1. Seattle Human Services Department director Jason Johnson acknowledged that the city’s Navigation Team is now dedicated primarily to removing tents and people from public spaces, rather than providing outreach and services, at a meeting of the city council’s special committee on homelessness on Monday.
In an update on the work of the Navigation Team—recently expanded to include two new “system navigators” after the nonprofit that had been trying to connect homeless people living in encampments to services, REACH, said it would no longer participate in removals—Johnson told council members that “most” of the people the Navigation Team encounters when clearing out encampments “are complying, meaning they are moving themselves and their belongings out of the right-of-way and are not engaging in a services conversation with the system navigators.” The navigators were supposed to replace REACH outreach workers, who stopped participating in removals when it became clear that their presence was harming their ability to build trust with unsheltered people traumatized by frequent sweeps.
This is hardly surprising—under new policies implemented by Mayor Jenny Durkan, the Navigation Team now focuses overwhelmingly on removing “obstruction” encampments without providing any prior notice or outreach, which tends to engender hostility and mistrust—but it was an unusually blunt acknowledgement of the facts on the ground.
Deputy Mayor David Moseley added that the city has no problem with people living outdoors—they just aren’t allowed to have any possessions that would make it slightly safer for them to do so. “Our mantra has been, it’s perfectly fine for you to stay here, but your equipment that’s obstructing the public right-of-way can’t.” (He clarified that by “equipment” he meant things like “your tent that is obstructing a wheelchair.”) Tess Colby, the mayor’s homelessness advisor, added that homeless people had been “taking over” dugouts, picnic areas, and P-Patches, and the Navigation Team’s goal is to “get the public spaces back for public use.” In other words, unsheltered people are allowed to exist in public spaces, but they can’t have any type of shelter from the elements—a view that may comply with the recent 9th Circuit ruling that homeless people have a right to sleep, but is somewhat at odds with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
In any case, there aren’t enough places for people to go. Even leaving aside the fact that directing traumatized people to mats on the ground hardly qualifies as”outreach and services” most people living unsheltered require, the Human Services Department’s own numbers, which they also presented Monday, show that there are, on average, only 17 beds of any kind available to the Navigation Team. Last month, the Navigation Team referred a total of 18 people to shelter, according to the city’s data.
2. NEW at 1pm Tuesday: On Tuesday, the city’s LGBTQ Commission sent a letter to Mayor Durkan and the council criticizing the recent increase in encampment removals, including the sharp increase in removals with no notice to residents. Citing reporting by this site, the commission wrote, “The current policy of encampment removals does nothing to solve the underlying issues that lead to homelessness, and instead this escalation seems to be a way to make it appear that the city is taking action versus gathering the political will to raise revenue to support real change.” Noting that LGBTQ+ and other marginalized people are more likely to become homeless, the letter continues, “Until there are adequate numbers of safe short-term beds available, there is a significant risk that folks whose tents are confiscated or destroyed in an encampment removal will have even less shelter from the elements than they had before.”
3. Also at Monday’s meeting, Johnson confirmed that the “see a tent, report a tent” posters that made the social-media rounds last weekend were not produced by the city, but added that the city does consider the Find It Fix It app an appropriate place to report people experiencing homelessness to the Navigation Team. “If there is someone you’re concerned with who is sleeping outdoors it is also a way to get that on the Navigation Team’s radar,” Johnson said. “It is through the Find It Fix It app that we can be alerted to someone who is in distress and may be in need of services.”
Council member Teresa Mosqueda asked Johnson to clarify that reporting tents is not the intended use of the app. “What is our response to people who have used the app in this inappropriate way?” she asked. “You can use the Find It Fix It app to report all sorts of inappropriate things,” Johnson responded.
As I reported last month, 20 percent of all illegal dumping reports made through the app are recategorized as illegal camping and referred to the Navigation Team.