100 Officers Trained to Implement Anti-Camping Rules as Navigation Team Expands to 7-Day Schedule

Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office has confirmed that the city has trained about 100 members of the Seattle Police Department’s Community Policing Team (CPT) and bicycle patrol officers on how to implement and enforce the rules against unauthorized “camping” in public spaces, such as sidewalks, parks, and publicly owned property. The city recently expanded the Navigation Team to include two new field coordinators overseeing encampment removals and two new outreach workers, who will do outreach work previously performed by the nonprofit REACH, which is no longer participating in encampment removals.

“The CPT and bike officers have been trained to implement the existing [Multi Departmental Administrative Rules], which lay out when and how encampments can be removed), the encampment rules, and how to connect with the Nav Team,” Durkan spokesman Mark Prentice says. “People can remain in the public right of way but belongings that are obstructing… ‘pedestrian or transportation purposes of public rights-of-way’ are not allowed, which is why a Navigation Team member will be available to offer storage and/or services. … This additional effort by CPT and bike officers does not impact or change the MDAR or the City’s compliance with these rules.”

Perhaps unintentionally, the Navigation Team no longer creates a list of “weekly unauthorized encampment removals”; instead, the most recent version of this document refers to these removals as “relocations.”

Under Durkan, as I reported last month, the Navigation Team has shifted its emphasis and now focuses on removing tents and belongings that constitute an “obstruction” under the city’s rules. Once an encampment is deemed an “obstruction,” the Navigation Team can remove it without notifying residents or offering them shelter or services. Although, in practice, officers often do tell residents who happen to be around during these unannounced removals about available shelter beds, outreach workers and unsheltered people have told me that they’re less likely to trust uniformed police officers than social service workers who show up between removals and get to know them outside the charged environment of a sweep.

Empowering another 100 or so police officers to enforce the rules against camping will undoubtedly expand the city’s ability to remove unauthorized encampments without notice, but it’s unclear what the long game is here, or if there is one.

The original goal of the Navigation Team, when it was created as part of the city’s response to the homelessness emergency back in 2017, was to “work… with unsheltered people who have urgent and acute unmet needs,” by building  relationships with people living outdoors and convincing them to come inside (ideally, to new low-barrier, 24/7 shelters with case management and services). Today, the team still offers referrals to shelter and services, but much of their work involves removing encampments, cleaning up sites, and watching people move back in over a matter of days or weeks—a tedious process of, yes, sweeping people from one place into another in a seemingly endless cycle. (Perhaps unintentionally, the Navigation Team no longer creates a list of “weekly unauthorized encampment removals”; instead, the most recent version of this document refers to these removals as “relocations.”)

Since 2017, the Navigation Team has nearly doubled in size, from 22 to 38 members. In that time, the number of contracted outreach workers has stayed the same, while the number of police, management, and support staff has grown dramatically. (Currently, in addition to 13 police officers, the team includes three data analysts, one team lead, one encampment response manager, one outreach supervisor, one communications manager, an administrative specialist, and an operations manager). Empowering another 100 or so police officers to enforce the rules against camping will undoubtedly expand the city’s ability to remove unauthorized encampments without notice, but it’s unclear what the long game is here, or if there is one. The city has added some new shelter beds (including 160 mats in the lobby of city hall, which are accessible for just 8 hours a night and don’t include showers, food, or services), but nowhere near enough to meet the need. Last year, according to the latest Point In Time Count of people living unsheltered in King County, the number of people living in tents rose from 1,034 to 1,162 even as the count of people living unsheltered shrunk.

I scrambled back up the path, stumbling a bit on my way back to the accessible, level, and totally empty park. I can’t imagine whose “pedestrian and transportation purposes” anyone living in those brambles could possibly be obstructing.

This week (over the newly expanded seven-day Navigation Team schedule), 13 encampments are on the list for “relocation.” All but one have been deemed “obstructions” exempt from the notice and outreach requirements.

Over the weekend, I visited a couple of encampments. One had just been visited by the Navigation Team, which hauled away a dump truck full of refuse, including soiled clothing, food wrappers, and large items dumped on the site by people from outside the camp. At the base of the hillside where people had set up their tents, there were still piles of loose trash and scattered needles, along with several full purple garbage bags provided through a pilot city trash pickup program.

The second encampment was one that’s scheduled for removal as an “obstruction” next week. The site was in a lightly forested area along Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., on the edge of an underused park that offers stunning views of downtown Seattle. I looked for the “large amounts of garbage, debris, and human waste” that the Navigation Team said were present at the site. It wasn’t easy to find signs of human habitation—from the park, the only way to access the place where people were living was by scrambling down a steep dirt hillside, or by bushwhacking through brambles and weeds to find a series of primitive trails. Eventually, I saw a beach umbrella, a mattress pad, and a few small piles of trash (but no human waste) that hinted that the area might be inhabited. I scrambled back up the path, stumbling a bit on my way back to the accessible, level, and totally empty park. I can’t imagine whose “pedestrian and transportation purposes” anyone living in those brambles could possibly be obstructing.

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Afternoon Crank: I’m Shocked At the Scale of That

1. The city auditor has completed his investigation into the implementation of a new joint billing system for Seattle City Light and Seattle Public Utilities customers (memorably known as the New Customer Information System, or NCIS), and concluded that the reason the NCIS went $34 million over budget is that … the system ended up being more complicated than anyone had anticipated, and took more time and manpower to implement.

Or, as assistant city auditor Jane Dunkel put it during a briefing before the council utilities committee Tuesday, “The simple answer is that it took … ten months longer than anticipated,” and the extra cost “was in labor—city labor and consultants.” Specifically, the city spent $10.8 million more than budgeted on consultants, and $20.6 million over budget on city staffing, in the 10 extra months it took to complete the new billing system.

Mike O’Brien, a former CFO himself, seemed incredulous at those figures. “When I look at $20 million over 10 months—so, $2 million a month— if a city employee is costing us $10,000 a month, that means 200 employees were on this project,” O’Brien said. “I’m shocked at the scale of that.” Dunkel said that many of those employees had probably been reassigned from other tasks, but acknowledged that 200 employees is a lot of city workers to dedicate full-time to a single project. (The city calculates costs in full-time equivalent employees, or FTEs, so 200 full-time workers is just a proxy for the total cost.) And, Dunkel said, the city decided to “prioritize quality over timeliness.”

That brought O’Brien to his second question: Why, if project leaders knew they were slipping over budget and behind schedule, did they not inform the council sooner? (Committee chair Lisa Herbold had the same question.) Dunkel acknowledged that the trend toward being over budget and late was obvious “in retrospect,” but said the people working on the project may have thought they could make up the money and time. “Is it just well-intentioned people who are optimistic and thinking, ‘If we just keep working harder and faster, we’re going to make it’? Or is it people saying, ‘Wait a minute, we’re not going to make it and we need to let someone know that,'” Dunkel said.

“There were vacations and leaves, there was mandatory overtime—there wasn’t a point when they said, ‘Let’s stop and recalibrate.’ And part of it is that it’s hard to come back and report on that. You don’t want to do that until you’re really certain that you can’t make that date.”

You can read the auditors’ recommendations—which include requiring the city’s Chief Technology Office, Michael Matmiller, to report back to the council monthly on the status of the city’s IT projects—as well as the auditor’s presentation and a report on best practices by an outside consultant—on the city’s website.

2. On Wednesday, Mayor Ed Murray’s Human Services Department announced the location of a new, 24/7, low-barrier homeless shelter on First Hill. The shelter, which will accommodate about 100 men and women, will be located at First Presybterian Church, at 1013 8th Avenue. The city will hold one community meeting on the shelter at the church, on May 22 and 6pm, and hopes to open the shelter in June or July. If opposition to a methadone clinic in the neighborhood is any sort of guide, expect protests.

3. HSD and the mayor’s homelessness director, George Scarola, came to the council’s human services committee yesterday armed with numbers that they say demonstrate the success of the city’s new Navigation Team. The eight-member team, which includes both police and outreach workers, notifies residents of homeless encampments when the city plans to remove them from public property, and provides information on services and shelter, including other, authorized encampments. Scott Lindsay, the mayor’s special assistant on public safety, said that of 291 homeless people the team has contacted since it formed in February, 116 went into “alternative living arrangements”—about 70 to traditional shelters, and 46 to authorized encampments. “That’s more than just a referral—that’s actually a connection,” Lindsay said. “Those are people who were weeks or days or months ago living on streets unsheltered, who are now living inside or at an authorized encampment.”

But how big of a victory is that, really? People who live in camps tend to do so for many reasons: Shelters tend to be dirty and crowded, and most don’t allow people to come in with partners, possessions, or pets. Major addiction problems and mental illnesses that make it difficult to sleep in close quarters with hundreds of other people can also be issues. And sanctioned encampments fill up as fast as the city opens them—a point HSD deputy director Jason Johnson acknowledged.

Tuesday’s sweep of the encampment under the Spokane Street Viaduct, which the city said was necessary because of an RV fire at the site last week, was less successful by the city’s standards. Of 38 “total contacts,” Lindsay said, 15 “declined any form of services,” and 8 agreed to go to shelter or an authorized encampment. The rest took referrals to employment, case management, and other services, Lindsay said.

4. Chris Potter, director of operations for the Department of Finance and Administrative Services, updated council members on the city’s new delivery service, which allows people to retrieve  belongings confiscated from encampments without busing all the way down to the city’s storage facility on Airport Way. So far, Potter said, two people have asked for the belongings back, and one has gotten their “materials” returned. Pressed by council member Tim Burgess to explain why this was good news—given that the city has hundreds of bins full of unclaimed stuff taken from homeless encampments—Potter said, “Getting two calls represents a dramatic increase in the number of people who have reached out to us and said, ‘Hey, can I get my things back?'” But, he acknowledged, “It’s difficult to have a conversation with somebody whose material you’ve gotten and who hasn’t made a phone call to try to recover it from us.”

5. The Seattle Times ran a breathtakingly solipsistic, question-begging editorial this week calling on Mayor Ed Murray not to run for reelection. Their argument: Someone under such a “cloud” of “sordid” allegations can’t possibly win reelection, but could divide the electorate, leaving the city stuck with “Mayor Kshama Sawant, or some other extreme left-wing ideologue.” First of all, Kshama Sawant has repeatedly and explicitly said she does not plan to run for mayor—a minor detail the Times omits. (Obviously, people can change their minds, but this seems a somewhat crucial point.) Second, and more glaring: The Times itself is the publication that decided to publish all the sordid details about the allegations in the first place, including detailed allegations about rough sex and a mole on Murray’s genitals, so if anyone has created an environment of “sordid theater,” it’s them.

Finally, it requires a truly special sort of arrogance for a newspaper to first declare that its own story is “the biggest political scandal in Seattle in generation,” then claim that the subject of that story has been “transformed [by that story] from the bold big-city mayor into one who defers to his defense lawyer when he is invited to speak to The Seattle Times editorial board,” and then use that entirely reasonable deferral—which no one was aware of until the paper reported it, making the story about itself—as a justification for demanding his resignation.  Traditionally, a newspaper that wants a public official to step aside cites public opinion or some other outside evidence to shore up such a demand; the Times cites only itself, and its own declaration that its own reporters have uncovered the biggest scandal in generations.

As I said on Twitter:

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Morning Crank: Kind of the Magic of the Place

1. In a State of the City address that focused on major initiatives like a $55 million property tax levy for homelessness and a potential lawsuit against the Trump Administration, Mayor Ed Murray’s brief announcement that he was activating the city’s Emergency Operations Center to respond to the homelessness emergency was easy to miss.

Murray didn’t explain how he planned to repurpose the facility, which is designed to respond to short-term emergencies like riots and weather events, to address the slow-drip homelessness crisis.  So I called up Finance and Administrative Services director Fred Podesta, who serves as the operations director for the city, to ask him how the mayor’s plan would work.

First, Podesta clarified that the EOC won’t be addressing homelessness full-time; rather, from 8:30 to 10:30 on weekday mornings., representatives from every city department—from the Seattle Police Department to the Office of Film and Music—will sit down to discuss the day’s top homelessness-related priorities and come up with a solution for addressing them. For example, if the city’s new “navigation team,” which will be headquartered at the EOC, is heading out to clear an encampment, representatives from FAS, Seattle Public Utilities, and the Human Services Department will be on hand to advise the team on connections to shelter, trash pickup, and any law-enforcement issues that might arise. (Why would Film and Music need to be at the table? Podesta says they might think of something other departments wouldn’t—like an idea for a benefit, or an impact the homeless community has on the nightlife industry that wouldn’t have occurred to other departments.)

That’s kind of the magic of the place, because it’s a very different sort of setting [than city hall], and a big place where we can get everyone in one room might shake loose some sorts of innovations that we might not have thought of before,” Podesta says. “If you lock everybody in the room and say, ‘I want a solution to this on Tuesday,’ it happens faster. Half of it is working on things we were already working on anyway. This is a way to accelerate it and get solutions that are faster and more comprehensive.”

2. UPDATE: Mayor Ed Murray’s office denies that the city has any plans to authorize more encampments. Murray spokesman Benton Strong says the city’s goal is to open just seven encampments total, including existing camps such as Nickelsville in Ballard. Four new sanctioned homeless encampments are reportedly planned as part of the city’s response to unsheltered homelessness. Last time the city announced four new encampments, they ended up opening only three, after community opposition made it hard for the city to find a suitable location. The three sanctioned encampments that opened most recently are in Highland Park, Georgetown, and Licton Springs in North Seattle.

3. Image may contain: textRemember the Women’s March, or Black Lives Matter, or the Stand With Immigrants rally at Westlake Park?

This is exactly like that, except instead of  “women”/”black people”/”immigrants fighting for their human rights,” this rally is more of a “residents of an exclusive high-rise whining that other rich people are building an equally exclusive high-rise next door” kind of thing.

To recap: Residents at the Escala condos, where units list for around $3 million, are mad because another developer plans to build a 45-story apartment and hotel tower directly across the alley from them. They want the city to intervene and enforce their nonexistent right to water views and “air,” arguing that two towers on two adjacent blocks represents too much density for downtown Seattle. I’ve been assured that this  homeowners association alert is real, so make sure you adjust your travel plans accordingly. I hear they’re bringing the Mercer Island Pipeline protesters with them.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the substantial time I put into it as well as costs like transportation, equipment, travel costs, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.