By Erica C. Barnett
Homeless outreach agencies that contract with the city’s Human Services Department have threatened not to sign their 2021 contracts over new requirements that they argue would harm their relationships with clients and give unprecedented new power to the city.
Agencies that provide outreach and engagement to homeless encampments, including the outreach that happens before the city removes an encampment, have been operating without contracts since January. Late last month, HSD sent out new contracts that included requirements—not included in previous contracts—that would effectively subordinate the agencies to HSD’s HOPE Team (formerly the Navigation Team).
The new rules would require agencies to drop whatever targeted outreach they are doing with their existing client base—non-English-speaking day laborers, for example, or chronically homeless Native American men—and provide outreach and shelter referrals to whoever happens to be living in “priority” encampments identified by the city in the runup to an encampment sweep.
“We’d be at their beck and call,” said Derrick Belgarde, interim director of the Chief Seattle Club.
The new contracts would also require providers to create detailed “supplemental daily outreach reports” about who they contacted and what services they offered each day.
“For American Indians and Alaska Natives, we know they’re not grouping in these larger encampments—they tend to stick together in smaller groups, and they’re kind of hard to find,” Andrew Guillen, the grants and contracts director for the Seattle Indian Health Board, told PubliCola. “If we’re going to be prioritizing just the city-designated high-priority encampments, then we’re often going to be excluding American Indian and Alaska Native people.”
“The fact that they seemingly thought they would sneak it in and we’d sign the contracts and agree to these new changes without any negotiation—that’s the thing that’s been the most surprising.”—Andrew Guillen grants and contracts director, Seattle Indian Health Board
The Seattle Indian Health Board was one of seven outreach providers that signed a letter to HSD late last month saying they would not sign their new contract in its current form. The letter raised four broad objections to the new contract language, including the “lack of trauma-informed care” in the contract requirements, the fact that the city’s encampment removal schedule gives them just two or three days to meet with clients and refer them to appropriate shelter and services, and the fact that the contracts require agencies to go through the HOPE team to place people in shelter, imposing a new “middle-man” on their relationships with clients.
“There was a complete lack of communication around any of these changes,” Guillen said. “The fact that they seemingly thought they would sneak it in and we’d sign the contracts and agree to these new changes without any negotiation—that’s the thing that’s been the most surprising.”
The new contracts stipulate, among other requirements, that all the city’s outreach providers must “Engage in coordinated outreach strategies at City prioritized encampments as directed by the HSD’s HOPE team … Provide coordinated outreach at City prioritized encampments including day-of removals” and “utilize the City’s recommendation and referral process” for shelter beds.
New reporting requirements, which include monthly reports to the HOPE team, include items like, “Describe your program’s level of participation in HSD’s HOPE team-coordinated outreach strategies at City-designated high-prioritized encampments this past month”—a major shift, providers say, toward a centralized, top-down approach to outreach and engagement.
“They expect us to be on call when they need to focus on certain areas,” said Derrick Belgarde, interim director of the Chief Seattle Club. “We have a problem with what’s defined as a ‘problem area’—it’s always the ‘nicer’ areas with louder voices that seem to get the attention of the mayor.”
Belgarde said the criteria for outreach “should be what’s in the best interest of people on the streets. We have our outreach people out there—they’re the professionals; they should be able to go and work on these people they’ve built relationships with without being told they can’t because they have to go to other neighborhoods.”
The city’s “recommendation and referral process” would require providers to work through an elaborate “decision tree” to make the case that individual people at encampments—people they may be meeting for the first time, and for whom their agency is not the best fit—deserve one of a small number of beds the HOPE team has reserved on any particular night. The process requires providers to take down detailed personal information from every person at each encampment the city prioritizes for removal, including mental health and substance abuse history, sexual orientation, immigration status, and other extremely personal information. Continue reading “Homeless Outreach Providers Balk at New Contracts That Would Put them at City’s “Beck and Call” for Sweeps”