City Council debates the future of the Navigation Team

This morning the City Council began discussing in earnest its competing ideas for changes to next year’s budget for the homelessness response, following its first conversation two weeks ago. Much of the time was taken up with one question: what to do with the Navigation Team. And it’s clear that the Council is nowhere near consensus.

The Navigation Team lives in a controversial space, tasked both with outreach to homeless individuals living in problematic and hazardous encampments around the city, and also with coordinating the removal of those same encampments. Depending on where your sympathies lie, that makes them either the hero or the villain –or perhaps both. The rules the Navigation Team members are required to follow are spelled out in a Multi-Department Administrative Rule or MDAR that was written in 2017 when the pushback against “sweeps” of homeless camps was reaching fever pitch. The MDAR requires that the city provide 72-hour advance notice, outreach, and a meaningful offer of alternative shelter before removing a homeless encampment, unless the encampment is either an “obstruction” of an essential facility (such as a sidewalk or school) or a hazard that presents an imminent public safety or public health hazard.

Over the past year, as the city’s shelters and “tiny home” villages have filled up, the Navigation Team’s capacity to make meaningful offers of shelter has been severely constrained. As such, the team is doing fewer 72-hour-advance-notice cleanups. It’s not clear from the data it has provided whether it has shifted emphasis to (and thereby increased) the number of “obstruction” cleanups it is performing, but there is no doubt that their current work is overwhelmingly “obstruction” cleanups that don’t mandate notice, outreach and referrals (that doesn’t mean that the Navigation Team doesn’t do those things anyway when they can; but they aren’t required to). That substantial shift in the team’s work raises several important questions, including:

  • How do we know that the city hasn’t just broadened its definition of “obstruction” to do an end-run around the usual requirements for encampment cleanups?  The MDAR defines “obstruction,” but there’s plenty of wiggle room in it:“Obstruction” means people, tents, personal property, garbage, debris or other objects related to an encampment that: are in a City park or on a public sidewalk; interfere with the pedestrian or transportation purposes of public rights-of-way; or interfere with areas that are necessary for or essential to the intended use of a public property or facility.Back in 2017, the Office of Civil Rights was given responsibility to oversee encampment cleanups — and even the right to stop them if they believed the MDAR rules were being violated. But that arrangement ended two years ago. The Council members get weekly reports on the scheduled cleanups and access to the city’s database of information on cleanup activities where the before-and-after state of sites is documented in words and pictures. That’s something, but mostly after-the-fact. No one is looking systematically at how the term “obstruction” is being interpreted, and whether the city is liberally construing it.
  • How is the city prioritizing encampment cleanups? The fear among some Council members and homeless advocates is that the city is basing its prioritization mainly (or solely) on the number of complaints that the city receives about a site. The city claims that it uses complaints to identify encampment sites, but not to prioritize them. The MDAR lists the criteria for prioritization:The following criteria, which have no relative priority, shall be considered when prioritizing encampments for removal: (1) objective hazards such as moving vehicles and steep slopes; (2) criminal activity beyond illegal substance abuse; (3) quantities of garbage, debris, or waste; (4) other active health hazards to occupants or the surrounding neighborhood; (5) difficulty in extending emergency services to the site; (6) imminent work scheduled at the site for which the encampment will pose an obstruction; (7) damage to the natural environment of environmentally critical areas; and (8) the proximity of homeless individuals to uses of special concern including schools or facilities for the elderly.But again, the actual process of prioritization is opaque and there is no independent oversight to ensure that the city is following its own rules.
  • How does this relate to the proposed regional governance structure for homelessness response? Under the current proposal (which, as an aside, Council member Bagshaw said this morning might change as negotiations proceed in the coming weeks) the Navigation Team would stay with the city and not move over to the new organization. Certainly that makes sense for the SPD officers in the team. But it makes far less sense for the “system navigator” outreach personnel, and it only somewhat makes sense for the “field coordinators” who work with other departments to ensure that individuals’ belongings get stored and all the relevant departments are in the loop on the cleanup plan. Council member Mosqueda, who is no fan of the Navigation Team, in particular has questioned the value of continuing the team if it doesn’t move over at least in part.
  • Is the Navigation Team effective? Recent statistics suggest it may not be. After Interim HSD Director Jason Johnson revealed two weeks ago that the department can now (finally) track whether someone given a referral to shelter by the Nav Team actually checked into a shelter, local reporter Erica Barnett dug into the data and discovered that few only about 30% of the people given referrals actually check into their destination. It’s worth taking a moment to clarify some of those numbers, however, as they have been misquoted frequently in the last two weeks.  About 27% of contacts made by the Navigation Team result in referrals to shelter; of thos referrals, about 30% result in the individual enrolling in the shelter within 2 days.  That means that of the contacts made by the Navigation Team, only about 8% end up in shelter.
    As you can see from the chart above, the Navigation Team’s enrollment rate is worse than the third-party outreach providers that HSD contracts with (although to be fair, most of the Nav Team’s outreach is done by one of those third-party providers).In its defense, the city argues that the context of the work done by the Navigation Team is different than that of other outreach contracts, making a direct comparison difficult. In making that case, the city echoes an argument frequently leveled against it by service providers who object to performance-based contracts: that these kinds of metrics encourage a focus on the individuals who are easiest served to make the numbers better instead of the people who most need the help.

    And it may be that there are straightforward fixes to the low enrollment rate. Anecdotally, it’s been pointed out that while other outreach providers offer transportation directly to a shelter in a van that they operate when an individual accepts an offer of shelter, in contrast if the Navigation Team offers transportation it’s in the back of a police cruiser. That could be a huge, scary impediment to many people who might otherwise accept a ride.
  • Is the Navigation Team’s work just pushing homeless people around the city? Certainly the numbers suggest that not very many of them are ending up in shelters when the Nav Team clears their encampment.  The number would probably go up if more space in enhanced shelters and tiny home villages becomes available, and transportation to them becomes easier. And that’s a separate problem.
  • What’s the alternative? Setting aside 72-hour cleanups, let’s just focus on obstruction and hazardous encampments for the moment. If there isn’t a Navigation Team trying to move people into shelters and cleaning up obstructions and hazards, what is the impact to sidewalks, parks, public health, and public safety? The city has legal requirements to keep sidewalks clear and passable and parks available for their intended purpose; it can’t simply abandon those responsibilities, and any plan that gets rid of the Navigation Team will need to explain how that work will still get done.

In response to these questions, the Mayor and the Council members have proposed a range of budget actions with regard to the Navigation Team’s 2020 budget.

Mayor Durkan’s proposed budget adds two additional field coordinator positions, on top of the two “system navigator” outreach staff added mid-year 2019 when REACH pulled back from outreach activities on the day of an encampment cleanup. That would take the Nav Team up to 17 full-time employees.

Council member Juarez proposes adding an additional two outreach staff to focus on the north end of the city, where she claims that the number of encampments is growing while that area remains a “services desert.”  Juarez may be right; according to the city, it receives a high number of calls about encampments in the north end (districts 4, 5 and 6):

However, city-supplied maps of the Navigation Team’s activities shows that much of its focus has been elsewhere:








It’s worth pointing out, however, that “complaints about encampments” are only a very rough proxy for the actual number of encampments, since not all neighborhoods complain at the same rate. Also, the Parks Department has concentrated its encampment cleanups in parks in the north end of the city:

Council member Sawant’s proposal is on the opposite end of the spectrum: she wants to completely eliminate the Navigation Team and its $8.4 million budget, removing the city’s ability to clear encampments, and redirect the funds into other homeless services. Arguing that the primary existence of the Navigation Team is “for sweeping human beings,” she asserted that the team is not offering actual options that work for people and is “completely ineffective.”

Council member Herbold’s proposal would leave the dollar amounts the same, but would extend into next year a proviso on the budget that requires the city to provide the Council with quarterly reports before the next three months’ budget would be released. She expressed her concerns with the incomplete information that HSD has been providing in its quarterly reports this year, and in the department’s slow pace in addressing the recommendations raised by the City Auditor’s Office in its February report. Herbold also questioned whether the definition of an “obstruction” has in practice become too broad to attach to an exemption from the requirements for notice, outreach and an offer of shelter.  Council member O’Brien voiced his support for Herbold’s proposal.

Council member Gonzalez, while not offering her own proposal, balked at Juarez’s bid to increase the Navigation Team’s budget. Noting that the team’s work “in some ways is very simple, and in some ways is very complex and nuanced,” she raised concerns about the perceived shift in emphasis toward obstruction cleanups, and wondered about the team’s “theory of change” focused more on delivering services or cleaning up encampments.

Council members Bagshaw and Harrell expressed their support for the Navigation Team, but echoed some of their colleagues’ concerns about the effectiveness of the effort and the need for oversight. But in arguing for staying the course, Bagshaw in particular said, “It took us a long time to get to where we are, and I don’t want to throw that out.”

Council member Mosqueda, who is out on maternity leave and did not participate in this morning’s discussion, has previously critiqued the Navigation Team, and earlier this month questioned why the city would continue it on its own if it isn’t moving over to the new regional authority. She too suggested cutting the funding and redirecting it to other homeless programs.

Because the issues and proposals to be raised today had been published in advance, the executive branch launched an effort to fend off attempts to cut the Navigation Team’s budget. Before the meeting, Senior Deputy Mayor Mike Fong forwarded to the Council members a memo signed by either city department heads stressing their support the Navigation Team and the negative consequences of cutting its budget.

They provided estimates as to the decrease in referrals and cleanup activities that would result from budget cuts:

The memo didn’t appear to sway any of the Council members today, perhaps in part because they received it just before the meeting began. They all seem to be entrenched in their positions, whether ideological or pragmatic. The real work now begins behind the scenes over the next month, as the Council members try to whip up five votes for their proposals — and as Budget chair Bagshaw tests which way the wind is blowing on the future of the Navigation Team.

Here is a useful timeline of the major events in the history of the Navigation Team.

While you’re here…

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