Representatives from the Human Services Department, including Navigation Team leader Jackie St. Louis, were on the defensive yesterday after the city auditor presented a report finding significant shortcomings in the city’s response to unsheltered homelessness. The auditor’s report, which I covered in more detail earlier this month, found that it’s hard to know whether the Navigation Team—which removes unauthorized encampments and informs their residents about available shelter beds and services—has been successful at getting unsheltered people into safer situations, because HSD doesn’t have a rigorous system for tracking that information and has refused to allow an independent assessment of its performance. The audit also criticized the city for still failing to provide for the most basic needs of the unsheltered Seattleites it serves, such as restrooms and showers; across the city, just six public restrooms (including four Port-a-Potties) are open at night, and the audit team found three of the six were “damaged in a way that adversely affected their usability.”
“Without adequate access to bathrooms, it’s understandable that we would see the things that we saw on our site observations—human waste on sidewalks, human waste in buckets, human waste in greenspaces,” Claudia Gross-Shader from the auditor’s office said. “The cleanups conducted by the Navigation Team often involved removing human waste. … However, letting human waste accumulate to the point at which it may be removed by the Navigation Team is not an effective strategy for mitigating the negative impacts that unauthorized encampments can have in public spaces and adjacent neighborhoods.”
“Without adequate access to bathrooms, it’s understandable that we would see the things that we saw on our site observations—human waste on sidewalks, human waste in buckets, human waste in greenspaces.”
Gross-Shader also expressed frustration at the fact that HSD has resisted allowing a “rigorous independent evaluation” of how the Navigation Team is doing. “At this time, tgthe executive concludes that [such reports are] costly and that they should be done after many years of implementation. We have provided examples of low-cost and no cost [evaluation options]… and they should be started sooner rather than later. A really great example of a rigorous evaluation is the LEAD program,” which diverts low-level offenders from prosecution, Gross-Shader continued. “When it was first getting started, the [evaluation] found that 58 percent of the LEAD clients did not get rearrested compared to the control group of clients, and they’ve used those evaluation results to help inform their program and make course corrections over time.”
Moments after the auditor’s staff concluded their presentation, HSD division director Tiffany Washington assailed some of the auditor’s conclusions as “not factual”—particularly a slide (above) showing the fractured and (in the auditor’s view) uncoordinated system of outreach and services for people living unsheltered. (The report found that “City-funded homeless outreach is decentralized, and there is no system for frequent tactical communication among all homeless outreach providers, which “limits the City’s ability to provide proactive outreach to newly unsheltered individuals before they become chronically unsheltered.”) “It’s not disjointed—it’s created that way by design,” Washington said. “We we don’t’ want 90 percent of our outreach workers to be in the field responding to cleans; we want 90 percent of our outreach workers to be in the field developing relationships with people who are unsheltered, so that by the time the Nav Team gets there, they have a connection and it’ll be easier to connect those folks to resources.”
“I don’t want a connection to be made that if you stop doing cleans and you just focus your efforts on getting people to come inside that they will just magically accept.”
The Navigation Team is charged with, among other things, removing encampments that pose a health and safety hazard to their occupants; the team is supposed to provide 72 hours’ notice of a removal to encampment residents, but can remove an encampment without any notice if the team decides that the encampment is an “obstruction” or poses an “immediate hazard” to its occupants or surrounding residents. In practice, during the fourth quarter of 2018, only a quarter of encampment removals qualified for advance notice. Of 109 encampment removals (or “cleans,” as HSD is now calling them), 81 were deemed immediate hazards or obstructions and exempt from the 72-hour requirement.
Committee chair Lisa Herbold pointed out two specific times when the need to clear “immediate hazards” right away appeared to slow down appreciably: During the recent snowstorm, when the Navigation Team suspended sweeps and focused entirely on getting people inside, and during November and December, when encampment removals slowed to a crawl. (According to my own review of the Navigation Team’s weekly reports for the last six months, there were no encampment sweeps at all between November 22 and December 2, from December 18 to December 25, and from December 29 to January 7. (One encampment was removed between Christmas and December 28.)
Encampment removals picked right back up after the holidays, when they returned to a level similar to the summer months, which calls into question the notion that “weather” and “rain”-related “safety” concerns are the primary reasons the Navigation Team lightens up on removals during those two months.
Why, Herbold wondered rhetorically, did removals slow down so much right at the end of the year?
“There is a ramp-down that happens during the final months of the year, particularly some of December. There’s generally less operations that happen. Generally, you find in November, December, there’s less activity,” St. Louis said.
“And why is that?” Herbold asked.
“There’s just a ramp-down—the weather, too, as well,” St. Louis said. “There’s some encampments that can’t be engaged based on safety reasons. There’s more rain. There’s cold. And also, I think human beings, too, have the tendency, after working a very long year, to want to take some time off.” In other words: Encampment removals became apparently less urgent during Thanksgiving and Christmas, in other words, because the people doing the removals got those weeks off. (They picked right back up after the beginning of the year, when removals returned to similar levels to the number of removals the team does during the summer months, which calls into question the notion that “weather” and “rain”-related “safety” concerns are the primary reasons the Navigation Team lightens up on removals during those two months.)
St. Louis and Washington both confirmed that the Navigation Team stopped doing sweeps during the snowstorm because their primary goal was ensuring people were safe and getting them inside; however, Washington said, it would be a mistake to read too much into the Navigation Team’s success at getting people inside during the snowstorm even without the looming threat of sweeps. “I don’t want a connection to be made that if you stop doing cleans and you just focus your efforts on getting people to come inside that they will just magically accept,” Washington said.