by Erica C. Barnett
(This article was originally published on PubliCola and has been reprinted under an agreement.)
On Wednesday afternoon, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan announced in a press release that she is suspending the operations of the Navigation Team — which removes encampments and provides outreach and shelter offers to their displaced residents — and pursuing “out of order” layoffs for 70 Seattle Police Department officers, “with the expectation that layoffs cannot be completed by November 1, 2020.”
The City Council’s adopted budget, which Durkan unsuccessfully attempted to veto, calls for a reduction of 100 police positions and the elimination of the Navigation Team. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, the Navigation Team has not been removing encampments in significant numbers.
Durkan has stated repeatedly that she does not believe SPD can do “out of order” layoffs of more-senior officers based on their roles in the department or past disciplinary actions against them. Her 2021 budget would reduce the size of the police department by just 22 positions. The press release says that the mayor “continues to have significant concerns about compromising 911 response and public safety. A 100 officer net reduction would reduce SPD staffing levels to around 1,300 sworn officers.”
“Consistent with the City Council’s vote to eliminate the Navigation Team by stripping it of all funding, the City will suspend operations until the Council restores funding for these positions,” the press release continues. “As Council was advised by the Human Services Department, the Council’s actions effectively return the City’s response to unsheltered homelessness to a pre-2017 model where service providers alone were the City’s response to encampments.”
“Council’s vote to eliminate the Navigation Team means the City must suspend its work and will no longer be deploying staff to conduct outreach or address unauthorized encampments until the Council restores funding for these positions,” the mayor said in a letter to the council attached to the announcement.
The council did not express its intent to return to “a pre-2017 model” for addressing encampments (2017 was the year the Navigation Team started). Their amendment dismantling the Navigation Team explicitly redirected its funding “solely to expand and maintain homelessness outreach and engagement services, which may include flexible financial assistance, case management, and housing navigation services.”
Eliminating the Navigation Team immediately, without any backup plan for 2020, is the nuclear option, and could have negative impacts on people living unsheltered as winter approaches. The Navigation Team currently has exclusive access to dozens of shelter beds and spots in tiny house villages; getting a new team up and running, as Durkan’s 2021 budget proposes, would take significant time, and have a major impact on unsheltered homeless people who would ordinarily receive referrals to those Navigation Team-only beds.
Had the mayor and council agreed to eliminate the team as part of the 2020 budget rebalancing that took place over the summer, there could have been a plan in place to replace the team’s outreach and referral capacity.
Complicating matters, the mayor doesn’t actually plan to eliminate that capacity in the long term — just, it appears, for the rest of this year. In fact, her 2021 budget includes a brand-new, $7.5 million, eight-member homeless outreach and engagement team that will have some new name other than “Navigation Team.” (Homeless Engagement, Assistance, and Referral Team?) Also in the mayor’s budget, homeless encampment cleanup contracts would transfer to the Seattle Public Utilities department, and the police positions currently associated with the team’s work will remain funded, according to the budget.
The announcement also includes the news that the City Budget Office will not execute a $14-million interfund loan to the Human Services Department from the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections to invest in historically underserved communities. Instead, Durkan says the council should figure out where that $14 million should come from through its own budget amending process.
“To be clear, the Mayor’s proposed 2021 budget will not include a funding source for this $14 million obligation. We will work with Council in the 2021 budget process with an assumption that the Council will identify the revenues needed to balance to this $14 million expenditure.”
Erica C. Barnett has covered Seattle City Hall for more than two decades.
Featured image by Susan Fried.