By Erica C. Barnett
As Mayor Jenny Durkan rolls out the details of her proposed 2021 budget, an image has begun to emerge of the city’s post-COVID approach to unsheltered homelessness. Although the city budget office dropped the 751-page “budget book” last week, Durkan has continued to stage-manage announcements about specific budget line items, making it difficult for reporters and the public to get details about the budget until the mayor is ready to put out a press release.
The biggest headlines, so far, are the city’s decision to lease “up to 300” hotel rooms for people experiencing homelessness—a significant change to the city’s previous policy of placing most people in large, “deintensified” congregate facilities; and the dissolution of the Navigation Team, which will be reconstituted as a new “outreach and response” team that currently lacks a catchy name.
Bye-bye, Navigation Team, Hello “Outreach and Response” Team
Last week, Durkan’s office put out a scorched-earth press release announcing that in light of the council’s decision to eliminate the Navigation Team, which has removed homeless encampments since 2017, she would cease all city-led outreach and engagement efforts immediately and lay off current team members or reassign them to other duties. In a letter to the council that accompanied the announcement, deputy mayor Mike Fong said the Navigation Team would stop responding to encampments and begin disposing of people’s property the city currently has in storage, returning the team to a pre-Navigation Team world where the only option for removing encampments was to call the police.
The letter sparked outrage on the council, and a retort from council members Tammy Morales and Lisa Herbold that the council had never proposed eliminating the Navigation Team without replacing its outreach functions. In fact, the two council members noted in a joint statement, they had explicitly allocated $1.4 million in savings from eliminating the team to city-contracted outreach providers so that the outreach work the team has been doing during the COVID-19 epidemic could continue without a hitch.
“Let’s be clear. The Council had a plan. That plan would increase services and allow the Navigation Team a smooth cooperative transition,” Morales said. “What the Mayor is offering this week is counter to that plan, and honestly doesn’t serve our housed or unhoused neighbors. Neither does it start to repair the relationship between our constituents living outside and our City.”
Complicating matters further is the fact that it’s still unclear how the mayor’s proposed outreach and response team will work and how many encampment removals the newly reconstituted team will do after the mayor’s COVID-19 “moratorium” on sweeps expires.
The role the new team will play in “coordinating” outreach—and, specifically, how much authority the city will have over the day-to-day operations of nonprofit outreach providers that receive funding from the city—remains similarly unclear. What seems likely is that the new team will oversee outreach providers in a more direct way than the city has before—telling them, for example, where to deploy and which clients to serve, even if those clients are not among a provider’s traditional client base.
The new team may also require service providers to track metrics similar to those that the city council previously required of the Navigation Team, including things like shelter and service acceptance rates and the number of contacts a provider has with individual unsheltered people. Efforts to increase the amount of data providers give the city could be hampered, however, by the fact that providers don’t currently have the ability to track this kind of information; even the Navigation Team has reported difficulty, for example, tracking the number of people who receive referrals to shelter and actually follow up on those referrals.
New Shelter, Hotel Rooms, and Permanent Housing
The mayor’s 2021 budget proposal also includes COVID-19 relief funding “from the City reserves and other funding sources” for 125 new “enhanced” shelter spaces—24/7 shelters where people can store their belongings and have a guaranteed bed—and “up to 300” hotel rooms that will be available for about 10 months. Continue reading “Progress on Outreach, Shelter, and Homeless Services Depends on Mayor-Council Unity. Good Luck With That!”