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Seattle budget changes may upend the city's response to homeless encampments

In this photo taken March 23, 2017, outreach worker Brenda Frazier, left, walks with Seattle police officers Tori Newborn, right, and Wes Phillips past tents housing homeless people below a freeway next to downtown Seattle.
Elaine Thompson
The Associated Press
In this photo taken March 23, 2017, outreach worker Brenda Frazier, left, walks with Seattle police officers Tori Newborn, right, and Wes Phillips past tents housing homeless people below a freeway next to downtown Seattle.

Budget changes in Seattle could upend how the city responds to encampments of people living outside in tents and makeshift houses.

This week, a majority of City Council members voted to remove funding from the city's three-year-old Navigation Team, which is made up of police officers and outreach workers who respond to encampments. Members of the team disband or "sweep" encampments while also trying to connect the people displaced with shelter and other services.

Homeless advocates celebrated the move, saying the team's outreach efforts only provided political cover for sweeping encampments, a practice they oppose as inhumane.

But Mayor Jenny Durkan's office said it would hamper the city's efforts to preserve the health and safety of parks and other public places. 

Council members who supported defunding the Navigation Team in a 5-4 vote said they wanted to shift funding to contractors doing outreach with the homeless population. Those nonprofit groups, they said, have proven more effective at moving people into homes and shelters without sweeping them from encampment to encampment. 

"What we need to do is invest in those kinds of organizations that are already doing the good work, to help them scale up, because they have the trust of the homeless community," said Councilmember Tammy Morales. "They have the connections and the relationships with the shelter providers and other mental health services folks might need."

The shift would take resources away from sweeps of encampments, but not end sweeps entirely. Councilmember Lisa Herbold said police will likely continue sweeping camps deemed to be "obstructions" — actions that have gone on separately from the Navigation Team's work.

Council President Lorena González said she believed disbanding the Navigation Team would actually result in fewer encampments "because we will be effectively moving our unhoused neighbors from those encampments to shelter, permanent supportive housing, or another type of housing that meets their needs."

The defunding of the Navigation Team, and other budget changes, await a final vote scheduled for Monday

Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness executive director Alison Eisinger, whose organization has advocated for years to end sweeps, called the Navigation Team a "deeply cynical" effort that prioritized clean-ups and the concerns of people upset by the sight of homelessness over the needs of unsheltered people.

"The Nav Team came into existence as a political tool designed by someone in then-Mayor Ed Murray’s office with the intent of making it appear there was meaningful activity in response to complaints," she said. "It was never rooted in outreach."

The mayor's office said council members' plan to disband the team "does not offer an alternative for how the City will address encampments that pose significant public health or public safety concerns, or maintain accessibility of parks, sidewalks, streets, alleyways and businesses."

"During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Navigation Team has dramatically changed their focus to outreach and referrals to shelter," said the statement from Durkan's office. "The Mayor has and will continue to support additional resources for outreach and engagement for unsheltered individuals, but also believes we have to recognize that there are circumstances in which an encampment should be removed."

Council members mentioned several contractors that might receive funding for outreach work if the Navigation Team is disbanded. They included REACH, the Co-LEAD program, and DESC.

REACH staff made up the original outreach arm of the Navigation Team, but last year scaled back their involvement in the team and stopped participating in sweeps.

Chloe Gale, co-director of REACH, said the team was overly focused on clearing encampments and moving people into shelters when that's not the best option for everyone.

She said REACH outreach workers' presence at sweeps undermined trust they had built with people they were trying to help.

"What we saw happen over time is that more and more people saw the Nav Team as the front door of a sweep," Gale said. "Our staff, and our ability to form trusting relationships, was tremendously impacted, because we were seen as the soft, nice people in front of the uniformed officers who were coming right behind to tell them to leave." 

Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.