Audit Calls Seattle’s Approach to Homelessness “A Dangerous Guess”

A new city audit of the Navigation Team, which looks at data that the city’s Human Services Department collected during the second quarter of 2018, concludes that HSD is not doing enough to coordinate the efforts of the many agencies who do outreach to people living unsheltered; has failed to identify and prioritize people who have recently become homeless for the first time (and who would be prime candidates for low-cost diversion programs); does not provide nearly enough restrooms or showers for the thousands of people sleeping outdoors throughout the city; and does not have a good system in place for evaluating the success of the city’s response to homelessness. Data from the executive branch has lagged significantly, which is one reason the auditor is just now releasing a report on the second quarter of last year.

The Navigation Team, which was expanded to 30 positions last year, consists of uniformed police officers and outreach workers who remove unauthorized encampments and provide referrals to available shelter beds and services. Although most people living in encampments simply move along to the next place (or return to the same place), some do accept services or go in to shelters, and when those shelters are enhanced shelters—shelters that accept people as they are, with active addictions and partners and possessions they don’t want to give up—they sometimes lead to permanent housing.

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The problem, the audit says, is that the city does not have a rigorous system of analysis in place for tracking the Navigation Team’s success at getting people into housing, so it’s difficult to say whether the team, which was expanded to 30 positions last year, has been successful. As council member Lisa Herbold put it in a letter to acting HSD director Jason Johnson last month, “[I] continue to be concerned that a considerable and sizable uptick in removals is happening in the absence of any [demonstrable] outcomes. Without the latter, the former is just perpetuating a situation where people reoccupy the same places or new places that are equally problematic.”

Mayor Durkan, the audit says, still has not agreed to allow an independent assessment of the Navigation Team’s success at getting people off the street and into permanent housing. The audit notes that a similar report, back in 2017, listed “possible low-cost and no-cost opportunities for rigorous independent evaluation for the City,” but that “[t]he Executive’s Quarter 2 Response concluded that, ‘many of the rigorous academic evaluation options suggested by the City Auditor would incur a high cost and are only utilized after a program has been through a few years of practice.'”

The report continues:

The Executive’s resistance to pursuing rigorous independent evaluation, even at no-cost or low-cost to the City, is concerning. As noted above by the criminologist Joan McCord, 32 without rigorous evaluation, the City’s approach to addressing unsheltered homelessness remains “a dangerous guess.” Our 2017 report raised questions about the potential for unintended consequences as a result of the City’s current approaches. These include the potential public health and safety consequences from a lack of adequate sanitation and hygiene strategies and potential traumatic exposure for unsheltered individuals from the use of police in an outreach capacity.

What do those public health and safety consequences look like? Well, according to the audit, they include a lack of access to basic hygiene facilities (like showers) and restrooms that are open outside normal business hours. Only six city-funded restrooms are available all day and night, the report found—and four of those are port-a-potties that are “poorly-lit and [with] no running water,” according to the report. (Three of those four, moreover, “were damaged in a way that adversely affected their usability (e.g., no toilet seat, no sanitizer dispenser, broken ADA rail)” and at least one had not been cleaned in more than a week. In contrast, UN human-rights standards would require at least 224 public restrooms distributed throughout Seattle to adequately serve the city’s homeless population.

When council members and advocates have brought up the lack of restrooms and showers accessible to homeless people in the past, the mayor’s office and HSD have distributed lists of all the restrooms and showers that are available, and suggested that people who need to use these facilities seek shelter at “enhanced shelters” that provide 24/7 access. However, as the report confirms, there simply aren’t enough of these shelters across enough of the city to actually serve the thousands of homeless people sleeping outdoors on any given night.

“Given that the 2018 point in time count found that, in Seattle, 4,488 people were unsheltered (i.e., they were sleeping in tents, vehicles and RVs, and on the street), the current availability of 24-hour restrooms should be examined,” the report concludes. Homeless advocates have also argued that because the need for restrooms is universal, people should not be required to enter the formal shelter system as a prerequisite for going to the bathroom or accessing shower and laundry facilities. The audit also found that most of the city’s drop-in showers are open limited hours and concentrated downtown; Council District 5, in far north Seattle, does not have a single drop-in shower station. (Additionally, some “free” public showers do not provide towels or charge for towels, the audit found.) In contrast, other cities have mobile restrooms and showers and offer more 24/7 facilities outside the formal shelter system.

The audit also faulted the executive for decentralizing the city’s homelessness response, starting in late 2017 when it decommissioned  the city’s Emergency Operations Center, which began meeting after the declaration of a homelessness “emergency,” in 2015, but was deactivated in late 2017. The city’s homeless outreach strategy is spread across several departments with confusing and messy chains of command. The audit criticizes the city for having “no system for frequent tactical communication among all homeless outreach providers [and] not currently thinking of homeless outreach ‘as a complete system.’ This lack of coordination limits the City’s ability to provide proactive outreach to newly unsheltered individuals before they become chronically unsheltered.” The city simply doesn’t have a coordinated strategy for reaching people who have just become homeless, who are prime candidates for low-cost diversion tactics such as family reunification, the audit found; instead, the Navigation Team encounters newly homeless people only haphazardly, as it investigates and removes encampments that are deemed to be dangerous. “We recommend that the City consider improving its capacity for receiving reports of newly unsheltered individuals and quickly dispatching outreach.”

Herbold’s letter notes that people who are referred to shelters through the Navigation Team tend to stay in shelters longer than other clients, tying up beds, and suggests that one reason for this is that the Navigation Team doesn’t assess people for their housing eligibility prior to sending them to shelter (at which point their score on a standardized scoring tool used to determine their eligibility for housing goes down, because they are no longer unsheltered.) In response to Herbold’s questions, an HSD spokeswoman said that the Navigation Team often has to act quickly and “forgo a field assessment as it will be later conducted at shelter intake and through subsequent case management. This approach capitalizes on the team making connections to shelter resources in a timely manner before an opportunity disappears.”

The audit recommends that the city consider coordination models pioneered by other US jurisdictions, including San Francisco and Snohomish County, which use a coordination approach developed by FEMA called Incident Command System (ICS). The city used to use some elements of ICS to coordinate its response to homelessness, but stopped doing so in 2017 when it discontinued the use of the emergency operations center.

Read the whole audit here (skip page 23 if you want to avoid one really gross restroom photo). The mayor’s office did not respond to an email seeking responses  the audit.

5 thoughts on “Audit Calls Seattle’s Approach to Homelessness “A Dangerous Guess””

  1. Fixing the reporting lines is basic operations stuff. What the hell? This is fundamental and fascilitating diversion is one of the most cost effective means of reducing homelessness. No wonder why there was so much opposition to rhe head tax. Let’s get the simple stuff done first. People are dying in the streets and there is no excuse for incompetence.

  2. It’s a little difficult to conceptualize San Francisco as a model given the prevalence of visible homelessness there… but I suppose this audit was focused on the triage-end of things, not the entirety of the problem. So, perhaps SF does better at this stuff, and just has more severe lack of adequate housing supply? When I visited recently (first time, admittedly), the homelessness seemed somehow more entrenched than in Seattle – like folks had been doing it longer. Hard to articulate exactly, but it was like people didn’t just have a cart with their stuff in it… they had built shantytown-type structures out of cardboard… it looked more enduring, less new. But, I guess that could point to a different suite of problems than what this audit found for Seattle… not being an expert, I find it difficult to wrap my mind around all the many ways the system has broken down to get us to where we are today. This audit has good information about some of the breakdown; I wonder what having a Mayor who comes from a real place of expertise on this issue would be able to accomplish, with this audit in hand…

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