Tents at Gilman Playfield in Ballard, one of the city's "high-priority" encampment locations. (Screenshot by Erica C. Barnett)

Homeless Outreach Providers Say New Rules Would Put Them at City’s ‘Beck and Call’

by Erica C. Barnett

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

Homeless outreach agencies that contract with the City’s Human Services Department have threatened not to sign their 2021 contracts over new requirements that they argue would harm their relationships with clients and give unprecedented new power to the City.

Agencies that provide outreach and engagement to homeless encampments, including the outreach that happens before the City removes an encampment, have been operating without contracts since January. Late last month, HSD sent out new contracts that included requirements — not included in previous contracts — that would effectively subordinate the agencies to HSD’s HOPE Team (formerly the Navigation Team) and require them to create detailed “supplemental daily outreach reports” about who they contacted and what services they offered each day.

The new rules would require agencies to drop whatever targeted outreach they are doing with their existing client base — non-English-speaking day laborers, for example, or chronically homeless Native American men — and provide outreach and shelter referrals to whoever happens to be living in “priority” encampments identified by the City in the runup to an encampment sweep.

“We’d be at their beck and call,” said Derrick Belgrade, interim director of the Chief Seattle Club.

“For American Indians and Alaska Natives, we know they’re not grouping in these larger encampments — they tend to stick together in smaller groups, and they’re kind of hard to find,” Andrew Guillen, the grants and contracts director for the Seattle Indian Health Board, told PubliCola. “If we’re going to be prioritizing just the City-designated high-priority encampments, then we’re often going to be excluding American Indian and Alaska Native people.”

The Seattle Indian Health Board was one of seven outreach providers that signed a letter to HSD late last month saying they would not sign their new contract in its current form. The letter raised four broad objections to the new contract language, including the “lack of trauma-informed care” in the contract requirements, the fact that the City’s encampment removal schedule gives providers just two or three days to meet with clients and refer them to appropriate shelter and services, and the fact that the contracts require agencies to go through the HOPE team to place people in shelter, imposing a new “middle-man” on their relationships with clients.

“There was a complete lack of communication around any of these changes,” Guillen said. “The fact that they seemingly thought they would sneak it in and we’d sign the contracts and agree to these new changes without any negotiation — that’s the thing that’s been the most surprising.”

The new contracts stipulate, among other requirements, that all the City’s outreach providers must “Engage in coordinated outreach strategies at City prioritized encampments as directed by the HSD’s HOPE team … Provide coordinated outreach at City prioritized encampments including day-of removals” and “utilize the City’s recommendation and referral process” for shelter beds.

New reporting requirements, which include monthly reports to the HOPE team, include items like, “Describe your program’s level of participation in HSD’s HOPE team-coordinated outreach strategies at City-designated high-prioritized encampments this past month” — a major shift, providers say, toward a centralized, top-down approach to outreach and engagement.

“They expect us to be on call when they need to focus on certain areas,” said Derrick Belgrade. “We have a problem with what’s defined as a ‘problem area’ — it’s always the ‘nicer’ areas with louder voices that seem to get the attention of the mayor.” Belgrade said the criteria for outreach “should be what’s in the best interest of people on the streets. We have our outreach people out there — they’re the professionals; they should be able to go and work on these people they’ve built relationships with without being told they can’t because they have to go to other neighborhoods.”

The city’s “recommendation and referral process” would require providers to work through an elaborate “decision tree” to make the case that individual people at encampments — people they may be meeting for the first time and for whom their agency is not the best fit — deserve one of a small number of beds the HOPE team has reserved on any particular night. The process requires providers to take down detailed personal information from every person at each encampment the City prioritizes for removal, including mental health and substance abuse history, sexual orientation, immigration status, and other extremely personal information.

Providers say this kind of information is important, but that asking about sensitive topics like mental illness the first time they meet someone, particularly a person who knows their encampment is about to be swept, can be traumatizing and has the potential destroy any hope for future trust between an unsheltered person and an agency. This is one reason REACH, another outreach provider that signed the letter, decided to stop participating in encampment sweeps early in the Durkan administration. “They’re expecting a more intake-type situation, which nobody’s going to want to do, especially if they’re in an encampment. Nobody’s going to want to give that much information,” Belgrade said.

“Why would anyone from our community who’s on the street ever want to talk to anyone on our staff again?” Guillen said. “If we’re dealing with folks who are dealing with substance use issues or mental health issues, folks who need extensive case management, we often find we have to do outreach in multiple locations before people will talk to us.

“I think it has a real potential to not only really destroy that trust among folks who are unstably housed and seeking housing services or referrals but also for those same people who may not come in for a needed health appointment.”

HSD’s response to the complaints from service providers has been, basically, suck it up: If you want to do business with the City, you have to accept the City’s conditions. (According to multiple reports, this is essentially what homelessness division director Tess Colby, until recently Durkan’s advisor on homelessness, told providers during a contentious meeting last week.) A statement of legislative intent adopted as part of last year’s budget, which was sponsored by Durkan ally Alex Pedersen, requires the HOPE team to report four times a year on three very high-level “basic performance metrics” — such as the number of people the team connected to services — but does not require detailed personal information or daily reports.

At a meeting of the City Council’s homelessness committee last week, Colby said that with so many different agencies “all competing for those same scarce [shelter] resources, one agency has to manage those [requests] in order to ensure that the clients that our provider partners are working with are matched properly to the shelters based on the acuity of need and the services provided. … A key function of the HOPE team is to provide equity of access.”

Given that the City prioritizes encampment removals based not on the needs of a particular encampment’s residents but on neighborhood complaints and what appears to be a highly individualized read of the criteria for deciding an encampment is “high-priority,” this claim is questionable. The City’s official criteria for prioritizing an encampment include tents that block sidewalks, those that “significantly impact” the housed public’s use of parks, and those that are the subject of a large number of neighborhood “concerns.”

Nor, council member Tammy Morales said last week, was her goal in creating the HOPE team to erect new barriers between outreach providers and people living unsheltered. “My staff and my colleagues have spent months trying to bring service providers to the table to turn the Navigation Team into something that was more humane, to fund something that was supposed to be different — the HOPE program — only to hear that the same problems are persisting,” Morales said. “This is really a testament to the power that the executive has and how little regard this particular executive has for our unhoused neighbors and for our provider communities.”

Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who chairs the homelessness committee, echoed Morales’ comments in a phone call Monday. “We on the Council envisioned the HOPE team as eliminating some of the bureaucratic hurdles to make these outreach operations more responsive,” he said. “We want [outreach providers] to have the ability to go out there and resolve these issues in a way that is nimble and can adapt to circumstances. We don’t want them constantly having to check in.”

It’s unclear which of the seven providers that signed the letter to the City will decline to sign their contracts, a decision that would have major financial fallout for any City contractor. “It’s not something we’re going to sign in its current form,” Guillen said. 

It’s also unclear how any contractor who declines to sign their 2021 contract will be reimbursed for the work they’ve already done during the first five months of this year — an issue Morales brought up at the Council meeting last week.

In addition to the Seattle Indian Health Board and Chief Seattle Club, the letter expressing concern about the new contracts was signed by the Downtown Emergency Service Center, REACH, Mother Nation, and the Urban League.

Erica C. Barnett is a feminist, an urbanist, and an obsessive observer of politics, transportation, and the quotidian inner workings of City Hall.

📸 Featured Image: Tents at Gilman Playfield in Ballard, one of the city’s “high-priority” encampment locations. (Screenshot by Erica C. Barnett)

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