Tag: Jason Johnson

City Considered, and Rejected, “Voluntary Relocation” Policy for Homeless Encampments

An encampment on South King Street, just prior to removal. Within days, tents had popped up a block away on South Jackson Street.

Seattle’s Navigation Team, a group of Human Services Department staffers and Seattle police officers that removes homeless encampments from parks and other public spaces, considered formally adopting a new policy under which homeless people removed from one location would be told to “voluntarily relocate” to another spot, either “self-selected” or identified by the city, internal memos and emails obtained through a records request reveal.

The discussions took place in April, as HSD, the parks department, and the mayor’s office discussed how to deal with an encampment near the Navigation Center, a low-barrier shelter that is perennially full.

In an April 16 memo to deputy mayor Casey Sixkiller, HSD director Jason Johnson laid out a plan in which the Navigation Team would “encourage and support individuals residing on the [Navigation Center] stairs to accept shelter resources or to voluntarily relocate to a wide stretch of sidewalk at S Dearborn St & 10th Ave S.”

Congregate shelters at Garfield and Miller Community Centers, and at the Southwest Teen Life Center in West Seattle, are scheduled to shut down on August 24, and it’s currently unclear where the homeless men (Miller), women (Garfield) and young adults (Teen Life) will go.

The site was chosen, according to the memo, because it was wide enough to allow some pedestrian access, close to a proposed hygiene station, and accessible for emergency and sanitation workers. (Other emails indicate that the Navigation Team also considered identifying “a large parking lot that people can be directed to camp in” after being removed from around the Navigation center). In an email to Navigation Team members and HSD staffers expanding on the memo, Navigation Team director Tara Beck indicated that people living in encampments slated for removal would be told to “self-select areas to relocate to”—a more politic way of saying, “Move along.”

Before the pandemic, the Navigation Team removed dozens of encampments every month, avoiding a legal requirement that they provide advance notice and offer shelter and services to every encampment resident by designating most encampments as “obstructions,” which are exempt from those requirements.

Since mid-March, in recognition of the fact that moving people from place to place could accelerate the spread of the virus, the team has only conducted a handful of large-scale encampment removals. After each such operation, the city has said that every unsheltered person remaining at a location on the day of a swee received a legitimate offer of shelter that was accessible and appropriate for their specific circumstances. Nonetheless, it’s an easily observable fact that encampments tend to come back after they’re removed, a sign that people either aren’t actually showing up in shelter or aren’t staying there.

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The proposal to formalize the city’s informal practice of shuffling people from place to place, had it been adopted, would have been a rare, if tacit, admission that the city can’t accommodate the needs of all the people living on its streets within the current shelter system. Moreover, by conceding that the best they are able to offer many homeless people is a different camping spot, the city would have also had to acknowledge that it would rather have people living in tents on sidewalks during the COVID-19 pandemic than offer them space in vacant motel rooms, as many other cities across the country—but not Seattle—have done.

Ultimately, the city decided not to adopt the new “voluntary relocation” policy. According to HSD spokesman Will Lemke, in the case of the Navigation Center encampment, HSD “opted to offer shelter and service rather than suggest that people move nearby.” But the discussions that took place back then shine a light on the city’s early thinking about how to deal with encampments at a time when they are temporarily unable to simply declare encampments “obstructions” and remove them.

The tension over how to deal with the 8,000 people experiencing homelessness in Seattle—a number that could soon swell as unemployment benefits dry up and eviction moratoriums end—isn’t going to let up. Currently, the Navigation Team has exclusive referral rights to most of the 95 new shelter and tiny house village beds that opened in response to the pandemic. If encampment removals start up again in earnest, those 95 beds won’t just be inadequate—they’ll be overrun.

As the pandemic drags on into its seventh month, the city is actually preparing to close shelters at community centers that were originally opened as “redistribution” sites for existing shelters where conditions were too crowded. Congregate shelters at Garfield and Miller Community Centers, and at the Southwest Teen Life Center in West Seattle, are scheduled to shut down on August 24, and it’s currently unclear where the homeless men (Miller), women (Garfield) and young adults (Teen Life) will go.

The proposal to formalize the city’s informal practice of shuffling people from place to place, had it been adopted, would have been a rare, if tacit, admission that the city can’t accommodate the needs of all the people living on its streets

One place they won’t be moving is to the enormous “shelter tent” that deputy mayor Sixkiller said was coming back in April. The tent was supposed to provide shelter for up to 250 clients of the Salvation Army, which is currently operating shelters out of City Hall and in Seattle Center.

Documents obtained through a second records request show the enormous cost and size of the tent, which would have been provided by Volo Events, “a leading producer of live events and experiential marketing agency” and cost nearly $1 million—just for the tent—for two months. The 30,000-square-foot tent was going to be set up inside another structure—most likely Memorial Stadium.

City Auditor: Homelessness Contracts Awarded “Properly,” but Delays, High Turnover, and Inappropriate Metrics Remain Issues

The city auditor issued a report last week on the city’s Homelessness Strategy and Investment division, which concluded that while HSI is awarding contracts to homeless service providers “properly, HSD is not executing contracts in a timely manner.” Because the city is awarding budgeted contracts late, providers are being forced to use their own funds to cover services during these delays.

“We reviewed a sample of 29 contracts and found that all of them were signed late,” the report says. “Ten contracts were executed over 50 calendar days late and three were six months late. This resulted in some service providers not being able to invoice the City for program expenses[.] …We reviewed a sample of 29 contracts and found that all of them were signed late. Ten contracts were executed over 50 calendar days late and three were six months late. This resulted in some service providers not being able to invoice the City for program expenses and needing to use other funding sources to keep programs in operation.”

(The Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, which is considered a homelessness program despite the fact that it focuses on criminal recidivism and quality of life outcomes, not housing, finally received city approval for its 2020 contract in late March).

A big reason for the delays, according to the auditor’s report, is that most contracts start on January 1, which gives the city’s grants and contracts administrators only a few weeks after the budget is adopted in November to execute these contracts. Another issue is that turnover among the grants and contracts specialists who are in charge of monitoring contract compliance is extremely high—30 percent in the first half of 2019, according to the audit—and new hires are being trained by their coworkers instead of through any formal training program. In his response to the audit report, acting HSD director Jason Johnson, who has announced he will leave in June, said HSD has hired temporary workers to help grants and contracts specialists who are “working beyond their capacity.” These are among the workers who are being trained on the job by their peers.

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As I reported last year, the Human Services Department dismantled its formal contracts compliance unit and directed contract specialists in each division to have “a high level of individual accountability” to catch errors in contracts. HSD set up the unit in 2014 after a scathing state audit found that the HSD lacked “adequate controls” to monitor how contracts were being written as well as how human service providers were spending grant money.

The city auditor did not report on specific errors that had escaped contract reviewers’ attention, but did note that many large contracts were being reviewed through “desk reviews” that do not involve on-site visits, meetings with program staff, or reviews of client files.

The auditor also highlighted an issue homeless advocates have been pointing out since before the city implemented “performance-based contracting,” which allows the city to withhold funding from providers if they fail to meet certain milestones: Requiring homeless service providers to produce a high number of “exits to permanent housing” in order to get full funding is unrealistic in a city that is not building enough of this type of housing to serve the need, and ignores other types of success stories that do not involve, say, a person leaving emergency shelter and moving directly into permanent housing.

For example, the city’s performance metrics penalize programs that move clients into “foster care, nursing homes, hospitals, domestic violence shelters, and transitional housing and transitional living programs for youth” by counting those as “negative” rather than positive exits from the programs. In its response to this criticism, included in the audit, HSD said that it chose exits to permanent housing as a performance metric “because the goal of the homeless response system is to end an individual’s experience of homelessness and HSD is committed to ensuring investments work towards this goal”—a response that ignores the fact that the city’s homeless population far outnumbers the number of units that are available to house it.

Additionally, the audit found that the fact that the city has no way of tracking how many shelter beds are available in real time “creates inefficiencies for overworked shelter staff” who are forced to call around to other shelters when clients show up at shelters that are full. And it concluded that the current system for tracking client’s “vulnerability,” which puts some people on track for housing while leaving others in limbo indefinitely, exacerbates the existing racial inequities in the homeless service system, particularly for undocumented people.

Human Services Director Resigns Days After Contentious Meeting Leaves Navigation Team’s Future in Question

Jason Johnson, the embattled acting director of the Seattle Human Services Division, announced his resignation in a letter to staffers Friday morning—two days after an off-the-rails presentation to the city council about the work of the encampment-clearing Navigation Team. Johnson will leave the city in June. Navigation Team operations manager August Drake-Ericson, who presented at that meeting alongside Johnson and team director Tara Beck, announced her retirement shortly after Johnson’s resignation announcement went out. The high-level departures come on top of a wave of resignation notices within HSD’s homelessness division, which recently started offering unprecedented incentives to keep staffers from leaving.

I first reported the news of Johnson’s resignation on Twitter.

Johnson’s tenure as HSD director has been contentious. As deputy HSD director under former mayor Ed Murray, Johnson oversaw the implementation of Pathways Home, a realignment of the city’s homelessness spending toward “rapid rehousing” rather than temporary shelter or transitional housing, a framework that has ended up being more theory than practice. Also as deputy, Johnson oversaw the department’s shift toward performance-based contracting, in which agencies do not receive full funding unless they meet performance goals. And he oversaw the city’s new investments in enhanced shelters—shelters that offer some combination of 24/7 access, storage, services, and a lack of barriers such as sex segregation and sobriety requirements.

Johnson came under fire from the beginning of his tenure as acting director. As soon as Durkan sent his name to the city council for nomination (nine months after she tapped him for the job), HSD employees raised objections, saying he was not responsive to lower-level staff and requesting that the city do an open search process for a new director. (Employees from the homelessness division, in particular, were unhappy under Johnson and his predecessor Catherine Lester’s leadership; according to internal surveys, the number of people in the division who felt unappreciated and unacknowledged increased under their tenure.) During his appointment process, council members grilled Johnson on allegations of harassment and intimidation within the department, as well as whether he would make decisions independent of political direction from Mayor Jenny Durkan; after it became clear that he did not have the council votes to win nomination, Durkan withdrew his nomination, and he has served on an interim basis ever since.

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Under Johnson’s leadership, the Navigation Team, which removes encampments from parks and public spaces, shifted its focus away from its nominal purpose—navigating homeless people to shelter and housing—to simply removing encampments whenever they pop up in parks, on rights-of-way, and in other public spaces, with no advance notice or offers of shelter or other services. As the team’s latest quarterly report revealed, the Navigation Team now declares virtually all the encampments it encounters  exempt from all of the once-standard notice and outreach requirements established in 2017, by deeming then “obstructions”—a designation that allows the team to remove them right away. As Johnson articulated on Wednesday, HSD considers any encampment or tent in any park to automatically constitute an “obstruction,” whether it is actually obstructing anyone’s ability to use the park or not. In the last quarter, the team provided advance notice and outreach to just 11 encampments, compared to 292 encampments that were deemed “obstructions” or “hazards” and removed without warning. This is likely among many reasons that only a tiny fraction of the team’s contacts with people living in encampments  lead to shelter.

At the same time, the total number of encampment removals has continued to escalate; in the last quarter of 2019, according to a memo by council central staff, the number of encampment removals doubled compared to one year earlier. This escalation corresponded with annual increases in the size of the team: Over two years, the team ballooned from 16 members, including eight outreach workers from nonprofits that specialize in case management, to 38, which allowed the team to remove encampments seven days a week. Also over that period, contracted outreach workers from REACH (Evergreen Treatment Services) stopped participating in encampment removals, citing the damage their participation caused to their relationships with the vulnerable people they serve, which prompted the city to hire two in-house “system navigators’ to be on site during encampment sweeps. The Seattle Police Department also trained 100 bike and Community Police Team officers to remove encampments directly, vastly increasing the number of police officers who can remove encampments without any participation from outreach workers.

Johnson’s departure (and Drake-Ericson’s, for that matter) leaves the future of the Navigation Team in question. Although most of the functions of the homelessness division are moving over to the new King County Regional Homelessness Authority over the course of 2020, the city insisted on keeping the Navigation Team in-house, moving it to another division within HSD (likely Youth and Family Services.) The council, which has been reluctant to rein in Durkan’s yearly expansion of the team, may finally balk this year, as council member Teresa Mosqueda takes over as head of the budget process.

And whoever Durkan nominates to replace Johnson should expect intense scrutiny. As new council member Tammy Morales—a former member of the city’s Human Rights Commission who opposes encampment sweeps—put it, “Seattle deserves leadership who listens, even when they might not like what we have to say, and it’s incumbent on this city’s leadership to include the community for HSD’s next director in the hiring process.”

Council Grills Navigation Team on Low Success Rate, Suggesting That $8 Million Might Be Better Spent on Shelter

Photos from a site journal for the removal of an “obstruction” encampment inside a small forested area in MLK Memorial Park

A presentation by the Human Services Department on the latest quarterly report from the Navigation Team, which showed that 96 percent of encampment removals are now occurring with no advance notice or outreach, was derailed almost immediately this afternoon, as city council members objected to the premise of a presentation touting the team’s success. The Navigation Team is a 38-member group of police and Human Services Department staffers that removes encampments.

No sooner had Navigation Team director Tara Beck told the council, cheerfully, that “every person the Navigation Team engages with is offered shelter,” than council member Kshama Sawant interrupted, saying, “I just cannot wrap my head around how out of touch this sort of bureaucratic presentation is.” Her colleague Teresa Mosqueda chimed in: “We’re having a hard time accepting that statement” that everyone is offered shelter. As the Navigation Team’s own report makes clear, just 24 percent of people the Navigation Team speaks to, or “contacts,” during encampment removals receive shelter referrals.

Our goal is to build a relationship, express compassion over time, [and] to use motivational interviewing techniques to get to yes,” Navigation Team director Tara Beck said. This claim is belied by the fact that when the Dearborn sweep was announced, a REACH outreach worker who had been working with encampment residents told the Navigation Team and HSD leadership that removing the encampment with just three days’ notice would “creat[e] a recipe for more trauma for our clients.”

As I reported yesterday, the number of those people who actually go to shelter (as opposed to verbally accepting a referral in the middle of a chaotic and traumatic situation), fewer than 23 percent actually report to shelter within two days—a number that works out to just 6 percent of those contacted by the Navigation Team, or 45 people over a three-month period. Johnson suggested that the number would be higher if the people who went to shelter after 7 or 14 days elapsed were included, prompting Sawant to remark that the point of referring people somewhere when their encampment is removed is to get them sheltered right away, not weeks later. “What happens in… those [48] hours could be devastating to them. I feel like we have to at least make an attempt to not have a cavalier approach to this,” Sawant said.

The presenters—who, in addition to Johnson and Beck, included Navigation Team operations manager August Drake-Ericson—seemed to be caught flat-footed by the council’s barrage of questions, attempting to stick to a presentation that painted a sunny picture of the Navigation Team’s work. Beck referred repeatedly to efforts by Navigation Team field coordinators and system navigators (the two in-house outreach workers who took over when the city’s outreach partner, REACH, disengaged from the team last year) to “get to yes” with people living in encampments who were reluctant to “accept” offers of shelter, suggesting a level of sustained outreach that homeless service providers, advocates, and homeless people themselves have repeatedly said the team is not providing.

As it happens, that sweep in Martin Luther King Memorial Park occurred on the Friday before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, which is a day that the Navigation Team takes off. On the team’s internal encampment removal schedule, the holiday is notated with an inspirational quote: “Injustice anywhere is an injustice to people everywhere.”

Again and again, council members questioned the staffers’ claim that the Navigation Team offers shelter, storage, and assistance to everyone living in encampments—pointing out, for example, that the team often removes encampments that are obviously occupied without recording any “contacts” with any of the people living there at all. “How can you say that you are offering people shelter when 96 percent of encampment removals are exempt from prior notice?,” Mosqueda said. In response, Beck clarified: When she said that the Navigation Team offers shelter and services to everyone, she was only referring to traditional, 72-hour removals—which now make up just 4 percent of the Navigation Team’s work.

During one such removal—the clearing of a large encampment at South Dearborn Street and I-5—Beck said that all 40 or so encampment residents were offered shelter, but just 10 accepted. “Our goal is to build a relationship, express compassion over time, [and] to use motivational interviewing techniques to get to yes,” Beck said. This claim is belied by the fact that when the Dearborn sweep was announced, a REACH outreach worker who had been connecting people living there with emergency clothing, food, and medical care told the Navigation Team and HSD leadership that removing the encampment with just three days’ notice would “creat[e] a recipe for more trauma for our clients,” according to an email obtained through a records request.

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“Case workers from various organizations have poured their energy into working together to provide assistance for folks living in that space,” the letter, from a case worker who is no longer with REACH, said. “All of this effort, all of the progress (however minimal it may appear) clients at [the Dearborn] Cloverleaf have made will be lost.”

here is a perverse incentive for HSD to continue calling things obstructions that are not obstructions, in the commonly understood meaning of that term, and to keep clearing encampments where they know people will either be absent or will not accept their offers of shelter. If the Navigation Team had a higher success rate, the system would quickly run out of beds to accept all their referrals. On an average night, according to the Navigation Team’s report, there are about 12 beds available among the ones set aside for Navigation Team referrals. (This point was not clear in the presentation or report, but a spokesman for HSD said this is what the number represents.) Half of these are in basic shelters where people sleep crowded together in bunks or on the floor—the type of shelter people who live in tents are the least likely to accept. Fundamentally, the system only “works” because most people don’t take shelter; if they did, the system would break down.

This would seem to suggest that the city needs to build more of the kinds of shelter people are likely to accept, such as tiny house villages, but Johnson said this would create another problem: “If we built enough shelter, we would then have another bottleneck, which would be at the front door of housing. You will never hear me say ‘let’s not build enough shelter,'” he continued, but it does move the goalposts in a way.” If we believe that shelter is better than living on the street, however, “moving the goalposts” even a little would still mean fewer people living, and dying, on sidewalks and in parks across the city. Continue reading “Council Grills Navigation Team on Low Success Rate, Suggesting That $8 Million Might Be Better Spent on Shelter”

A “Filibuster” on City Layoffs, a Resolution on Resolutions, an Accusatory Letter, and More

Acting HSD director Jason Johnson and mayoral advisor on homelessness Tess Colby

1. City council member Lisa Herbold struggled Wednesday to get Human Services Department Director Jason Johnson to answer her question about future layoffs from HSD’s Homeless Strategy and Investment (HSI) division, which is merging with King County’s homelessness division as part of the creation of a new regional homelessness authority. At a meeting of the council’s special committee on homelessness, Herbold asked Johnson repeatedly how many HSI employees would be moving to new offices in the county-owned Yesler Building as part of a temporary “co-location” of city and county staff, and how many are expected to have jobs with the new authority. “I’m hearing a lot of speculation about which positions are going to be eliminated,” Herbold said. “Given that the entire HSI division is being relocated [in March and we aren’t making final decisions about who will stay at the regional authority until much later, is there something happening that we should be aware of?”

Johnson responded first by describing the history that led to the current organizational structure of HSI, then talked at length about the successive organizational structures that will be put in place over the next year. “What is going to occur is colocation in March 2020, then after the hiring of the CEO, we will begin what is termed a loan period where day to day decisions are made by the CEO, but there will also be existing lines of authority back to the city and the county…”

“I’m frustrated that Interim Director Johnson seemed to filibuster in a way that made it very difficult for me to ask my specific question and he definitely didn’t answer it.”—Council member Lisa Herbold

His explanation—which did not include an answer to Herbold’s question about layoffs—went on for so long that council member Kshama Sawant jumped in to say that she hoped the council could wrap up talking about the regional authority quickly so that the committee could move on to “the most substantive issue” on the agenda, her proposal to vastly expand tiny house villages in the city, since she had somewhere else to be. (Council member Debora Juarez said that while she appreciated Sawant’s desire to move on to her own item, “I want to point out that we spent 90 minutes on a resolution that we didn’t even pass”—Sawant’s resolution condemning India’s National Register of Citizens and Citizenship Amendment Act—and “I, for one, want to hear how this is going to get implemented.”)

After the meeting, Herbold told me that she never did get answer to her question: “If the entirety of HSI staff are colocating and layoff decisions aren’t being made final until either a 2020 supplemental or 2021 proposed budget, when exactly between those two points in time will HSI staff learn their jobs are proposed to be eliminated?” Herbold says she was “frustrated that Interim Director Johnson seemed to filibuster in a way that made it very difficult for me to ask my specific question and he definitely didn’t answer it.”

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2. Juarez was hardly the only council member casting shade on Sawant’s nonbinding resolution on India, which—along with a resolution opposing war in Iran—took up most of the council’s two-hour-plus regular meeting on Monday. Freshman council member Alex Pedersen said he would propose a resolution condemning all forms of oppression everywhere, just to cover all possible bases. “There’s many disturbing issues going on today for which we do not have resolutions, and my resolution is broad enough to capture instances of oppression that we might be missing,” Pedersen said. “Allow me to ask that we try to not craft a city council council resolution for every horrible thing that our president or any world leader does.”

Pedersen’s resolution, if it ever does see the light of day, is unlikely to find traction among his colleagues, who seemed to consider it a stunt designed to embarrass Sawant. Sawant, for her part, immediately used the proposal as an opportunity to drag her colleagues for lacking the “moral and political courage” to address housing and homelessness. “Passing resolutions is not the barrier. The barrier is lack of courage,” she said.

3. Tomorrow afternoon, Beyonce St. James—the formerly homeless drag artist who spoke and performed at All Home King County’s annual conference last year—will appear in court to seek an injunction against the release of public records that include her legal name and other identifying information. I received a notice of the hearing because I requested St. James’ invoice for the event, for which she charged $500. (Attendees reported that they were told St. James was volunteering her time and performing for tips; video of the event shows attendees tossing and handing her cash.) St. James (not her legal name) is asking that all her personal information be kept private because she has already been threatened and harassed over her performance and fears further harassment if her address and other details are made public.

Continue reading “A “Filibuster” on City Layoffs, a Resolution on Resolutions, an Accusatory Letter, and More”

Navigation Team Switches Gears During Storm, More Homelessness Funds on Hold? And Speculation on KC Exec’s Political Future

Left: HSD director Jason Johnson; right: Mayor Durkan

1. UPDATE on Thursday, Jan. 16: According to HSD, the Navigation Team made 41 referrals to shelter on the first two nights of the winter storm—14 on Monday and 27 on Tuesday. Additionally, HSD spokesman Will Lemke said that there was no shortage of mats or other supplies at any of the emergency winter shelters. “The City is not low on supplies,” Lemke said. “Far from it. The City has strategic caches of supplies placed around Seattle for events like this. These supplies include supplies, cots, mats, sleeping bags, blankets, and first aid-kits.” A source who works for the Salvation Army, which staffed the downtown shelters, said people were sleeping on the floor or in chairs at the Seattle Municipal Tower on Tuesday night with only “thin blankets” to protect them in the chilly lobby, which has a revolving door.

At a briefing on winter storm response on Tuesday, officials with the city’s Human Services Department emphasized efforts by the city’s Navigation Team to get people living in encampments into shelter during the freezing weather, noting that members of the team—which ordinarily removes encampments—were out “from 7 am to midnight” on Monday making contact with encampment residents. What they weren’t able to say was how many people actually accepted an offer of transportation or shelter from the team, whose job ordinarily involves removing encampments and telling their displaced residents about available shelter beds, typically with few takers. HSD director Jason Johnson would not answer followup questions about the Navigation Team’s success rate, pointedly ignoring calls of “Jason!” from several reporters as he rushed out of the briefing room at the city’s Emergency Operations Center.

In a followup conversation, HSD spokesman Will Lemke said he would not have an exact number of shelter referrals, contacts made, or the number of people who received transportation from the Navigation Team until the city had crunched the numbers and entered them into the Homeless Information Management System. “I just haven’t been able to verify those numbers yet. Everything is very much in flux because everyone’s out in the field right now,” Lemke said when I asked for more detailed information. The number is reportedly in the single digits.

Last year, the city did publish the numbers right away, and did not issue any subsequent corrections to indicate their early numbers were wrong. On the first major snow day last year, February 8, the Navigation Team reported getting 18 people into shelter. On the 9th, 50. On the 10th, 67.

At the briefing, Durkan said that the city “saw greater uptake [on offers of shelter] last year on the second or third day of the storm. … We had a great deal of success with the Navigation Team going out to encampments and saying, ‘Hey you should come inside. It’s a good place. It’s safe.'” 

Johnson said that none of the shelters were over capacity and denied that there were any issues providing enough mats or other supplies to its severe weather shelters, which include space at the Seattle Center Exhibition Hall, in the lobby of the Seattle Municipal Tower, and at the Bitter Lake Community Center. There is also space for men only at the King County Administration Building. All shelters are operated by the Salvation Army.

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The C Is for Crank is supported entirely by generous contributions from readers like you. If you enjoy the breaking news, commentary, and deep dives on issues that matter to you, please support this work by donating a few bucks a month to keep this reader-supported, ad-free site going. Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job, so please become a sustaining supporter now. If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for keeping The C Is for Crank going and growing. I’m truly grateful for your support.

2. Last week, I reported on the fact that Mayor Jenny Durkan has hired an $86,000 consultant to evaluate the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program and make recommendations that will inform whether LEAD will receive funding approved in last year’s city budget to reduce caseloads and expand into new parts of the city. But LEAD isn’t the only human services program that might not receive operational funds that were approved last year. At least two other programs are under review by the mayor’s office.

One, a $700,000 pilot program called Homes for Good that would provide small “shallow” rent subsidies to people who receive federal disability payments and are at risk of homelessness, is under review because Durkan is reportedly cautious about funding a pilot program without a plan to continue paying for it in the future. David Kroman wrote several stories about this issue for Crosscut. Continue reading “Navigation Team Switches Gears During Storm, More Homelessness Funds on Hold? And Speculation on KC Exec’s Political Future”

Most Navigation Team Referrals Don’t Lead to Shelter, Previously Unreleased City Data Shows

Overall, just 30 percent of Navigation Team referrals to shelter in the first half of 2019 resulted in a person actually accessing shelter. Referrals represent only about a quarter of the total number of people “engaged” by the Navigation Team. Overall, only about 8 percent of Navigation Team “engagements” this year resulted in shelter—a number the city says is a reflection of the fact that they are now recording every contact, however brief, in their new NavApp system.

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.

Questions About Local Autonomy and Cost-Sharing at Homelessness Authority, SPD Hires KOMO Cop Reporter, and More

Emoji org chart: What staffing at the new regional authority homelessness will look like, as depicted by the consultant who helped design the plan

1. Two meetings about the proposed regional homelessness authority last week highlighted new potential fault lines between the city and county in negotiating the structure and funding of the new authority—one concerning the kind of services the new authority will provide, and one having to do with who will pay for it.

Suburban King County cities that would become a part of the authority have made it clear they’re concerned that the new body will be too “Seattle-centric”—an understandable concern given that just one member of the steering committee that oversees the body will be from a to-be-determined member of the Sound Cities Association, a group of suburban King County cities. (Under the proposal, another suburban representative could join the board once 20 suburban cities join the regional authority). A related but distinct concern is that suburban cities may not want to handle homelessness the way Seattle does, by offering services for as long as it takes and providing harm reduction as an alternative to mandatory treatment and imposed abstinence for people with addiction.

From the perspective of a city like Kent, where outreach workers say police have a zero-tolerance policy for sleeping in visible public areas, the tactics of  Seattle’s Navigation Team—which removes encampments but doesn’t arrest people for living on the street or force them to “accept” services, treatment, and housing—may seem like mushy-hearted liberalism at its worst. At last week’s King County Board of Health meeting, King County Council member Kathy Lambert, whose district includes Duvall, North Bend, and Snoqualmie, said she won’t support the regional authority “until I see a plan that acknowledges that each part of of this county has a very different idea of where they want to be and what they want to look like, and I’m not seeing that yet.”

Support The C Is for Crank
Sorry to interrupt your reading, but THIS IS IMPORTANT. The C Is for Crank is a one-person operation, supported entirely—and I mean entirely— by generous contributions from readers like you. If you enjoy the breaking news, commentary, and deep dives on issues that matter to you, please support this work by donating a few bucks a month to keep this reader-supported site going. I can’t do this work without support from readers like you. Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job, so please become a sustaining supporter now. If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time contribution via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for keeping The C Is for Crank going and growing. I’m truly grateful for your support.

On the flip side, at a meeting of the Seattle City Council’s special committee on homelessness last Friday, city council president Bruce Harrell asked whether the Navigation Team, which (as I reported earlier this month) is not moving over to the new authority, will expand its operations outside the city or otherwise coordinate with other cities who have employees doing similar encampment-clearing functions. (In reality, the Navigation Team is fairly unique regionally and the equivalent agency in most other cities is the police). “I assumed we were trying to model some consistency overall—am I missing something?” Harrell asked.

Tess Colby, Mayor Jenny Durkan’s homelessness advisor, responded that the charter creating the new authority will allow for “subregional planning, which is a way for the regional authority to engage in the various regions across the county and be in dialogue about what homelessness looks like in different parts of the region and how it’s being addressed.” Specifically, the charter says that the kinds of services each sub-region of the county can vary depending on “local needs, priorities, and solutions.”

2. The other issue that came up this week was whether the city of Seattle might be paying more than its fair share of the cost to set up and, at least initially, fund the authority. The numbers HSD director Jason Johnson and National Innovation Service consultant Marc Dones presented to the council committee on Friday showed the city spending $1 million in startup costs next year (and $282,000 in “ongoing costs” beginning the year after that), including more than $800,000 in moving and office costs and $130,000 for a headhunter to find the $217,000-a-year executive director for the new authority. The city would also be responsible for paying that director’s salary, plus the salaries of his or her chief of staff ($166,000 in 2021), two deputy directors ($189,000 each), and a human resources manager ($163,000).

“I’m concerned that city paying all the costs in that first year is going to create an expectation” that the city will continue to pay all the costs in the future, city council member Lisa Herbold said. “You say that there’s an expectation that there’s going to be future cost sharing around the costs of personnel, and I don’t see that indicated anywhere.

The county, in contrast, would contribute tenant improvements in the county-owned Yesler Building, where the new authority will be located, and provide free rent, at a total value of about $1 million for “tenant improvements” and $455,000 for the use of the sixth floor of the building, which has been vacant. (Seattle Department of Human Resources director Bobby Humes described the tenant improvements as “wifi, new paint, a conference room [and] an ample restroom environment,” among other things.)

“I’m concerned that city paying all the costs in that first year is going to create an expectation” that the city will continue to pay all the costs in the future, council member Lisa Herbold told Johnson on Friday. “You say that there’s an expectation that there’s going to be future cost sharing around the costs of personnel, and I don’t see that indicated anywhere. I think that’s something that would be important to memorialize.” Council member Sally Bagshaw added that she wasn’t sure the city should be spending $130,000 for a headhunter to do a national search for the director of the new authority. “I have to say that I would rather have somebody local,” she said. “I would frankly rather have a team that knows people who are already working in our city, county, and region.”

Other issues that came up Friday included the need for human service provider representation on the board that will actually govern the new authority, the fact that capital funding for permanent supportive housing is supposed to stay with the city while operating funds for that same housing move to the new authority, and when people can actually start moving into the new building—Johnson said it will be “ready” in December, but that because “December is a heavy month for many of our employees” the actual move won’t happen until March.

3. KOMO police-beat reporter Jennifer Sullivan, who previously covered the police department for the Seattle Times, has taken a job as a strategic advisor in the  Seattle Police Department, The C Is for Crank has learned.  An SPD spokesman would not comment about how the department decided to hire the former reporter, and a mayoral spokeswoman told me the mayor had nothing to do with the hire—even emphasizing in a followup email, “the Mayor’s Office was not involved in the hiring of Jennifer Sullivan.” According to the most recent Seattle employee salary database, Sullivan is making just under $120,000 a year.

Sullivan’s recent stories for KOMO have included pieces on slow 911 response times, recruitment problems at SPD, and police officers’ efforts to get raises in their recent contract, which some reform advocates now want to reopen. Sullivan’s husband, according to a 2018 Seattle Refined profile, is a police officer in Lynnwood .

Sullivan did not respond to a request for comment; her LinkedIn and Twitter pages still identify her as a KOMO reporter.

4. 

Long-Awaited Details of New Regional Homelessness Authority Announced, Though Many Questions Remain Unanswered

King County Executive Dow Constantine and Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan announced some key details about a long-planned regional homelessness authority Wednesday morning, including how much funding the new entity will received from the city and the county, how it will be governed, and which functions of the city’s Human Services Department will be shifting to the new authority and which ones will be staying at the city. The regional authority will effectively consolidate most of the county and city’s homelessness investments into a single agency, and replace existing agencies including All Home and the city’s Homelessness Strategy and Investments division, which is part of the Human Services Department.

“We’re not saying this is the solution or a panacea,” Durkan said, “but we know what we’ve done before has not worked. What you see today is everybody joined in one cause, together.” Standing behind Durkan and Constantine were retiring Position 7 city council member Sally Bagshaw, representatives from several suburban cities, King County Council member Jeanne Kohl-Welles, human service providers and several formerly homeless individuals.

The new authority will be funded by $73 million in city dollars and $55 million from the county (including a total of $42 million in federal grants to both). Structurally, the agency will be a public development authority governed by an 11-member board consisting of still-unidentified “experts” that will include three people with “lived experience” of homelessness. (The board will be overseen by a separate steering committee that includes the mayor and county executive, along with other local officials). The agency will be charged with issuing and administering all contracts for homelessness services.

For Seattle, the biggest change will be the eventual dissolution of the city’s Homelessness Strategy and Investment Division, which oversees the city’s existing response to homelessness, including shelters, transitional housing, outreach, and services associated with permanent supportive housing. Both the Navigation Team (which removes homeless encampments from public spaces) and the actual construction of permanent supportive housing will remain with the city’s Human Services Department. The new authority will issue contracts to human services providers directly, work that was previously performed by the separate city and county governments.

Support The C Is for Crank
Sorry to interrupt your reading, but THIS IS IMPORTANT. The C Is for Crank is a one-person operation, supported entirely—and I mean entirely— by generous contributions from readers like you. If you enjoy the breaking news, commentary, and deep dives on issues that matter to you, please support this work by donating a few bucks a month to keep this reader-supported site going. I can’t do this work without support from readers like you. Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job, so please become a sustaining supporter now. If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for keeping The C Is for Crank going and growing. I’m truly grateful for your support.

The new authority will not come with any additional funding for homelessness. Both Durkan and Constantine said this morning that a regional organization will create “efficiencies” that will allow the region to use its limited homelessness dollars more effectively, rather than passing a new funding source like the $275 million property tax levy former mayor Ed Murray proposed, then abandoned, in 2017, or the 0.1 percent sales tax increase Constantine and Murray proposed, then abandoned, later that same year. This morning, Constantine said that he was “very optimistic that this new structure will allow us to marshal all of our resources in the region to be more effective in addressing homelessness” even in the absence of more money to solve the problem.

Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus, whose city is not yet a party to the agreement, added, “Hopefully the days of sitting in meetings and at the end of them, saying, ‘How many people did we house during the meeting?’ ha[ve] come to an end. Working together is what’s going to make this happen.”

In 2017, the city held a competitive bidding process for homelessness contracts for the first time in more than a decade, a change city officials touted at the time as a way to hold service providers accountable for moving people from homelessness to permanent housing. Asked whether the new authority would hold contractors to the same set of standards, director Jason Johnson said that the contract between the city and the regional authority “will say, ‘Here’s $70 million, and here’s our expectation with those $70 million. [We’re going to] make sure that the governing board is really clear about … what the expectation will be.”

The city’s homelessness division will be phased out over the next year, starting as early as December, when HSD and county employees (along with All Home, the county’s coordinating agency for homelessness) will move their operations to the county-owned Yesler Building in Pioneer Square, according to internal memos. Once the process of setting up the regional agency is complete, All Home will fold and all city employees “on loan” to the new agency will take permanent jobs at the new authority, find new jobs at the city, or face layoffs. The new regional authority, according to Johnson, will take over the annual Point In Time Count of people experiencing homelessness as well as running the county’s coordinated entry program‚basically the front door to the homelessness system.

In a 2018 survey, employees of the city’s homelessness division reported feeling unappreciated and ill-informed about management decisions. Today, Johnson said he would do his best to “offer as much information as possible to employees” who will be impacted by the changes announced today. The city’s three-part transition plan for existing homelessness division workers shows employees being hired by the regional authority, transferred into other city jobs, or “transitioned” out of the department by April of next year.

The legislation setting up the new regional authority still has to be approved by both the Seattle City Council and King County Council. The latter, of course, includes Republicans and representatives of cities that are not being included in the plan who do not support the idea of a new regional bureaucracy overseeing homelessness. This morning, King County Council member Reagan Dunn issued a statement opposing the plan, saying, “This new layer of government would be undemocratically structured, lack representation of suburban cities, and be yet another expense on taxpayers. The homelessness crisis won’t be solved by pushing Seattle’s failed policies to the surrounding region.”

Dunn’s colleague Kohl-Welles said she hadn’t heard widespread opposition on the council, but added “I don’t know, standing here, that we’ll have unanimity as a council. I think there likely will be amendments as the legislation goes through the deliberative process, [but] I have not heard any other council member come out and say, ‘I am opposed to this.’ It’s more, ‘I’d like to learn more about it. I have some concerns but I don’t know the details yet.'”

 

Morning Crank Part 1: City Acknowledges Navigation Team Rarely Provides Services or Outreach

1. Seattle Human Services Department director Jason Johnson acknowledged that the city’s Navigation Team is now dedicated primarily to removing tents and people from public spaces, rather than providing outreach and services, at a meeting of the city council’s special committee on homelessness on Monday.

In an update on the work of the Navigation Team—recently expanded to include two new “system navigators” after the nonprofit that had been trying to connect homeless people living in encampments to services, REACH, said it would no longer participate in removals—Johnson told council members that “most” of the people the Navigation Team encounters when clearing out encampments “are complying, meaning they are moving themselves and their belongings out of the right-of-way and are not engaging in a services conversation with the system navigators.” The navigators were supposed to replace REACH outreach workers, who stopped participating in removals when it became clear that their presence was harming their ability to build trust with unsheltered people traumatized by frequent sweeps.

This is hardly surprising—under new policies implemented by Mayor Jenny Durkan, the Navigation Team now focuses overwhelmingly on removing “obstruction” encampments without providing any prior notice or outreach, which tends to engender hostility and mistrust—but it was an unusually blunt acknowledgement of the facts on the ground.

Deputy Mayor David Moseley added that the city has no problem with people living outdoors—they just aren’t allowed to have any possessions that would make it slightly safer for them to do so. “Our mantra has been, it’s perfectly fine for you to stay here, but your equipment that’s obstructing the public right-of-way can’t.” (He clarified that by “equipment” he meant things like “your tent that is obstructing a wheelchair.”) Tess Colby,  the mayor’s homelessness advisor, added that homeless people had been “taking over” dugouts, picnic areas, and P-Patches, and the Navigation Team’s goal is to “get the public spaces back for public use.” In other words, unsheltered people are allowed to exist in public spaces, but they can’t have any type of shelter from the elements—a  view that may comply with the recent 9th Circuit ruling that homeless people have a right to sleep, but is somewhat at odds with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

In any case, there aren’t enough places for people to go. Even leaving aside the fact that directing traumatized people to mats on the ground hardly qualifies as”outreach and services” most people living unsheltered require, the Human Services Department’s own numbers, which they also presented Monday, show that there are, on average,  only 17 beds of any kind available to the Navigation Team. Last month, the Navigation Team referred a total of 18 people to shelter, according to the city’s data.

2. NEW at 1pm Tuesday: On Tuesday, the city’s LGBTQ Commission sent a letter to Mayor Durkan and the council criticizing the recent increase in encampment removals, including the sharp increase in removals with no notice to residents. Citing reporting by this site, the commission wrote, “The current policy of encampment removals does nothing to solve the underlying issues that lead to homelessness, and instead this escalation seems to be a way to make it appear that the city is taking action versus gathering the political will to raise revenue to support real change.” Noting that LGBTQ+ and other marginalized people are more likely to become homeless, the letter continues, “Until there are adequate numbers of safe short-term beds available, there is a significant risk that folks whose tents are confiscated or destroyed in an encampment removal will have even less shelter from the elements than they had before.”

3. Also at Monday’s meeting, Johnson confirmed that the “see a tent, report a tent” posters that made the social-media rounds last weekend were not produced by the city, but added that the city does consider the Find It Fix It app an appropriate place to report people experiencing homelessness to the Navigation Team. “If there is someone you’re concerned with who is sleeping outdoors it is also a way to get that on the Navigation Team’s radar,” Johnson said. “It is through the Find It Fix It app that we can be alerted to someone who is in distress and may be in need of services.”

Council member Teresa Mosqueda asked Johnson to clarify that reporting tents is not the intended use of the app. “What is our response to people who have used the app in this inappropriate way?” she asked. “You can use the Find It Fix It app to report all sorts of inappropriate things,” Johnson responded.

As I reported last month, 20 percent of all illegal dumping reports made through the app are recategorized as illegal camping and referred to the Navigation Team.

Support The C Is for Crank
The C Is for Crank is a one-person operation, supported entirely—and I mean entirely— by generous contributions from readers like you. If you enjoy the breaking news, commentary, and deep dives on issues that matter to you, please support this work by donating a few bucks a month to keep this reader-supported site going. I can’t do this work without support from readers like you. Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job, so please become a sustaining supporter now. If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for keeping The C Is for Crank going and growing. I’m truly grateful for your support.