UPDATE on Friday, May 31: The mayor’s office made their announcement today, confirming the hiring of two new “system navigators” to do outreach during encampment removals and two new field coordinators as part of the Navigation Team itself. I have asked where the funding for the new field coordinators will come from. In her announcement, the mayor also praised the state legislature for providing $1 million to the state Department of Transportation to remove encampments on WSDOT rights-of-way, saying the city looks forward to working with the stage agency to “address homelessness in the state’s right-of-way near and along I-5 and I-90.”
ORIGINAL POST: As soon as today, Mayor Jenny Durkan will reportedly announce that the Seattle Police Department will contribute members of its Community Policing Team and bicycle unit to help the city’s Navigation Team remove homeless encampments on sidewalks and in public parks. As I reported last week, “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.”
The announcement could include a formal acknowledgement of this shift away from providing advance notice and outreach to encampment residents and toward removing encampments with no notice and minimal outreach on the grounds that they constitute obstructions. Asked about this shift last week, Durkan spokesman Mark Prentice told me that “there has not been a new shift towards obstruction/hazard removals,” and that the steady increase in the number of such removals (from 40 percent of all removals in the first half of 2018 to 82 percent in the first quarter of this year) reflected a “long-term and concentrated focus by the team to remove obstructions.”
Last year, a committee charged with overseeing the implementation of the Multi-Departmental Administrative rules, which lay out the city’s process for removing encampments and prioritizing encampments for removal, recommended that the Navigation Team “respond faster to obstructions and … move quickly to clear Public Rights of Way,” and that they hire additional staff outside the Navigation Team, who are “not… required to adhere to MDAR protocols,” whose ” only job should be to quickly remove tents and obstructions/access to public spaces,” including “parks, bus stops, libraries, schools, medical facilities and community centers and all Public Rights-of-Way adjacent to these properties (e.g. parking strips).”
The committee, which disbanded late last year, also recommended that the city fund 10 neighborhood-based outreach workers, that it “identify additional culturally appropriate resources for more shelter, services and appropriate housing,” and that there be more training for police officers associated with the Navigation Team.
The announcement will also reportedly include the hiring of two new “system navigators” to provide outreach during encampment removals. As I reported last week, these new city employees will replace outreach workers from the social-services organization REACH, which has pulled out of participating in encampment sweeps as the city has moved toward removing camps with little or no notice to their residents. REACH is still part of the Navigation Team, but is moving toward a geographic model, in keeping with the MDAR committee’s recommendations. (The city is funding 7, not 10, neighborhood-based REACH staffers.)
The mayor’s office did not respond to questions about the announcement sent late yesterday afternoon.
In 2016, city council member Mike O’Brien proposed legislation (originally proposed by the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, Columbia Legal Services, and the ACLU of Washington) that would, among other things, have banned tents on sidewalks in front of and in the parts of parks that are in active use. That plan died after neighborhood activists successfully portrayed the proposal as an invitation for people to “camp” all over the city. It’s unclear whether Durkan’s new plan will call for a more stringent interpretation of the rules governing encampment removals than the original O’Brien legislation.