Lewis announces first step toward replacing Navigation Team in compromise deal with Mayor’s Office

After three and a half weeks of working behind the scenes today Council member Andrew Lewis announced that an agreement had been reached between the Mayor’s Office, the City Council, and homeless outreach providers on a first step toward replacing the disbanded Navigation Team with a new model for how the city will deal with homeless encampments.

As part of the Council’s “rebalancing” of the 2020 budget over the summer, it gutted funding for the Navigation Team, including eliminating funding for all of the SPD officer positions on the team. At the same time, the Council allocated $2.9 million in the remainder of 2020 specifically for expanding homeless outreach services. But that created an impasse when the Mayor’s Office was unwilling to spend that money without a Navigation Team to coordinate it. Largely left out of that argument were the third-party outreach service providers.

“‘How do you reconcile the view of the Mayor with five votes on the Council?’ is the puzzle that everyone has been trying to figure out,” Lewis said.

In late September Lewis quietly convened a working group consisting of himself and Council members Herbold and Morales; Deputy Mayor Casey Sixkiller and HSD Director Jason Johnson; and representatives from homeless services providers including REACH’s Chloe Gale, Chief Seattle Club’s Colleen Echohawk, and LEAD’s Lisa Daugaard. According to Lewis, the group took the approach of “Let’s start from the beginning, really start talking through what we’re trying to do here.” Lewis said that compared to the summer when there was little conversation between the stakeholders, the group has made progress because “it’s honestly just as simple as making sure we’re all talking on a pretty regular basis.”

Those talks led to some intense discussions about what each group thought was important for a way forward in redefining the city’s engagement with the homeless population. The Council members wanted to get more money and resources out to increase outreach and assistance for homeless individuals (but it couldn’t force the Mayor to actually spend the money). The providers wanted two things: first, a system where the police did not have an outreach role, which they saw as counter-productive to building trust with homeless persons; and second, a system where service providers were no longer competing with HSD’s own outreach team that has a monopoly on critical resources (as the Navigation Team did). HSD and the Mayor’s Office wanted an internal team coordinating city resources in order to feel comfortable making available to providers those assets and resources (money, SPU’s garbage pickup and sharps removal, hygiene facilities, storing personal belongings).

The compromise announced today includes the Council funding a new “Unsheltered Outreach and Response Team” with HSD to take on that coordination role and distribute the resources that the Council appropriated. The team is authorized for up to 8 FTEs, with a staffing budget of $250,000 to get it through the end of the year. But the team has some important restrictions: not only do the police no longer have a role in outreach, but the new team will also not conduct outreach in the field itself; only third-party providers will do field outreach, and the new team’s role is limited to coordination — from their offices — in support of those providers as they do their outreach. “This ensures that the relationship is collaborative,” Lewis said.

When asked whether there would be any ongoing role for police officers with relation to homeless encampments, Lewis said that they are still working out some parts but “they want to make sure that policing is not integrated into this model. If it does come, in, that it’s requested,” such as if an outreach provider requests an escort into a dangerous encampment, or the Seattle Fire Department requests SPD to secure a site before firefighters enter. However, this is clearly a place where they are not quite at full consensus; this afternoon Kamaria Hightower, spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office, said of SPD’s role moving forward:

This proposal is a first step in addressing Mayor Durkan’s significant concerns about the elimination of all City resources to coordinate outreach and mitigation of health and safety impacts at unmanaged encampments. In the coming weeks, the City will prepare to operationalize this plan to scale outreach, shelter, and address the most hazardous encampments that pose a risk to encampment residents or surrounding communities. As Council knows, outreach and mitigation at those encampments that present significant public safety or health risks may continue to need the support and services of the Seattle Police Department.  This bill would attempt to reduce the number of such cases by expanding outreach.”

Lewis was clear that this was just a first step, and not a complete solution to replace the Navigation Team. He said that the workgroup continues to discuss several issues, including SPD’s role and new protocols and procedures for those (hopefully rare) instances where outreach alone fails and an obstruction or hazardous encampment must be removed. I asked Lewis whose decision it will be under this new model as to whether to remove an encampment. “As it stands, there would be a deliberation between the people in the field and the team back at headquarters,” he said. “But the difference is that it will be consultative.”

“The city’s ability to do removals is not contingent on having the Nav Team,” Lewis points out. However, “There was a bunch of stuff that the Nav Team did that wasn’t removals. When we got rid of the Nav Team, we got rid of that too. This is a small step to get that back.”

This compromise deal is only for 2020; what happens beyond that will need to be addressed as part of the 2021 budget deliberations already underway.

This morning, Council member Herbold said that she was “feeling optimistic,” and that she sees “a new willingness between the providers community and the Executive to figure out how to do this differently than the historical approach.”  Council member Morales thanked Lewis for his leadership of the effort, and said that she saw “a shift in the Mayor’s Office in how to think about the work that the outreach providers do.”

For his part, Lewis praised Deputy Mayor Sixkiller, calling him “one of the big heroes of this conversation” for being “very open-minded” and willing to bring real compromise to the negotiating table.

LEAD’s Lisa Daugaard said in a press release this morning, “We all agree on important core principles: no one should be living on the street.  Our sisters and brothers deserve more dignified conditions and much more support.  Struggling businesses need to be able to open without people living on their doorsteps. This is not primarily a matter for law enforcement, and camp closure isn’t a real solution and violates COVID public health guidelines.  People facing greatest barriers, disproportionately Black, Indigenous, and other people of color, must be at the center of this work. We can do a lot to advance all of those points of agreement–but not if we remain at odds.”

Today Lewis introduced a bill that would officially authorize the funding and staffing of the new Unsheltered Outreach and Response Team. He hopes the Council will give its final approval next Monday afternoon.

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