Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office sent council members a letter today outlining potential devastating consequences if the city council eliminates or reduces the size of the Navigation Team, a group of police officers and city staffers who remove unauthorized encampments. The letter, signed by the heads of seven executive departments that report to Durkan (plus the director of the Seattle-King County Department of Public Health), suggests that between 95 and 476 fewer people will receive referrals to shelter next year if the council reduces funding for the Navigation Team.
“The Navigation Team’s trained police officers, Field Coordinators and System Navigators engage people experiencing homelessness in some of Seattle’s most dangerous and inaccessible locations, establishing the rapport and trust needed to provide critical services,” the memo says.
But the biggest issue with the warning in the mayor’s memo is that no one, except embattled city council member Kshama Sawant, is seeking to “eliminate” the Navigation Team. In fact—alarmist headlines about “draconian budget cuts” aside—no one but Sawant has proposed cutting the program at all, and not one council member has expressed support for Sawant’s idea.
There are a few issues with this analysis. The first is that referrals to shelter matter less than how many people actually end up going to shelter. According to the city’s own numbers (first reported by The C Is for Crank), fewer than a third of all shelter referrals result in a person actually accessing a shelter bed, so the actual number of people who might not access shelter through the Navigation Team is more like 28 to 143 people a year.
The second issue is that the Navigation Team, by the city’s own admission, now focuses primarily on removing encampments it considers “obstructions,” an expansive term that can apply to any tent set up in a park or public right-of-way. According to outreach workers, these zero-notice removals do not establish “rapport” or “trust”; quite the opposite. That’s why the city’s nonprofit outreach provider, REACH, stopped participating in “obstruction” removals earlier this year.
But the biggest issue with the alarming memo is that no one, except embattled city council member Kshama Sawant, is seeking to “eliminate” the Navigation Team. In fact—alarmist headlines about “draconian budget cuts” aside—no one but Sawant has proposed cutting the program at all, and not one council member has expressed support for Sawant’s idea. The only other proposed restriction on the Navigation Team is the renewal of an existing budget proviso that requires the team to produce data on its progress, which isn’t the same thing as a cut. And at least one council member—Debora Juarez—actually wants to make the Navigation Team even bigger.
“I have ongoing concerns about pretending that the Navigation Team is actually connecting people to services and shelter when the numbers, in terms of performance, [are] dismal. If the Navigation Team was a service provider, their contract would have been canceled at this point.” — City Council member Lorena Gonzalez
The real targets for the executive department’s memo may have been council members like Sally Bagshaw, who remarked that she had never seen such consensus among city departments, and the local media, who ran with Durkan’s story line without mentioning that Sawant’s proposal has approximately a zero percent chance of passing. (Bagshaw’s comment about departmental unity led her colleague Lorena Gonzalez to quip, “I don’t disagree that there is consensus amongst the executive.”)
That isn’t to say that council members didn’t have critical things to say about the Navigation Team, which has ballooned in size during the Durkan Administration, from 22 members in 2017 to 38 this year. (After the team’s nonprofit outreach partner, REACH, stopped participating in no-notice “obstruction” removals this summer, Durkan added four more members to the team, funding two of them with one-time funds; her budget proposal, much like last year’s, seeks to make those positions permanent).
Gonzalez suggested that, given the team’s extremely low ratio of “contacts” to shelter acceptance (just 8 percent of those the team contacts end up in shelter), the city should stop pretending it is “navigating” anyone to anywhere and just start calling it a “cleanup” operation.
“I have ongoing concerns about pretending that the Navigation Team is actually connecting people to services and shelter when the numbers, in terms of performance, [are] dismal,” Gonzalez said. “If the Navigation Team was a service provider, their contract would have been canceled at this point.”
Bagshaw countered that the Navigation Team does more than “cleanups”; they also offer services and help combat what she called “a sense of less than safety in a neighborhood. … We’ve got to put our arms around the people in the neighborhoods as well,” she said.
Herbold’s proposed proviso would require the council to approve the Navigation Team’s funding every quarter based on whether it was making progress on responding to a set of recommendations the city auditor made back in 2018, many of which Herbold said the mayor’s office and HSD have “indicated that they have no intention of addressing.” One of those recommendations has to do with the Navigation Team’s staffing model and whether the current structure of the team makes sense. “We have not asked them to change the staffing model; we have asked them to do a staffing assessment. And the reason for that is that the staffing configuration might have an impact on the Navigation Team’s ability to meet our shared objectives,” Herbold said.
Juarez’s proposed budget add, in contrast, would expand the Navigation Team by two more members to serve north Seattle, which Juarez said has seen “a lot more unsanctioned encampments… that are just being ignored.” Gonzalez questioned Juarez’s proposal, asking why the existing Navigation Team couldn’t be deployed to serve the north end if that’s where the need is, and Herbold warned against making decisions about where to deploy the team based on complaints or anecdotes rather than data. “I am concerned that if we look at a geographic focus, that is going to really turn this whole body of work into one that is driven by what locations are getting the most complaints rather than what locations are creating the largest actual, objective problems,” she said.
The mayor’s memo, perhaps inadvertently, backs up the notion that complaints translate into action. On page 7, the memo details the number of calls the city has received this year about unauthorized encampments, broken down by council district. Not surprisingly, the districts representing North Seattle and downtown Seattle/Queen Anne—districts that tend to be wealthier and whiter than those south of I-90—called most frequently to report encampments, while the city’s two southernmost districts complained about encampments the least. The districts that called the most frequently also appear to have received the most frequent visits from the Navigation Team, as represented in the heat map attached to the memo (above).
Other potential housing and homelessness-related budget changes the council discussed today:
• A proposal by Gonzalez to reduce funding for a new program that would help moderate-income homeowners secure private loans to build secondary rental units for moderate-income renters in their homes or backyards, from $6 million to $2.5 million. Gonzalez has repeatedly asked for a racial equity analysis of the proposal, which would subsidize families making up to $130,000 (for a family of four), but it still hasn’t happened. Because the mayor’s office “misrepresented” their intentions and provided her with “inaccurate” information about the proposal, Gonzalez said, “I am motivated to make sure, again, that we are right-sizing this and making sure that we are going to meet the intended and stated goals” of preventing homeowner displacement. The $3.5 million freed up by the cut would go to the city’s Equitable Development Initiative and toward funding community land trusts, which create affordable homeownership opportunities.
• Proposals to repurpose large chunks of the proceeds from the Mercer Megablock sale to housing needs other than the ones Durkan identified, including unspecified “strategic investments” in affordable housing construction, and reallocating some of the proceeds to pay for shovel-ready rental housing projects identified through the Office of Housing’s annual Notice of Funding Availability process, which always has to turn away worthy projects for lack of funds.
• Potential cuts to a “safe parking” plan from the mayor’s office that is similar to one council member Mike O’Brien proposed 10 years ago, in which faith-based organizations allowed people living in their cars to sleep in their parking lots. (Durkan nearly launched, then scuttled, plans to open a centralized safe location for people living in their vehicles earlier this year.) The O’Brien-backed “Road 2 Housing” program was challenged by the difficulty of meeting the conditions set by each individual church on an ad hoc basis, and by problems of scale—it’s hard to address a citywide problem three to five cars at a time—and ultimately only served a few dozen households a year. Bagshaw said she’d heard of similar programs that are seeing results in other cities, but it’s unclear how the mayor’s program would differ from the one the city already tried and abandoned.
• Potential cuts to a $2 million line item to set up and staff the new regional homelessness agency, which is a joint effort between Seattle and King County. Council staffers flagged that the mayor’s budget calls for more than $1 million in ongoing staffing costs for the new agency, including five management-level positions and a head-hunter, and Herbold suggested that the city should consider whether it wants to get stuck in the position of funding those staffers on a long-term basis. As I’ve reported, the city is spending more than the county to get the agency up and running; the county’s contribution to startup costs consist of tenant improvements in the agency’s new headquarters at the county-owned Yesler Building, plus the use of one floor of the building that is currently sitting vacant, which the county values at $455,000.