The director of Seattle’s Human Services Department told the city council last week that he was unable to provide data that would back up his assertion that the Navigation Team, which removes unauthorized encampments from public spaces, is successfully connecting people to shelter, saying there was still a lot of work to do before a “dashboard” including this data could be made available.
In fact, the dashboard is already live, and it shows that the vast majority of people who receive “referrals” to shelter—70 percent in the first half of 2019—never actually show up at those shelters. And those referrals only reflect a fraction of the total number of individuals “engaged” by the Navigation Team as it removes encampments. If all those individuals are included, only about 8 percent of people the Navigation Team contacts when they’re removing encampments—128 out of 1,583—actually end up in shelter.
According to council member Lisa Herbold(who, along with her colleague Teresa Mosqueda, has been asking HSD to provide the number of shelter enrollments, as opposed to referrals, for months), the the city requires nonprofit homeless service providers to meet a much higher standard than the Navigation Team—60 percent of their referrals are supposed to result in actual shelter enrollments, or twice as many shelter enrollments as the Navigation Team’s current average. And the nonprofit providers are hitting that higher number—according to data provided by the mayor’s office, nonprofit providers funded by the city made a total of 246 referrals and 147 enrollments in the first half of this year, an enrollment rate of 60 percent.
“My focus [in asking the Navigation Team for its results] has been ensuring that the Navigation Team is having success in our shared understanding of what the outcomes should be and accountability in meeting those outcomes,” Herbold says. “So I ask myself, Why are the referrals to shelter so much lower than what we expect of the outreach providers, and what could make them better?”
I started calling the mayor’s office and HSD about the website, which had not been publicly disclosed to council members who were requesting it, on Friday. HSD sent out a memo to council members providing a link to the site, which has apparently been live for weeks, late this afternoon, shortly after I talked to them and three days after I asked them directly about the website.
“We’re happy with the fact that we’re seeing conversions of [shelter] referrals to enrollments increasing, and the information pushes us to continue to try to do better.”—Tess Colby, Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office
In the memo, HSD interim director Jason Johnson draws a distinction between “contacts” made by the Nav Team and “referrals to shelters, which is the result of relationship building, time, conversations, and matching an individual (or sometimes groups of individuals) to a unique shelter resources.” In other words, Johnson is saying that the 8 percent number isn’t as bad as it looks, because the Navigation Team has to make a record of every single “contact” with people they encounter in encampments, effectively diluting the number of successes. In contrast, HSD says, nonprofit outreach providers aren’t required to (and don’t) track every single contact—so their numbers look better.
The city has acknowledged that the Navigation Team is now dedicated primarily to removing tents and people from public spaces, rather than providing referrals to shelter or services. But the new numbers confirm that even when the Navigation Team does make what it considers a successful “referral,” most unsheltered people never actually access the shelter they’re referred to.
Tess Colby, Mayor Jenny Durkan’s chief homelessness advisor, says the mayor’s office is “happy with the fact that we’re seeing conversions of [shelter] referrals to enrollments increasing, and the information pushes us to continue to try to do better. We want to continue to see that upward trend moving forward.”
The new numbers confirm that even when the Navigation Team does make what it considers a successful “referral,” most unsheltered people never actually access the shelter they’re referred to.
Homeless advocates say that the Navigation Team, which is made up primarily of police officers, works under protocols (such as a mandate to remove many encampments with no prior notice) that makes it impossible to build relationships or engage in meaningful outreach to unsheltered people. “The Navigation Team is more and more evidently about policing than about providing needed and effective service interventions to human beings, and that is really concerning,” says Alison Eisinger, director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness. “A good referral is a referral that results in someone being able to accept it.”
Herbold added a proviso to last year’s budget requiring the Navigation Team to provide quarterly reports on various issues, including a staffing assessment to determine whether the Navigation Team has the proper mix of police officers and outreach workers. That assessment was never done. “In essence, they just said they weren’t going to do it,” she says.
Earlier this year, the nonprofit that used to outreach during encampment removals, REACH, stopped participating in most “cleans” after the Navigation Team shifted its focus to removing encampments deemed to be “obstructions,” a designation that exempts the team from the usual requirements to provide outreach and prior notice to residents. However, REACH is still technically part of the Navigation Team, and the referrals they make as part of their ongoing Navigation Team-related outreach work gets counted toward the Navigation Team’s successful shelter referrals.
Currently, the Navigation Team does not transfer most clients to shelter directly; when they do, it’s in the back of a police car, because system navigators are not authorized to give rides to shelter residents in their own vehicles—another potential barrier to converting a shelter referral into an actual shelter stay.
REACH director Chloe Gale says the Navigation Team’s low rate of actual shelter enrollments, as opposed to referrals, “really indicates that it takes more than just a referral to move somebody into shelter. You have to make sure that it’s a good fit, that they’re eligible for the shelter, that they really want to go and don’t just feel pressure to go and that they provide basic assistance such as help with transportation.” Currently, the Navigation Team does not transfer most clients to shelter directly; when they do, it’s in the back of a police car, because system navigators are not authorized to give rides to shelter residents in their own vehicles—another potential barrier to converting a shelter referral into an actual shelter stay.
Eisinger says that because the Navigation Team only counts people who happen to stick around on the day of an encampment removal in their list of official “contacts,” even the 8 percent shelter rate, which the city says is the result of carefully tracking even the briefest engagements, may be high.
“What I have observed, what others have observed, and what I think continues to be the story is that the Navigation Team shows up and some people simply leave. They do not expect to offered anything that is actually useful to them,” Eisinger says. “And so there is some question about the number of engagements compared to the number of people actually living in public spaces.”
The mayor’s office is requesting a total of $8.4 million for the Navigation Team, which includes $362,000 for new positions that were paid for in 2019 with one-time funding from unspent revenues. (This is the second budget in a row in which Durkan has funded Navigation Team expansions with one-time funding and asked the city council to backfill those positions with general-fund dollars in the next year’s budget.)
The Navigation Team will be one of the only major homelessness-related efforts to stay at the city when King County and Seattle merge their homelessness agencies into a single regional body. Herbold says she’ll be asking pointed questions about the Navigation Team’s results and composition during the upcoming budget discussion.