By Erica C. Barnett
The City Auditor’s Office—a small office that churns out reports and recommendations about how to improve city programs and policies—issued a report this month titled, self-summarizingly, “The City of Seattle Should Use a Data Dashboard to Track its Progress in Addressing Unsanctioned Encampments.” The report is part of an ongoing series of audits that began in 2017, when Councilmember Lisa Herbold asked the auditor to start tracking the work of the Navigation Team, ex-mayor Jenny Durkan’s encampment cleanup crew.
Through that work, the report says, the auditor’s office discovered that the city “was not systematically tracking the kind of data that would aid City leaders, stakeholders, and community members in understanding whether conditions related to encampments were improving or worsening over time. In previous reports we found that many important data, ranging from daily shelter-bed availability to trash accumulation, to the number of 24-hour bathrooms, were not being tracked over time.”
But wait, you may be wondering—don’t we already have a city homelessness dashboard? Well… kind of. The “One Seattle Homelessness Action Plan” website Mayor Bruce Harrell rolled out in May does include some dashboard-like elements, such as a bar graph showing the number of shelter referrals the city makes each month and a map identifying some of the encampment sites the city had identified and “closed” by mid-May. But the city plans to update the graph and map only quarterly, and the map is incomplete; many dots indicating closed encampments say “no outreach data available,” and huge swaths of the city, including the University District and Rainier Beach, appear to have no encampments at all.
“The idea is if you set it up appropriately and you had the right measures and good data, you’ll see if you’re making any progress.”—City Auditor David Jones
City Auditor David Jones said his office began working on its latest report before the Harrell administration came into office. “We do recognize that their dashboard is a work in progress,” Jones said. “We don’t want to jump in on something that’s just been put out there that hopefully will be improved over time and added to and changed in response to needs and critiques.”
The audit report suggests collecting (or compiling existing) data in three key areas: 1) the lived experience of people in encampments, including measures like and physical and mental health; 2) public health indicators, such as the amount of trash and the number of needles at known encampment sites; and 3) measures of how well the system is performing, such as shelter acceptance rates and the availability of restrooms with running water. By tracking key metrics over time, the report says, the city could start to get a better handle on which strategies are working.
“The idea is if you set it up appropriately and you had the right measures and good data, you’ll see if you’re making any progress,” Jones said. Even though external factors, like the pandemic or the economy, can have outsize effects on some measures of progress, like shelter availability, a dashboard “at least would give you some sort of yardstick. …Are there fewer fires? Are there fewer people who are unsheltered? Is there a shorter time which people are receiving cervices? It at least gives you some sense of how you’re doing and if we’re moving in the right direction.”
A spokesman for Harrell’s office, Jamie Housen, said the report “provides a good starting point for these discussions,” adding that the King County Regional Homelessness Authority is responsible for the region’s overall homelessness response.
The KCRHA, which collaborated on the auditor’s recommendations, did not respond to requests for comment. In his letter, included in the report, Harrell did not respond directly to any of the recommendations. Instead, he noted that “a lot has changed” since the auditor’s office began their work, including the new administration and the transfer of homelessness contracts to the KCRHA.“To understand the work to address encampments, it will be critical to work closely with our partners to ensure the metrics in the dashboard are ones we can directly impact via an encampment resolution strategy,” Harrell wrote. “Some of the measures identified in this report are indicators of overall effectiveness of our homelessness response system and other systems of care, and not tied directly to encampment resolution.”
In other words: A brush-off. (Our word, not Jones’). Jones said it’s not unusual for reports from his office to be dismissed or deemed irrelevant as conditions change; the latest report includes a list of 48 previous recommendations that the auditor closed without any action by Durkan’s office, either because the proposals pertained to the Navigation Team, which was disbanded, or because “the City is undertaking a new approach to unsanctioned encampments and homelessness,” according to the report.
Asked if it’s frustrating to make so many recommendations that never translate into action, Jones said, “I will say this: We put a lot of time and effort into developing our recommendations, and unless there’s a really good reason that something shouldn’t be —and circumstances can change; what made sense once may no longer be doable—we do like to see our recommendations implemented. That’s the whole point. When that doesn’t happen, unless there’s a good reason, it’s unfortunate.”