Ending the Navigation Team Isn’t As Easy As Just Cutting their Budget

By Erica C. Barnett

Tomorrow, the Seattle city council will take its most definitive action yet to eliminate the Navigation Team—a group of police, litter removal workers, and outreach staff that removes encampments from public places—by voting on a mid-year package of budget cuts that eliminates funding for the program. But the ultimate fate of the team will lie with Mayor Jenny Durkan and Police Chief Carmen Best, who have the final say over departmental spending.

The two votes attempt to cut the team, which costs the city around $8.4 million a year, using two different types of budget actions. The first vote would prohibit SPD from spending money allocating 14 of its officers to the Navigation Team, using a spending restriction called a proviso to remove police from the team. The second would cut funding for the rest of the team, which includes staffers from the Human Services and Parks departments, and direct the mayor to reallocate that funding to contractors that do outreach and engagement to people experiencing homelessness, such as the nonprofit group REACH. REACH was originally part of the Navigation Team, but stopped participating alongside police as the team shifted its emphasis to encampment removals.

“The Navigation Team exists for the purpose of forcing people to move without giving them somewhere better to go,” Alison Eisinger, the longtime director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, said after last week’s vote.Shelters and tiny house villages were routinely full before the pandemic, when the team performed multiple sweeps every week, and since then, the city has added fewer than 100 new shelter beds.

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“The number one thing that determines whether or not somebody who is homeless and without shelter gets off the streets is whether or not there is an accessible, appropriate, available better alternative—and the person who can connect them to that alternative is a person who has some kind of trust relationship with them,” Eisinger said.

Although the team was originally envisioned as collaboration between police and human service providers that would combine the stick of enforcement with the carrot of shelter and services—the “navigation” part of the equation—its role shifted under Mayor Jenny Durkan, and in recent years it has focused primarily on removing “obstruction” encampments from parks and other public spaces, a type of action that does not require any prior notice or offer of services or a better place to go.

Durkan has resisted every effort to cut the Navigation Team, which has nearly doubled in size since it was created in 2017. In 2018, Durkan even characterized a move by the council efforts to merely slow down the expansion of the team as a devastating “cut.”

Given that history, council members and advocates are worried that Durkan will simply ignore their budget directives. Although the budget proviso says SPD can’t spend the money it had allocated this year for the Navigation Team, it acknowledges that any effort to lay off the officers on the team will create labor issues—a problem Paul wrote about in detail on Friday.

“This action will dramatically restrict the City’s ability to address unauthorized encampments on City property and will significantly impact the City’s ability to ensure that Seattle is safe, healthy, clean, and accessible for all residents, both unhoused and housed.”—Human Services Director Jason Johnson

Additionally, the chief could ignore the council’s directive to reassign the 14 officers and look for savings elsewhere in the department, or move the officers off the Navigation Team without actually cutting the size of the police force. Hammering out those issues could delay any cuts to the sworn portion of the team.

A bigger barrier for those hoping to eliminate the Navigation Team is that unless the council uses a proviso to explicitly restrict spending, city law does not require the mayor to obey the council’s budget directives. Historically, this hasn’t been a problem, because the council and mayor have had an understanding that, with some exceptions, the mayor will spend the budget in the manner the council directs. But Durkan has repeatedly ignored the council’s directions when she has disagreed with them, leaving open the possibility that she will do so with the Navigation Team as well.

For example, Durkan recently used $1.4 million intended for non-congregate shelter on rental assistance; failed to spend money the council allocated for mobile showers; and has refused to approve an expansion of the LEAD program that could have temporarily housed dozens of people and provided them with case management and a path out of the criminal justice system. The open warfare between the mayor and council could well lead to a situation where the council issues a forceful directive to defund the Navigation Team—and the mayor shrugs.

“There’s no reason to believe that the city will not pick up garbage without having the Navigation Team in existence. It did it before and it can do it again.”—City Council member Tammy Morales

REACH director Chloe Gale, who testified before last week’s vote that the Navigation Team “conduct[s] expedient, politically motivated transactions that result in continuous displacement and trauma,” says Durkan “has a lot of opportunities to not implement this, and she also can set things up to fail by not having responses where you need to have responses in the community.”

In a scathing letter to the council last week, HSD director Jason Johnson suggested that without the Navigation Team—specifically, the four “field coordinators” from HSD and Parks— the city would be unable to respond to the more than 16,000 calls for service it receives about encampments each year.

“This action will dramatically restrict the City’s ability to address unauthorized encampments on City property and will significantly impact the City’s ability to ensure that Seattle is safe, healthy, clean, and accessible for all residents, both unhoused and housed,” Johnson wrote. “The Council’s actions effectively returns the City’s response to unsheltered homelessness to a pre-2017 model where service providers alone were the City’s response to encampments. This model was a failure, demonstrated by the proliferation of large, unsafe and unhealthy encampments that spread across Seattle.”

Council member Tammy Morales, who sponsored the amendment to defund the Navigation Team, countered last week that the council has heard from outreach workers that litter pickup and removing tents that are blocking entire sidewalks “is really important, but they would like someone else to be doing it so they can focus on outreach and engagement.” Eisinger adds: “There’s no reason to believe that the city will not pick up garbage without having the Navigation Team in existence. It did it before and it can do it again.”

Eliminating the Navigation Team would not prevent the police from removing encampments without prior notice—a fact Gale says still needs to be addressed, whatever happens to the official team. Police are still authorized to remove encampments that constitute “obstructions” with little or no notice, and will retain the ability to do so even if the Navigation Team goes away. Police were taught to “define an obstruction or hazard [as] all right-of-way and every piece of park property,” Gale says—a definition that has allowed the Navigation Team, as well as regular SPD officers, to remove encampments without any notice or offers of shelter or services.

Council budget chair Teresa Mosqueda says Johnson is wrong when he says the council has no plan to respond to encampments without the Navigation Team. “There is a plan, and it’s not just a plan it’s a program that’s already in place,” she says. “We have partners like REACH and LEAD who are already doing this work and are already showing better outcomes at getting folks into housing options and shelter options. It’s a matter of directing funding out of the Navigation Team and into REACH and LEAD and other organizations that have already built trust” with people experiencing homelessness, she says.

Johnson’s letter explicitly calls out REACH, specifically, as a “data-less model” that “cannot produce the same level of data, detail, or examples of success” as the Navigation Team. “This is another example of a budgeting process that is untethered from operational impact, designed to achieve a near-sighted and expedite political outcome— with little regard to City employees or the people the Navigation Team serves.”

Eisinger counters that existing providers could be very effective if they were actually funded sufficiently, empowered, and provided access to shelter and housing options. (Currently, the Navigation Team has exclusive access to many of the enhanced shelter beds that people prefer, including the entire Navigation Center). “I think what’s going on now is a much longer, larger, long-overdue conversation about where to prioritize public dollars,” Eisinger says.Eight point four million dollars a year could go a log way towards increasing quality, culturally appropriate, community-based, non-congregate, accessible shelter and affordable housing.

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