A Precarious Compromise on Homeless Outreach Inches Forward

by Erica C. Barnett

(This article was originally published on PubliCola and has been reprinted under an agreement.) 

On Monday, Seattle City Council homelessness committee chair Andrew Lewis introduced a proposal that would restore funding for outreach to homeless encampments and lay the groundwork for what Lewis described as a new City “unsheltered outreach and response team” that would replace the controversial Navigation Team.

The surprising part is that the council and mayor’s office worked together on the legislation. 

It’s a whiplash-inducing turn, given Mayor Durkan’s vehement opposition to the council’s efforts to dismantle the team and spend the savings on outreach workers. But it isn’t entirely unexpected. For weeks, Deputy Mayor Casey Sixkiller has been working with council members and service providers to craft a new approach, one that may be at odds with the mayor’s own views about how to tackle unsheltered homelessness.

To recap, late last month, Durkan’s office sent a scorched-earth letter to the council informing them that, in response to their budget direction, she would immediately disband the Navigation Team and suspend the City’s outreach and engagement efforts. In a statement, Durkan said that the City’s Human Services Department (HSD) “will no longer be deploying staff to conduct outreach or address unauthorized encampments until the Council restores funding for these positions.” Indignant council members responded that they had never suggested eliminating outreach altogether, and in fact had allocated $1.4 million specifically for that purpose — but that Durkan had declined to spend it.

Although Lewis said Monday that the City’s longstanding practice of sending armed, uniformed officers to homeless encampments “is resolutely over,” Durkan’s office said Monday that police will still be needed to provide “support and services” at “encampments that present significant public safety or health risks.”

Since then, Sixkiller has been attempting to mend fences with the council and homeless advocates, by quietly working with council members Lewis, Tammy Morales, and Lisa Herbold on the compromise proposal Lewis introduced on Monday. That plan includes a new team inside the City’s Human Services Department that would serve as a kind of coordinating body for nonprofit outreach providers’ work in the field, plus funding for those outreach providers to expand their work. (The exact extent of the internal team’s coordination role, and their authority over the work of city contractors, remains unclear).

The goal of the new joint effort would be twofold: improving safety and hygiene at existing encampments and moving unsheltered people quickly into permanent housing. By utilizing new hotel-based shelters and triaging people quickly into services, case management, and appropriate housing, the new approach could, in theory, house a lot more people than the old approach of sweeping encampments and providing shelter referrals to their displaced residents.

That’s the plan, anyway. But there still are plenty of potential pitfalls and points of contention.

Lewis’ legislation says that City workers “shall not directly contact individuals in need of outreach and engagement services except for the purpose of storage and retrieval of personal items.” While that seems straightforward — the City must leave outreach to the outreach providers — the language could provide wiggle room for HSD to take a more direct role in outreach than the plain wording of the legislation suggests. This could lead, in turn, to turf battles, confusion among people experiencing homelessness, and a lack of clarity over who’s in charge.

Another question that the council and mayor will have to resolve is what role, if any, police should have in responding to encampments. Although Lewis said Monday that the city’s longstanding practice of sending armed, uniformed officers to homeless encampments “is resolutely over,” Durkan’s office said Monday that police will still be needed to provide “support and services” at “encampments that present significant public safety or health risks.” What constitutes “significant risk” is up to interpretation, as is the definition of “support and services.” Previously, police showed up in large numbers for encampment removals, giving large sweeps the air of armed evictions. 

It’s also unclear how much the mayor herself supports the proposal. Although Sixkiller has emerged as a vocal advocate for the new approach, his public (and private) statements may not reflect the mayor’s own thinking. On Monday, Durkan’s office issued a tepid statement on the legislation — which, again, her own office helped craft — calling it “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.” 

And finally, there’s the larger budget debate, which remains … fraught. Council members are currently pissed at the mayor about any number of things, including her plan to zero out a $30 million investment in equitable development, announced last year, and to use the JumpStart payroll tax, which the council allocated for COVID relief, housing, and homelessness, to pay for $100 million in unspecified “investments in BIPOC communities.” Moving forward on homeless outreach while battling over the larger budget will require the council and mayor to go beyond the mistrust and press-release bomb-throwing that has characterized the budget debate since last summer. The next few weeks will show whether they’re up to the task.

Erica C. Barnett has covered Seattle City Hall for more than two decades.

Featured image by Dae Shik Kim Hawkins.