A proposed low-barrier, 24/7 shelter called the Navigation Center won’t open by the end of the year as planned because of issues with site selection, city officials told the city council’s human services committee Monday. A second planned 24/7 shelter will be much more like a bare-bones traditional shelter—not pets, property, or partners allowed. Four planned encampments may now be three, since the city has had trouble locating a suitable site for the fourth. And ongoing sweeps to “clean up” unauthorized tent encampments will no longer be monitored by the Office of Civil Rights, whose work revamping protocols for tearing down encampments the mayor’s office says is now complete.
Oh, and those trash cleanups at encampments that neighbors fed up with seeing litter and needles have been demanding? They’re not exactly working out as planned, in part because some trash contractors hired by the city are refusing to venture into the encampments.
The mayor’s director of homelessness and officials from the Human Services Department, Finance and Administrative Services, and Seattle Public Utilities briefed the council on the status of what the mayor’s office is now calling “Bridging the Gap”—the plan to add new encampments and shelter beds while the city ramps up its large-scale plan to address homelessness, a voucher-based “rapid rehousing” proposal called Pathways Home. As homelessness director George Scarola described it today, Bridging the Gap is “an interim plan that is how the city responds not just to encampments, but to the issues of garbage, needles, and crime that community members associate with encampments.”
There’s a lot to unpack from today’s status report, starting with the news that the Navigation Center is behind schedule.
The contract to operate the Navigation Center went to the Downtown Emergency Service Center, the most experienced provider of low-barrier shelter services in Seattle, last month. Despite initial plans to open the center in November or December —in time to get some hard-to-house people inside for the winter—the city has yet to announce a site, which pushes the project back at least a couple of months. “Identifying a site has taken longer than we originally [anticipated], so we’re going to have to issue a new timeline once the site has been identified,” said Jason Johnson, HSD’s deputy director, today.
When we spoke last week, Johnson told me that the Navigation Center will be designed to shelter people with barriers (including active problems with substance abuse) that have kept them out of traditional shelters, and won’t be a traditional first-come, first-served facility like DESC’s large shelter at the Morrison Hotel downtown; outreach workers will identify candidates for the center at homeless encampments and on the streets (in San Francisco, the Navigation Center typically identifies new “guests” when the city sweeps homeless encampments there)and bring them to the center. When they arrive, Johnson continued, they’ll get notice of the center’s “30-day expectation”—that is, the understanding that guests are expected to leave the center within 30 days of their arrival. “It’s not that on day 29, someone’s going to be given an eviction notice, but yes, we set a 30-day expectation on all our shelter programs,” Johnson said. The average shelter stay in King County is around 200 days.
Johnson mentioned the 30-day expectation in today’s council meeting, calling the Navigation Center “a place where people can remain in a shelter with a roof over their head, but the entire time they’re there, we’re working on their exit.”
Those who don’t qualify for the Navigation Center, or can’t find a space in the new encampments or existing shelters, would also have the option of spending the night in one of the new low-barrier shelters the city said it also hoped to open next year. These lower-cost facilities would include lockers, but people wouldn’t be able to hold on to large quantities of possessions or bring their pets or partners with them. Most likely, these shelters would look similar to DESC’s current facilities, which include small lockers and gender-segregated dorms with metal bunk beds set up head-to-foot across a large, warehouse-style room.
Alternately, they could apply for a spot at one of the city’s three new sanctioned encampments, in North Seattle, South Seattle, and South Park. However, those new camps will house fewer than 200 people, leaving thousands still outside. Originally, Mayor Ed Murray had announced that the city would open four new sanctioned camps, but Scarola said the city had had trouble siting a fourth, and anyway, “They will fill gradually, they won’t fill overnight, and we’ll see what the market [need] is for the fourth site.“
Ultimately, city staffers emphasized, the goal is to transition the county’s entire human services and homeless housing infrastructure over to the framework described in Pathways Home, a plan touted by Mayor Ed Murray and most council members that would provide homeless people with short-term vouchers to help them rent apartments on the private market, and assumes that many people will have to be severely rent-burdened or move far away from the city of Seattle to find a place they can afford.
(At a public forum on rapid rehousing the other night, several service providers and housing experts panned this plan for imposing de facto segregation on low-income people, and suggested the real problem was not a lack of flexibility on the part of homeless people, but a lack of affordable housing. In response to those critiques. HSD director Katherine Lester shot back, “Are we waiting for a perfect situation? Or do we want people to get indoors?”)
The Navigation Center will shelter about 75 people. The three new encampments might add (substandard) shelter for another 150 to 200. That still leaves thousands of people sleeping outside, in doorways and alleys and the unsanctioned encampments that cause neighborhoods such consternation. To address these perceived public safety issues—including, council members and staffers noted pointedly, the safety of people living in encampments—the city plans to continue its practice of periodic sweeps, under protocols that are still being hashed out by the mayor’s office.
“One of the most contentious topics that [the mayor’s] task force [on encampments] took up was the protocols on where and when city would be cleaning up encampments,” said FAS director Chris Potter. “We embrace the need for, and process of, having other people weigh in on the [protocols], and I fully expect that will be a very extensive and contentious process.” Potter said council members could expect to see a draft of the sweeps protocols by the end of January.
Council member Lisa Herbold said she had been told back in November that whatever the protocols end up being, the Seattle Office of Civil Rights—which was charged with monitoring encampment removals and making sure workers were complying with rules about notice and disposal of people’s possessions—will no longer be monitoring the sweeps. A Seattle Times report yesterday detailed many apparent violations of existing protocols for encampment removal between September and November of this year, and described several sweeps that were shut down after SOCR monitors observed violations of the rules.
“I want to know if the executive feels there is not value to be added by the unique perspective that SOCR brings to monitoring this work, and if an FAS staffer can adequately replace that value,” Herbold said. Potter responded that, basically, SOCR has been helpful at suggesting new practices, like posting stickers on tents to give their occupants advance notice of sweeps, but “we want to operationalize and routinize the process of encampment removal.” Then he changed the subject to the reports FAS plans to publish detailing the outcome of each future encampment sweep.
Despite what sounded like an awful lot of bad news—no more civil-rights monitoring of sweeps, fewer encampments than anticipated, delays to the Navigation Center, a huge unmet need—both Scarola and committee chair Sally Bagshaw seemed remarkably bullish on the city’s homelessness efforts. “We are at the point where big changes are going to happen, and people in our city are going to be able to see that big changes are happening,” Bagshaw said. It was unclear to which people she was referring.
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