Native-Led Homeless Outreach Groups Reject Contracts They Say Will Harm Their Clients, Exacerbate Inequities

By Erica C. Barnett

[Editor’s note: See UPDATES in this post.]

Three organizations serving American Indian and Alaska Native people experiencing homelessness sent a letter to Mayor Jenny Durkan, Deputy Mayor Tiffany Washington, and Human Services Department interim director Helen Howell rejecting provisions of their 2021 contracts that they say will harm the groups they serve and force them to “facilitate encampment removals” by doing outreach at encampments the city designates as “high-priority,” a precursor to sweeps.

Mother Nation, which serves Native women, has decided not to sign its 2021 contract, the letter says.

UPDATE: In a separate letter to HSD and the mayor’s office that was cc’d to the city council, Mother Nation wrote that “the new conditions, the reporting and requirements to be part of the sweeps with the Hope Team, and requirements to participate in other camps outside of our where our Indigenous community resides, and the additional daily reporting, gives us very little time to the nature of our work with Native traditional practices and support to build and earn a trust relationship to third generations of our People homeless due to the Indian Relocation Act. :

Seattle Indian Health Board “will not sign this contract in its current form, jeopardizing our ability to provide services to our unsheltered relatives in the near future,” the letter from the three providers continues. UPDATE: In an email transmitting the letter, SIHB CEO Esther Lucero added that the changes “threaten the on-going services provided by outreach and engagement service providers. We request that HSD immediately remove these concerning new contract provisions to remedy these concerns and maintain the continuity of care for our unsheltered relatives. 

Chief Seattle Club “has signed the contract because of the immense needs in our community, but will suspend submitting any further invoices to HSD until the issues” raised by all three groups are resolved, the letter says.

HSD spokesman Will Lemke said the providers will get paid for work they’ve done so far this year even if they don’t sign their contracts. Since Chief Seattle Club has signed their contract, it’s possible the city could withhold future funding if they stop providing invoices to the city.

As I reported last Monday, outreach providers have been working without contracts since the beginning of the year. Although it’s fairly routine for the city to deliver contracts several months into the year, providers say it is extremely unusual for new contracts to include major changes without consultation with the providers themselves.

In late April, seven outreach groups sent a letter to the mayor and HSD objecting to the changes, which Chief Seattle Club interim director Derrick Belgarde said would place the organizations at the “beck and call” of the city’s HOPE (formerly Navigation) Team, which provides outreach and shelter referrals to encampments that the city places on its priority list for sweeps. 

In effect, the new rules would require agencies to drop whatever targeted outreach they are doing with their existing client base—chronically homeless individuals with severe, disabling mental illness, for example—and rush out to whatever encampment happens to be on the city’s “priority” list that week.

“For too long the City has held significant set asides of shelter beds and resources that are now contingent upon provider participation in priority encampment removals,” the letter says. “We are concerned this strategy continues to drive further inequities experienced among our Native community who are geographically dispersed and often reside in smaller groups that may not be deemed a priority by the City.” 

American Indians and Alaska Natives make up less than 1 percent of King County’s population, but represent around 15 percent of its homeless population. Despite this extreme disproportionality, Native people experiencing homelessness are not highly visible; according to advocates, they tend to stay away from the large, highly visible encampments the city usually targets for removal. When they’re forced to spend limited resources responding to those encampments, Native-led groups say, it takes away from time helping their clients and exacerbates existing inequities.

“Program regulations requiring HOPE Team geographic prioritization and coordination of outreach providers limits our ability to meet our relatives where they are at and deprioritizes our work as culturally specific providers,” the providers’ letter says. Additionally, they note, allowing “property-holding” city departments like Parks, Seattle Public Utilities, and the Seattle Department of Transportation to decide which encampments are a “priority” for the city—for example, by removing an encampment after someone complains it’s blocking a sidewalk in front of their business—puts the emphasis on protecting property rather than helping people.

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The HOPE Team has exclusive access to about a quarter of the city’s shelter beds, including beds at the new Executive Pacific Hotel-based shelter and in tiny house villages. This makes them a gatekeeper for some of the most desirable shelter beds in the city, and it means that other service providers, including those that serve clients who do not live in large or highly public encampments, have access to a limited slice of a tiny number of shelter beds available each night.

“For too long the City has held significant set asides of shelter beds and resources that are now contingent upon provider participation in priority encampment removals,” the letter says. “We are concerned this strategy continues to drive further inequities experienced among our Native community who are geographically dispersed and often reside in smaller groups that may not be deemed a priority by the City.”

A final concern is around new reporting requirements, which the city says are necessary so that they can know who is living in encampments and what kind of services they need. In their letter, Mother Nation says the new contracts would require outreach workers to “gather sensitive information including mental health, substance abuse history, sexual orientation, immigration status, and any other information the City deems necessary in data reporting.”

Lemke, from HSD, says the city can’t direct providers to ask about immigration status and does not require them to ask other invasive questions. The daily data reports the contracts call for would require information about what kind of services outreach providers offered, including things like mental health services, referrals to substance use treatment, and legal services.

Asked about the outreach groups’ concerns, Lemke said the department is “in ongoing conversations with our outreach providers around the concerns they raise through the contract negotiation process.” But, he added, the city needs to have the ability “to coordinate services on the ground, upon request, to help people in need.” HSD has reportedly told providers privately that collecting data they consider invasive is the price of doing business with the city. 

Lemke added that the information the city is asking providers to collect about people in encampments is “data [that] remains a priority for the Mayor and City Council, but also for the public and members of the media, like yourself previously.”

One thought on “Native-Led Homeless Outreach Groups Reject Contracts They Say Will Harm Their Clients, Exacerbate Inequities”

  1. Chief’s Sealth is probably spinning in his grave by now!
    Give them hygiene centers and needle disposal!

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