Office of Civil Rights report on encampment removals is a mixed bag

This afternoon the Seattle Office of Civil Rights (SOCR) issued a report on its monitoring of the city’s removals of unsanctioned homeless encampments between May and September of this year. Their conclusion: the city is complying with the MDAR rules, but problems still persist.

Generally SOCR found that as administered by the Financial and Administrative Services department (FAS),  “the removals complied with the new rules governing encampment removals.” It also noted that to-date in 2017 SOCR has not invoked its power to halt a removal because the rules were not being followed.

That said, they still noted several areas of concern related to ways in which the system is still not working well. Among the issues:

  • Storage retrieval. SOCR noted that the encampment removal teams often went to great lengths to gather and store personal belongings left at an encampment site so that they could be stored and retrieved by their owner later. However, they heard from several people that the options for retrieving those possessions were less than ideal. While people could call to schedule  a time for delivery, many homeless people don’t have phones, and of the ones that do, the number of voice minutes on their phone is small and a precious commodity. Further, many didn’t feel comfortable scheduling delivery to their new location for fear that it would be scheduled for a future removal.
  • Many people are still leaving without appropriate shelter options. The city quotes the statistic that 39% of the people offered shelter by the Navigation Team accept those offers, which is much improved over outreach results a year ago. However, SOCR points out that many people are deemed ineligible for an offer of shelter, due to a criminal history, being barred due to a past incident, a lack of ID, owning a pet, or having a substance abuse issue. Factoring that back in, only 21% of encampment residents end up being offered shelter and accepting; 79% either decline or are ineligible.
    SOCR also points out that while the low-barrier options such as the Navigation Center are usually accepted, they are frequently full and so the Navigation Team usually doesn’t have a diverse of options to offer. In fact, the outreach workers in the Navigation Team told them that they currently have access to few, and on some days no, low-barrier or appropriate options. SOCR notes that under the MDAR rules the city is not required to offer low-barrier options — which leads to an interest debate about whether the city’s offers are “safe and appropriate” to people with barriers to traditional shelter options.
    SOCR also noted that some people have difficulties accessing the services offered. Reasons why include because they are undocumented immigrants, transgender, non-English speaking, non-Christian, or not sober. Other people said that the offered shelter space was far from the services that they regularly access, and that some shelters have issues such as bedbugs.
  • The prioritization process for scheduling encampment removals is opaque, even to outreach workers on the Navigation Team.  The MDAR specifies eight factors to consider when prioritizing for removal: objective hazards; criminal activity beyond substance abuse; quantities of garbage, debris and waste; other health hazards;  difficulty in extending emergency services to the site; imminent work scheduled for the site for which the encampment will be an obstruction; damage to the natural environment for critical areas; proximity to schools or other “uses of special concern.” But it provides no ordering or weighting of those factors. FAS, which oversees the removal process, said that in practice the program manager and other managers responsible for the multi-department Navigation Team make the decision, based on information from a number of sources. But they don’t communicate either internally or externally their reasoning behind those decisions, leaving others on the team (and SOCR) guessing — and sometimes wondering if their concerns were being heard.
  • SOCR questions the decision to house the encampment removal program, and the Navigation Team, under FAS rather than the Human Services Department (HSD). They claim “HSD is not institutionally part of the Navigation Team,” even though the outreach function is performed by an outside provider, REACH, under a contract administered by HSD. SOCR raises two immediate concerns with this approach. First, they worry that FAS and the Navigation Team don’t have HSD’s deep expertise in managing the privacy issues around outreach work, and have seen incidents where that lack of expertise caused problems. Second, removals are sometimes scheduled for Saturdays, when REACH workers are not available and police officers become the front-line for engaging with encampment residents. While SOCR noted that the police officers are respectful, using uniformed police officers in lieu of outreach workers has the potential to dramatically change the tone of the interactions.
    SOCR also notes that with HSD coordinating the long-term response to the homelessness crisis, its absence from leadership of the Navigation Team creates a disconnect that blocks the communication of important information and context from the operation on the ground back to people making decisions on long-term planning.

The SOCR report includes a response from Fred Podesta, the Director of FAS. He thanks SOCR for their monitoring work, heaps praise upon the Navigation Team, and notes that he believes his organization has a close collaboration with HSD. He also agrees that the city needs more low-barrier shelter options, and points out that they are doing a Racial Equity Toolkit analysis of the encampment removal program to identify ways to improve it.

Both sides in the argument over stopping the “sweeps” will point to this report to justify their views; the city will claim that it is following its rules, and opponents of sweeps will point to the ongoing problems as evidence that encampment removals are ineffective, inhumane, and destabilizing to those who are simply being pushed around the city.