Council Grills Navigation Team on Low Success Rate, Suggesting That $8 Million Might Be Better Spent on Shelter

Photos from a site journal for the removal of an “obstruction” encampment inside a small forested area in MLK Memorial Park

A presentation by the Human Services Department on the latest quarterly report from the Navigation Team, which showed that 96 percent of encampment removals are now occurring with no advance notice or outreach, was derailed almost immediately this afternoon, as city council members objected to the premise of a presentation touting the team’s success. The Navigation Team is a 38-member group of police and Human Services Department staffers that removes encampments.

No sooner had Navigation Team director Tara Beck told the council, cheerfully, that “every person the Navigation Team engages with is offered shelter,” than council member Kshama Sawant interrupted, saying, “I just cannot wrap my head around how out of touch this sort of bureaucratic presentation is.” Her colleague Teresa Mosqueda chimed in: “We’re having a hard time accepting that statement” that everyone is offered shelter. As the Navigation Team’s own report makes clear, just 24 percent of people the Navigation Team speaks to, or “contacts,” during encampment removals receive shelter referrals.

Our goal is to build a relationship, express compassion over time, [and] to use motivational interviewing techniques to get to yes,” Navigation Team director Tara Beck said. This claim is belied by the fact that when the Dearborn sweep was announced, a REACH outreach worker who had been working with encampment residents told the Navigation Team and HSD leadership that removing the encampment with just three days’ notice would “creat[e] a recipe for more trauma for our clients.”

As I reported yesterday, the number of those people who actually go to shelter (as opposed to verbally accepting a referral in the middle of a chaotic and traumatic situation), fewer than 23 percent actually report to shelter within two days—a number that works out to just 6 percent of those contacted by the Navigation Team, or 45 people over a three-month period. Johnson suggested that the number would be higher if the people who went to shelter after 7 or 14 days elapsed were included, prompting Sawant to remark that the point of referring people somewhere when their encampment is removed is to get them sheltered right away, not weeks later. “What happens in… those [48] hours could be devastating to them. I feel like we have to at least make an attempt to not have a cavalier approach to this,” Sawant said.

The presenters—who, in addition to Johnson and Beck, included Navigation Team operations manager August Drake-Ericson—seemed to be caught flat-footed by the council’s barrage of questions, attempting to stick to a presentation that painted a sunny picture of the Navigation Team’s work. Beck referred repeatedly to efforts by Navigation Team field coordinators and system navigators (the two in-house outreach workers who took over when the city’s outreach partner, REACH, disengaged from the team last year) to “get to yes” with people living in encampments who were reluctant to “accept” offers of shelter, suggesting a level of sustained outreach that homeless service providers, advocates, and homeless people themselves have repeatedly said the team is not providing.

As it happens, that sweep in Martin Luther King Memorial Park occurred on the Friday before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, which is a day that the Navigation Team takes off. On the team’s internal encampment removal schedule, the holiday is notated with an inspirational quote: “Injustice anywhere is an injustice to people everywhere.”

Again and again, council members questioned the staffers’ claim that the Navigation Team offers shelter, storage, and assistance to everyone living in encampments—pointing out, for example, that the team often removes encampments that are obviously occupied without recording any “contacts” with any of the people living there at all. “How can you say that you are offering people shelter when 96 percent of encampment removals are exempt from prior notice?,” Mosqueda said. In response, Beck clarified: When she said that the Navigation Team offers shelter and services to everyone, she was only referring to traditional, 72-hour removals—which now make up just 4 percent of the Navigation Team’s work.

During one such removal—the clearing of a large encampment at South Dearborn Street and I-5—Beck said that all 40 or so encampment residents were offered shelter, but just 10 accepted. “Our goal is to build a relationship, express compassion over time, [and] to use motivational interviewing techniques to get to yes,” Beck said. This claim is belied by the fact that when the Dearborn sweep was announced, a REACH outreach worker who had been connecting people living there with emergency clothing, food, and medical care told the Navigation Team and HSD leadership that removing the encampment with just three days’ notice would “creat[e] a recipe for more trauma for our clients,” according to an email obtained through a records request.

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“Case workers from various organizations have poured their energy into working together to provide assistance for folks living in that space,” the letter, from a case worker who is no longer with REACH, said. “All of this effort, all of the progress (however minimal it may appear) clients at [the Dearborn] Cloverleaf have made will be lost.”

here is a perverse incentive for HSD to continue calling things obstructions that are not obstructions, in the commonly understood meaning of that term, and to keep clearing encampments where they know people will either be absent or will not accept their offers of shelter. If the Navigation Team had a higher success rate, the system would quickly run out of beds to accept all their referrals. On an average night, according to the Navigation Team’s report, there are about 12 beds available among the ones set aside for Navigation Team referrals. (This point was not clear in the presentation or report, but a spokesman for HSD said this is what the number represents.) Half of these are in basic shelters where people sleep crowded together in bunks or on the floor—the type of shelter people who live in tents are the least likely to accept. Fundamentally, the system only “works” because most people don’t take shelter; if they did, the system would break down.

This would seem to suggest that the city needs to build more of the kinds of shelter people are likely to accept, such as tiny house villages, but Johnson said this would create another problem: “If we built enough shelter, we would then have another bottleneck, which would be at the front door of housing. You will never hear me say ‘let’s not build enough shelter,'” he continued, but it does move the goalposts in a way.” If we believe that shelter is better than living on the street, however, “moving the goalposts” even a little would still mean fewer people living, and dying, on sidewalks and in parks across the city.

Council members also questioned what criteria the Navigation Team is using to decide that an encampment constitutes an “obstruction,” rendering it exempt from the formerly-standard requirement of 72 hours’ notice, extended outreach, and the guarantee of a designated, individually appropriate bed for every person in an encampment who wants one. The Navigation Team’s report indicates that the team considers any encampment in a park to be an automatic obstruction, even if it is not obstructing anything, based on their reading (and, some council members have suggested, misinterpretation) of rules that govern when the city can remove an encampment without notice.

But on Wednesday, HSD seemed to suggest that they gave thought and consideration when deciding which encampments are “obstructions”—pointing, as illustrative examples, to two encampments that most people could agree were obstructing access, on a downtown sidewalk and right next to the Lighthouse for the Blind. Beck suggested that council members would find many more examples, and “lots of detailed information,” in the publicly posted “site journals” filed after every encampment removal.

This would seem to suggest that the city needs to build more of the kinds of shelter people are likely to accept, such as tiny house villages, but Johnson said this would create another problem: “If we built enough shelter, we would then have another bottleneck, which would be at the front door of housing.”

In addition to the two fairly unambiguous examples HSD chose to highlight, the most recent set of site journals included an encampment I’ve written about previously, in Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Park. This little-used park behind a Lowe’s hardware store is a place where, according to outreach workers with REACH who have spoken with the residents directly, small groups of immigrant men sleep before lining up for day labor jobs outside the Lowe’s parking lot. Their camping area, which I have walked through, is in a tree-covered area down a steep, slippery slope that is virtually inaccessible from the park itself. It’s hard to tell all this from the site journal, which includes shots of a tent, a couple of tarps, and some baseball caps hanging from a tree. The journal includes just one line about a cleanup that, according to the report, occupied five city-funded staffers for a day: “Owner older Hispanic male 50’s took his belongings and left the site.”

(As it happens, that sweep in Martin Luther King Memorial Park occurred on the Friday before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, which is a day that the Navigation Team takes off. On the team’s internal encampment removal schedule, the holiday is notated with an inspirational quote: “Injustice anywhere is an injustice to people everywhere.”)

In public comment before the presentation, several people mentioned the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision in Martin v. Boise, which held that cities can’t criminalize sleeping on the streets. The city’s encampment removal policies, they said, come dangerously close to violating this prohibition. Beck had two answers to those objections. First, she said, the city doesn’t have a law against sleeping in public. Then she argued that the city doesn’t punish people for sleeping on the streets, because the Navigation Team only works during the day. “Punishing people overnight–that’s not something our city does,” Beck said, to scattered guffaws from the audience in council chambers. “People are able to bed down and rest.”

Council members could take action to reduce or redirect Navigation Team funding this year. In this afternoon’s meeting, Sawant said she would introduce a supplemental budget amendment to “direct money away from sweeps and toward tiny house village funding.” And Mosqueda, who is now the council budget chair, said she would be looking closely at the $2 million or so the Navigation team receives from the city each quarter, to see “how we could better utilize” those funds.

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