Council Scrutinizes Navigation Team Report: No Progress on Shelter as Zero-Notice Encampment Removals Hit Highest Rate Ever

1. Seattle Police Department Lt. Sina Ebinger, the Navigation Team leader who ordered a private trash contractor to haul away items from her house earlier this month, has reportedly been reassigned to other duties while the Office of Police Accountability conducts an investigation into the incident. Meanwhile, Sili Kalepo, the field coordinator who reportedly oversaw the trash pickup at Ebinger’s house, has reportedly been put on administrative leave by the Human Services Department.

SPD spokesman Patrick Michaud said the department isn’t “going to have any further comment on this investigation until it is complete” and suggested I could find out Lt. Ebinger’s current employment status with the department by filing a public disclosure request, which I have done. A spokesman for HSD said he couldn’t provide any details on an ongoing investigation but confirmed that Kalepo’s conduct is under review.

2. The Navigation Team’s encampment removal practices will come under scrutiny from the council’s special committee on homelessness Wednesday, when HSD director Jason Johnson and team director Tara Beck present a report responding to a number of council questions, including how the Navigation Team determines that an encampment is an “obstruction” that must be removed right away and how the team plans to increase the number of displaced encampment residents who actually show up to shelter. (These quarterly reports, which always cover a different set of questions, are required under a budget proviso adopted several years back.)

Under Mayor Jenny Durkan, the Navigation Team has moved away from providing 72 hours’ notice and offers of shelter and services before removing unauthorized encampments—the “navigation” part of the equation—to a model where encampments are routinely designated as “obstructions” and removed without warning.

The report makes clear that the Navigation Team considers any encampment located in a public park or right-of-way to be an “obstruction” that can be removed without notice or outreach, regardless of whether it is actually impeding anyone’s use of the park or right-of-way.

The latest quarterly report confirms the continued escalation of this trend, noting that in the last three months of 2019, the team provided the once-standard 72 hours’ notice and outreach to just 11 encampments, compared to 292 encampments that were deemed “obstructions” or “hazards” and removed without warning. Put another way, the Navigation Team deemed 96 percent of the encampments it removed in 2019 to be exempt from the once-standard outreach and notification rules adopted in 2017. At the same time, the total number of encampment removals has continued to escalate; in the last quarter of 2019, according to a memo by council central staff, the number of encampment removals doubled compared to one year earlier.

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These numbers only account for encampments removed by the Navigation Team; as I’ve reported, some police officers have also been trained to remove encampments directly, without providing outreach or shelter referrals; during a three-month period last year, police authorized to remove encampments reported 515 “interactions” with people living in unsanctioned encampments, and made just nine referrals to shelter.

The report makes clear that the Navigation Team considers any encampment located in a public park or right-of-way to be an “obstruction” that can be removed without notice or outreach, regardless of whether it is actually impeding anyone’s use of the park or right-of-way. Citing the definition of “obstruction” from the city’s rules on unauthorized encampments, which includes “people, tents, personal property, garbage, debris or other objects related to an encampment that: are in a City park or on a public sidewalk,” the Navigation Team’s report argues: “Each of the items in the list above stand independently from one another, meaning only one statement needs to be true for an encampment to qualify as an obstruction.” As I’ve reported, this rule has already been interpreted broadly; for example, one encampment slated for removal last year was located down a steep, dangerous slope inside a grove of trees far away from any public path.

Only about 6 percent of the people the Navigation Team contacted—which is, itself, a fraction of the number of people living in encampments—ended up in shelter.

The Navigation Team did not respond to the council’s request for detailed information about each “obstruction” that justified an encampment removal. Instead, it provided a list of locations where “obstruction” encampments were removed, along with the number of “contacts” the team made at each encampment in the weeks before removing it. What’s most notable about this list is that the “contacts” column is a sea of “N/A”s—”not applicable,” meaning that the team removed tents, trash and personal property without talking to anyone who lived on-site at all.

When the Navigation Team did make contacts, the report shows, fewer than one in four accepted referrals to shelter, and of those, fewer than one in four actually showed up at the shelter to which they were referred. Put another way, only about 6 percent of the people the Navigation Team contacted—which is, itself, a fraction of the number of people living in encampments—ended up in shelter. This contrasts sharply with HSD’s own “performance-based contracting” standards for other outreach providers, who must refer at least 60 percent of their clients to shelter. According to the central staff memo, “There is no data to indicate that the Navigation Team’s effectiveness in connecting people with shelter improved” in the past quarter.

“Given the discrepancy between Navigation Team outcomes and the performance standards for outreach agencies, additional information on how other outreach agencies differ in their delivery of services may be useful,” the council’s memo notes. The Navigation Team also provided no real plan for improving its performance on this metric, other than increasing the size of the team, which has grown steadily throughout Durkan’s two years in office, by adding more system navigators (outreach workers who show up to offer services during encampment removals). “It is unclear how HSD determined that the number of System Navigators is insufficient,” the council’s memo says.

Even if the Navigation Team did manage to increase its shelter referral numbers, there’s another problem. Based on the numbers in the report, it’s clear that even now, if every person who received a “referral” followed through on that referral, the system would immediately run out of beds. In the fourth quarter of last year, for example, the team made 174 referrals to enhanced shelters, but only had six beds available, on average, every day. If those six beds were actually filled, other beds wouldn’t automatically open up, because the shelter system doesn’t work that way. The inescapable conclusion is that the system wouldn’t “work” if people actually followed up on referrals from the Navigation Team, but they don’t, so the numbers look both positive (224 shelter referrals in just three months) and sustainable (on average, there are about 12 shelter beds available.)

Moving toward “obstruction,” rather than 72 hour, encampment removals also lifts the requirement that the Navigation Team provide an actual bed to every person living in an encampment that is scheduled for removal, a process that can slow down removals while the Navigation Team looks for available beds. Designating most encampments as  “obstructions” thus makes the removals themselves go faster, which makes it possible to steadily increase the number of removals, as the Navigation Team has been doing.

The Navigation Team, unlike homeless service providers that contract with the city, doesn’t have to meet any specific performance standards. If it was held to the same standards as other outreach providers, it would fall short by more than 50 percent—the gap between the 25 percent of contacts the team makes that result in shelter referrals, and the 60 percent minimum that other services providers must meet to retain their funding.

3. In still more Navigation Team news, the City Auditor’s Office released a report yesterday outlining a number of steps the team could take to improve trash pickup at encampments. Among the recommendations: Track trash systematically instead of relying on resident complaints, which results in disproportionate emphasis on a small number of encampments; increase the number of “emphasis areas” where encampments are explicitly prohibited; expand Seattle Public Utilities’ “purple bag” trash pickup program to include more encampments; and ban all camping in areas deemed environmentally sensitive.

A chart from an internal Navigation Team document shows that the vast plurality of complaints come from North Seattle residents.

Several of the auditor’s recommendations are aimed at further limiting the number of places where homeless people are allowed to sleep—an activity the city refers to as “camping” if it involves erecting a tent or other shelter from the elements. In combination with the Navigation Team’s aggressive anti-“obstruction” policies, the recommendations suggest a future where homeless people are prohibited from sleeping in virtually every public space, including parks, near streams, along greenbelts, in urban watersheds, on beaches, and within designated wetlands. The auditor’s report does not indicate where, without enough beds to accommodate even those who want to move indoors, the 4,000-plus people living without shelter in Seattle are supposed to go.

5 thoughts on “Council Scrutinizes Navigation Team Report: No Progress on Shelter as Zero-Notice Encampment Removals Hit Highest Rate Ever”

  1. The mayor’s campaign against the homeless is in violation of basic human rights which states that all people are entitled to decent shelter, medical care, water and food. It is sickening that treating people in violation of those rights is activated by Durken and her allies.

    This needs to be prosecuted because these sanctioned inhumane activities further destroys lives and destroys communities. The people must do it.
    We cannot expect corrupt and ruthless politicians to enact human rights for our people.

    I commend the council members that have began to enact on this. It is long overdue.

  2. Um – the City Council just approved allowing up to 40 tent encampments all over the city. It’s not a policy I am in favor of but it will allow alot more camping for homeless – not the future where homeless are “prohibited from camping everywhere” that you are suggesting.

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