Seattle council slams Navigation Team on homeless camp sweeps

Feb 27, 2020, 8:54 AM | Updated: 4:10 pm

A presentation by Seattle’s Navigation Team to a City Council committee got heated Wednesday, punctuated by a flood of questions about how the team handles its homeless encampment sweeps.

Sawant calls to end Navigation Team funding in fight against sweeps

The Navigation Team’s presentation to the Homeless Strategies and Investments Committee was slow going, with Human Services representatives moving through less than half of its agenda in the first hour.

Councilmembers repeatedly questioned the Navigation Team’s claim that it offers shelter to every person it comes into contact with during sweeps, pointing out the relatively low rate of accepted offers (around 24 percent according to data presented by the Human Services Department).

“I cannot wrap my head around how out of touch this sort of bureaucratic presentation is,” said Councilmember Kshama Sawant. “You’re saying you’re doing all this, but it’s not happening.”

Navigation Team Director Tara Beck allowed that outreach workers are not sent out to camps that aren’t subject to a 72-hour notice of removal, including sweeps done by police. Roughly 96% of encampment sweeps fall under that exemption.

“How can you say you are offering people shelter, when 96% of encampment removals are exempt from prior notice requirements?” posited Councilmember Lisa Herbold.

“This all feels very disingenuous,” agreed Councilmember Tammy Morales.

Further concerns were voiced when Beck admitted that with 12 available beds on average per night in Seattle, oftentimes that lack of availability is mitigated by the Navigation Team not expecting most offers to be accepted.

The exception to that is for 72-hour camp removals, where sweeps are required to halt until shelter space becomes available. Given that those make up just 4% of operations, councilmembers were worried about the ability to actually provide the shelter being offered.

“In saying that we make an offer to all of the individuals we are sweeping, how does that get reconciled with the very few, limited number of beds each day?” asked Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda. “We’re talking about 12 beds total on average a night — when we say that we are making an offer of shelter, it doesn’t sound to me like we are making a meaningful offer of shelter.”

In teams of metrics to measure success, the Navigation Team has often touted the amount of trash and obstructions it cleans up from encampments. Earlier in February, it released data detailing how it cleared almost 1,600 tons of garbage, waste, and debris from public property in the fourth quarter of 2019 alone.

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

That, according to Councilmember Morales, doesn’t paint a clear enough picture of what defines success for the program.

“We’re spending an incredible amount of money moving people from one place to another without actually providing services to them, and then we’re using metrics of success like how much garbage we’ve cleaned up,” she denounced. “The true metric of success …  is how many lives we are saving and how many people we are getting into housing. That’s what our performance based outcomes should be focused on: Protecting people instead of just property and trash cleanup.”

Human Services representatives countered that by saying they are “paying a lot of attention to what happens with individuals, but part of that work is very logistical coordination of cleanup efforts to make sure our city is clean.”

In terms of the path forward, councilmembers expressed interest in taking a closer look at how Navigation Team funding is being spent, hinting at a possible shift away from sweeping encampments toward more permanent housing solutions.

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