Tammy Morales: New Homeless Outreach Team Will Be More Effective, Less Expensive

by Ansel Herz

City Council Member Tammy Morales is proposing Seattle create a new, smaller homelessness outreach team called “HOPE.” She says it would be more effective at sheltering people and addressing safety concerns and would cost less money than the city’s Navigation Team, which is being cut after reductions this year to the Seattle Police Department’s budget.

Morales’ proposal, made as part of negotiations over the City’s 2021 budget, would cut the City’s team from eight to five members. It would cost $822,000 annually, down from $1.3 million. HOPE stands for “Homelessness Outreach Provider Ecosystem.”

In a departure from past practices, the team would not include police officers. Instead, HOPE would be made up of experienced housing and social service providers, who would make key decisions about whether to bring services to an encampment, help unhoused people move into shelters, or — as a last resort — remove sites deemed to be unsafe.

“We know the Navigation Team was not having the intended outcome,” Morales told the Emerald. “It’s time to try a new strategy and focus on the [housing and social service] providers and let their expertise guide the decisions.”

Morales said her proposal aims to drastically decrease the number of so-called “sweeps,” in which unhoused people are forced to move and their belongings often trashed — a practice that’s been heavily criticized by some advocates and activists as dehumanizing and ineffectual.

At the same time, Morales said HOPE would increase the number of successful transitions to services or shelters. “This would actually generate more actual referrals to the kind of services that people need,” she said. 

At least 8,166 people live outside in Seattle, according to recent surveys. The City’s goal this year is to relocate “at least 425 additional people” — only 5% of that population — from the streets into safe housing, according to a “shared principles” document cited by Morales. That’s because Seattle simply hasn’t yet built enough affordable housing to meet the demand, Morales said. 

A group of businesspeople and neighborhood members, including two residents of South Seattle and the Chinatown/International District area represented by Morales, complained this week in a public letter about encampments in public parks, alleging trash and drug paraphernalia are degrading Hing Hay Park and Gateway Park North. 

“Our community’s main concern is having some form of outreach, because for some time now there hasn’t been any,” said Greg Ramirez, a lifelong Georgetown resident and union organizer who is board chair of the Georgetown Community Council. “If people are critical of the Navigation Team, then let’s continue to try to invest in and use different ideas. I’m happy to see some sort of outreach team connecting with and working with people in crisis … the bottom line is we need action.”

Morales said the HOPE team will use methods developed by a King County partnership called JustCare, whose team recently reduced the size of a large encampment under Interstate 5 on Jackson Street by helping many of the residents move into hotels.

Ansel Herz is a Seattle-based writer and editor and former reporter for The Stranger.

Featured image: Tammy Morales speaks during an August press conference announcing the opening of the Rainier Beach COVID-19 testing site. (Photo by Carolyn Bick)