to keep people on the streets, believing it’d be easier to better connect them to resources if they weren’t being moved by the Navigation Team. Herbold’s office turned down multiple opportunities to speak with me about this.

To that point, Herbold repeatedly asked about trash pickups at homeless encampments. Navigation Team spokesperson Will Lemke, offered a detailed report of how trash is collected and managed, writing “there are limited options outside of SPU’s [Seattle Public Utilities] trash program for the Navigation Team to reduce garbage, debris, and waste impacts at sites. We do conduct litter-picks (garbage and debris removal) at larger sites to keep these negatives impacts in check.”

Lemke also noted that, in the past, “dumpsters have been deployed to sites (these were SPU resources, I believe) but attracted increased illegal dumping and other misuse, ultimately leading to the removal of dumpsters at a particular spot. Portable toilets have been deployed at other sites as well, but even with frequent cleanings, human waste continued to be deposited on the ground.”

In other words, despite their best efforts, the Navigation Team still runs into unhealthy homeless encampments that require sweeps for the safety of the homeless inhabitants.

Herbold wasn’t pleased. She called out the Navigation Team in an email on April 17, writing (in part):

Nav Team isn’t taking any actions to remediate garbage, beyond litter picks, in order to mitigate public health impacts that appear increasingly from my weekly review of your reports, are leading to removal of encampments that pose little other hazards; thus potentially disrupting outreach and engagement that may otherwise lead to desirable outcomes such as acceptance of alternative shelter/housing options.

Except, from HSD’s perspective, the email was filled with some misconceptions and half-truths. Meg Olberding, Director of External Affairs for HSD, responded to the email, saying the team does, in fact, “perform occasional litter pick-ups at encampments” but they have limited resources available to them, “as it requires a cleanup crew as well as a Field Coordinator to be present.” Ironic, of course, given Herbold, months later, would vote to cut staff from the Navigation Team.

Beyond the corrections by HSD, the Navigation Team will sometimes work with individuals for months. To claim, across the board, that the engagement is “disrupted” when a dangerous site is cleaned up, is disingenuous.

In another email, Herbold noted that encampments were being removed “for waste issues, without other prioritization factors included” and asked what the Navigation Team does “to try and mitigate garbage and waste impacts so that locations whose only issue is garbage and waste might have the opportunity to stay in place in those cases that the city and residents can work together?”

Lemke assured Herbold that they work “for many months” to get people off the streets prior to a cleanup, but that “garbage and human waste concerns remain a concern at many encampments.”

Herbold’s office, via the council’s communications department, turned down multiple requests for an interview, claiming, “It’s a busy time of year, as you know, so I don’t expect that she’ll be free this week.”

Residents seem fed up

This news comes as Herbold is in what many believe to be a tight race against Tavel and former Seattle Police lieutenant Brendan Kolding. A key issue of this race — like in every other district — is the homelessness issue, and it would appear that Herbold is a big part of the problem.

Last October, I spoke with a gym operations manager fed up with how homelessness is impacting his business after a 15-passenger van crashed into it.

“It’s really become critical this past year,” Dan Lehr told the Jason Rantz Show, referring to the RVs parked in the neighborhood surrounding his West Seattle Health Club. “This past year, there’s not only been an increase in the volume of the RVs, but the people occupying the RVs are much more dangerous — I’ve been physically confronted three times.”

In late June, a local group called Unified Seattle helped clean up Longfellow Creek forests in West Seattle. Kolding was there to help. They found roughly 100 used needles in the area, at now-vacant encampments. A school is nearby.

Seeing this firsthand brought home for Kolding what he believes he needs to do both as a parent and council candidate.

“The first thing that goes to mind is as a parent is that my kids live in this area,” Kolding told the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH. “I don’t want them encountering this. As a candidate, it’s that this is the product of failed leadership coming from city hall for many years, where we’ve allowed this situation to perpetuate to the point where you really can’t look under a tree anymore without finding this sort of thing.”

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Rantz: Seattle Councilmember Lisa Herbold tries to slow homeless cleanups