Navigation Team publishes its quarterly report

Yesterday the city’s Navigation Team published its quarterly report for the final three months of 2019.  The report includes statistics on the team’s activities and outcomes, and answers some (but not all) of a set of questions posed by the City Council.

The report was mandated by the City Council as a proviso on the Navigation Team 2020 budget. In that proviso, the Council requested a set of ongoing statistics, but also asked for answers to several specific questions about how the team does its job. Much of this stems from the dual-role of the team, which many see as inherently in conflict: cleaning up unsanctioned homeless encampments, and referring homeless people to shelter and other services. The city has frequently revised the description of the team as the emphasis has shifted between those two goals. The new report takes one more swing at defining the Navigation Team mission – and threading the needle:

The Navigation Team (Team) is responsible for addressing impacts of encampments on City property while offering shelter and services to individuals encountered in the course of its work.

Some of the more notable facts and figures from the “status report” portion of the report:

  • In Q4, the Nav Team cleared 308 encampments: 283 obstructions, 14 hazards, and 11 other encampments. The 11 other encampments required the team to provide 72-hour advance notice and outreach to the encampment residents and meaningful offers of alternative shelter, but the city’s rules exempt “obstruction” and “hazard” encampments from that requirement. As available space in the city’s shelters has become scarce — effectively preventing 72-hour cleanups because alternative shelter can’t be offered —  over the last year or so the Navigation Teams’ focus has shifted from 72-hour cleanups to immediate cleanups of obstructions and hazards. This is a sore point with homeless advocacy groups and some Council members, who are concerned that the Navigation Team may be stretching the definition of “obstruction” or “hazard” to avoid the requirements of 72-hour cleanups.  (we’ll come back to this later)
  • In Q4, the average daily availability of emergency shelter was 12 beds: 5 basic shelter beds, 6 enhanced shelter beds, and 1 “tiny home village” (THV) bed. In 2018 and 2019, the Human Services Department focused on converting basic shelters to the more desirable enhanced shelters; while in the past there has been a glut of available basic shelter beds at times, apparently the conversion efforts are better matching the supplyof basic shelter to the demand — though obviously there is a much greater need for shelter overall than what is currently being provided.  The City Council is currently considering a bill that would expand the number of permitted tiny home villages in the city; THV beds are now in higher demand than enhanced shelter beds, and have been shown to be more successful in moving people into permanent housing.
  • In Q4 King County opened a new 30-bed shelter in the SODO area.
  • During Q4 the Navigation Team referred 197 homeless people to shelter; only 45 of them actually enrolled in those shelters (we’ll come back to this issue too).
  • At the end of Q4, the city hired a new Director for the Navigation Team, Tara Beck, as well as a third “system navigator” to focus on the north end of the city (as specified by the Council in a buddget proviso).
  • Also late in Q4, the system navigators gained the ability to provide transportation for homeless people to a shelter, rather than just giving them a referral and leaving them to find their way there on their own. It’s hoped that this will improve the enrollment rate for shelter referrals. (and it’s a good bet that it will).
  • With the arrival of the new Director of the Navigation Team, the team has done a “full reboot” of its Racial Equity Toolkit analysis effort. The RET analysis was plodding along a year ago, but was halted when the previous Director resigned. Council members swho are skeptical of the Navigation Team have been pushing hard for the RET analysis to be completed.

Now on to the Council’s questions:

  • The Council asked the Human Services Department (which manages the Navigation Team) to compare the standards of care provided by the Navigation Team with those by other organizations providing outreach care to the city under contract to HSD. The department provided a summary of the standard of care in the report as developed and agreed upon by the city, All Home, and King County,  but stated that those standards of care are neither contractually mandated for third-party providers nor monitored, so HSD has no data to make a comparison with the Navigation Team. Some Council members have previously suggested that HSD was holding outside service providers to a higher performance standard under their performance-based contracts than they were holding their in-house Navigation Team to; they will not be pleased by HSD’s non-answer to this question.
  • The Council asked HSD to provide suggestions for improving the rate at which homeless individuals receiving shelter referrals actually enroll in those shelters. HSD provided four: further increase the number of system navigators; provide immediate transportation to the shelter (which they have now implemented); streamlining the shelter referral process; and increasing the investment in enhanced shelter beds to increase the desirability of the shelter being offered.
  • For the “obstruction” encampment cleanups, the Council asked HSD to provide descriptions for each of what the exact nature of the obstruction was that qualified that cleanup to be exempt from the 72-hour advance notice rule. In the report, HSD provided a list of all the obstruction and hazard cleanups, including dates, locations, the number of individuals contacted there, and whether outreach eas provided in advance (independent of whether it was required). They note that of the 200 cleanups that were exempt from advance outreach, 75 of them had advance outreach anyway. What they don’t provide, however, is what the Council asked for: details on the nature of the obstruction or hazard that qualified it for an exemption. When asked why that information was not provided, a spokesperson for the Navigation Team responded that the report provides the definition for obstructions and hazards.

The good news in the quarterly report is that the Navigation Team continues to try to improve its operations and the outcomes of its work in terms of getting people off the streets and into safe shelter. The bad news is that it continues to be less than transparent about key aspects of its work. That will obviously be an ongoing source of friction between the Navigation Team and a City Council that is increasingly skeptical of its ability to manage the conflict between cleaning up encampments and helping the people who are living in the encampments it is clearing.

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