The city’s Navigation Team, a group of Seattle police officers and social service workers that removes unauthorized encampments from public places and offers referrals to shelter and services to their displaced residents, has shifted its focus at the direction of Mayor Jenny Durkan. Instead of providing 72 hours’ notice and offers of shelter and services before removing unauthorized encampments (the “navigation” part of the equation), the Navigation Team is now focused primarily on removing encampments deemed to be “obstructions,” a designation that exempts the team from the usual notice and outreach requirements.
In response to this shift in focus, REACH, the nonprofit that serves as the social-service and outreach arm of the Navigation Team, will no longer participate in encampment removals except when camp residents explicitly request their presence, the group’s co-director, Chloe Gale, says.
I asked Sgt. Eric Zerr, the Seattle Police Department team leader for the Navigation Team, about the shift after a recent public safety town hall meeting in North Seattle. “[Durkan] just said, ‘Given that we have limited resources… these are the things you guys should focus on,” Zerr said. “And it isn’t that we aren’t still doing 72-hour cleans”—the city’s preferred term for what many advocates refer to as sweeps—”we still are. But I think the priority of the team has changed, [in that] the mayor wants us to focus on cleans that are more obstruction-oriented.”
“It isn’t that we aren’t still doing 72-hour cleans. We still are. But I think the priority of the team has changed, [in that] the mayor wants us to focus on cleans that are more obstruction-oriented.—Seattle Police Sgt. and Navigation Team leader Eric Zerr
Over the course of five weeks in April and May, 96 percent of encampments scheduled for removal on the Navigation Team’s weekly unauthorized encampment removals list were for “obstructions,” and therefore exempt from the usual notice and referral requirements. This list does not correspond precisely to which camps are ultimately removed, because many factors can contribute to whether the city removes a particular encampment on schedule. However, a comparison to previous schedules shows a clear upward trend—in August 2018, for example, 74 percent of scheduled removals were for “obstruction” encampments exempt from the notice and outreach rules.
Ordinarily, under rules the city adopted in 2017, the Navigation Team has to provide at least 72 hours’ notice—and two visits from outreach workers—before it can remove an unauthorized encampment. The “obstruction” designation functions like a declaration of emergency, allowing the Navigation Team to bypass those requirements. (They typically offer 30 minutes’ notice to allow people to leave voluntarily, but are not required to do so by law). “The mayor really wants us to focus on [removing encampments in] rights-of-way and parks,” said Sgt. Zerr. “Our calendar is still full, but it just doesn’t have the amount of 72-hour cleanings it used to.”
Mark Prentice, a Durkan spokesman, denies that there has been any change in the city’s approach to encampment removals. “There has not been a new shift towards obstruction/hazard removals, nor is this a new trend,” Prentice said in an email. “Rather, there has been long-term and concentrated focus by the team to remove obstructions that are impacting the public’s ability to safely access rights-of-way, such as sidewalks and mobility ramps.”
“There has not been a new shift towards obstruction/hazard removals, nor is this a new trend. Rather, there has been long-term and concentrated focus by the team to remove obstructions that are impacting the public’s ability to safely access rights-of-way.” —Mayor Jenny Durkan spokesman Mark Prentice
Prentice suggested that I may have missed coverage of the issue last summer by other local media, and provided a link to an August 2018 Seattle Times story that was about the increase in encampment removals in general. That story noted that at the time, about 40 percent of encampment removals for the year to date were exempt from the mandatory outreach and offer-of-shelter requirements. UPDATED: HSD’s most recent report on encampment removals shows that 82 percent of the removals were camps deemed to be “hazards” or “obstructions” and exempt from those requirements. That’s an increase from the last three months of 2018, when the report found that about 75 percent of removals were exempt from those requirements.
According to the city’s official encampment removal rules, a camp (which, as defined in the city’s rules, can consist of a single sleeping bag if it looks like it’s located in a public place for the purpose of sleeping overnight) is an “obstruction” if it’s “in a City park or on a public sidewalk; interfere[s] with the pedestrian or transportation purposes of public rights-of-way; or interfere[s] with areas that are necessary for or essential to the intended use of a public property or facility.” Interpreted broadly, this means that a single tent in a city park can be considered an “obstruction” of the park’s intended use, and subject to removal without notice or outreach.
REACH’s Gale says her organization’s outreach workers—who are supposed to help encampment residents hook up with shelter and services— “don’t always feel comfortable there. We’ve agreed that that’s optional. We’ll go if we’re requested by the people at the site, but we’re not going to just stand by” as a matter of course, she says. REACH will still participate in outreach prior to the increasingly rare 72-hour removals.
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Instead, Gale says REACH is moving to a “neighborhood-based outreach model” that involves getting to know communities, including businesses as well as both sheltered and unsheltered residents—a better way to build trust, Gale says, than showing up for the first time on the day of an unannounced removal. REACH is in the process of embedding outreach workers in four quadrants of the city, where they’ll partner with local business improvement districts to identify people experiencing chronic homelessness and build relationships with them over time, with the goal of getting them into services and off the street.
As REACH phases out of its work with the Navigation Team, the city is taking its outreach services in-house, hiring two new “system navigators” who, according to Durkan spokesman Prentice, “will work in the same way as REACH does, providing outreach during encampment removals and lead[ing] on making offers of shelter, referrals to shelter, and transporting people to shelter.” (Zerr said SPD also provides outreach when they can.)
As REACH phases out of its work with the Navigation Team, the city is taking its outreach services in-house, hiring two new “system navigators” who, according to Durkan spokesman Prentice, “will work in the same way as REACH does, providing outreach during encampment removals and lead[ing] on making offers of shelter, referrals to shelter, and transporting people to shelter.”
In 2017, the ACLU of Washington unsuccessfully sued the city on behalf of encampment residents who said the city unlawfully seized and destroyed their property. ACLU spokesman Brian Robick said it was “especially troubling” to hear that the city had ramped up “obstruction”-related encampment removals, “given the undisputed fact that many unhoused people have nowhere else to go.”
“Seattle’s policy and practice of seizing and destroying unhoused residents’ property without adequate notice or an opportunity to be heard raises grave civil rights concerns,” Robick said. “Throwing away someone’s belongings without warning is not only unconstitutional—it is harmful, inhumane, and ineffective, and does nothing to help people get off the streets or address the housing crisis.”