Durkan’s Office Backs Down on Outreach Contracts That Would Have Required Providers to Take Part in Sweeps

By Erica C. Barnett

This post has been updated. Scroll to the bottom for the update.

Homeless outreach providers who refused to sign city contracts they said would force them to participate in encampment sweeps and neglect the communities they serve may have prevailed in a battle with Mayor Jenny Durkan and her Human Services Department. After meeting with the service providers last week, Durkan’s deputy mayor in charge of homelessness, Tiffany Washington, sent a letter agreeing to significant changes the organizations had requested and making plans to negotiate new contract details, beginning with a meeting next week.

“Programs whose primary mission is to deliver culturally focused outreach can spend the majority of their time engaging with people aligned with their organization’s focus-population, with a smaller portion of time spent collaborating with the City on proactive outreach,” Washington wrote. “Outreach providers will not be required to be present on the day of a removal.”

As PubliCola reported exclusively last month, seven outreach providers, including three that serve Native American people experiencing homelessness, declined to sign their contracts for 2021 because they included new provisions that would require outreach workers to work at encampments scheduled for removal, regardless of whether the people living there were members of the communities they serve, and impose new daily data reporting requirements the providers called onerous and invasive.

“As Native service providers, it’s really important for us not to be involved in removing people from land.”—Andrew Guillen, Seattle Indian Health Board

Mother Nation, a group that serves Native American women, told the city they would not sign their outreach contract and asked for payment for the work they’ve already done this year. The city often approves human services contracts long after the beginning of the year, but service providers told PubliCola this is the first time they’ve received a very late contract with so many substantive changes added at the last minute.

Andrew Guillen, the grants and contracts director for the Seattle Indian Health Board, said he’s “hopeful” about the new tone from the mayor’s office, although he added that the details still have to be hammered out. “We’re still kind of in a wait and see attitude, because we do expect that those contract provisions will be removed… and we’re not going to sign a contract with those provisions,” Guillen said.

The executive directors of the citywide outreach group REACH and the Downtown Emergency Service Center both said they are “optimistic” that the contract impasse will be over soon.

“I really appreciated [the mayor’s office] for being responsive, and I think it’s the start of a good process going forward,” REACH director Chloe Gale said.

The proposal the mayor’s office would also return HSD’s “system navigators”—social workers who were part of the old Navigation Team and who have been “coordinating” the work of nonprofit outreach providers as part of the new HOPE team—to their previous outreach role. “When a site is posted for removal, System Navigators will take the lead on engagement and service/shelter referral” leading up to and during the removal, Washington wrote.

As we’ve reported, the city is ramping up encampment sweeps again now that the immediate threat from COVID has subsided; every week, providers get a list of “priority” encampments that the Parks Department will sweep if the people living there don’t go to shelter or another site voluntarily. This morning, Parks removed people and tents from an encampment at Olga Park in northeast Seattle, which we’ll cover in a separate post.

Guillen says the most important issue for SIHB is ensuring that they aren’t required to participate in encampment removals, either before or after a sweep. “One of our relatives at Mother Nation said that for Native people to be participating in removing people from land not only is traumatizing for the individual being removed, but also for the service workers participating in this,” Guillen said. “As Native service providers, it’s really important for us not to be involved in removing folks.”

The mayor’s office and HSD did not immediately respond to questions about the outreach contracts this morning. We’ll update this post if they get back to us.

UPDATE: HSD responded to our list of detailed questions with a one-line response: “Contract negotiations are progressing and we are hopeful that there will be agreement soon that works for everyone.”