On a sunny May morning, the Alaskan Way Viaduct throws long shadows over a line of tents.
This cluster of tents is here illegally, one of about 400 unauthorized encampments in Seattle. It’s been cleared nine times this year, according to the city, including once this week.
The people orchestrating the camp removals and offering its residents services are part of Seattle’s Navigation Team. They say their job is to get people out of tents and into better shelter. They say they’re successful, getting one in three people they contact into shelter for that night.
But what happens to those people after that one night, the Navigation Team can’t say, making it impossible to measure the overall impact of the team.
It seems every day more tents line highways and greenbelts in Seattle – visible markers of the city’s growing homelessness crisis. Frustrations over these encampments are coming to a head — and erupted when the city proposed a head tax on large businesses to pay for homelessness services and affordable housing.
On one side, neighbors and businesses want these unsanctioned encampments gone. On the other side, activists and advocates for people experiencing homelessness say these “sweeps” must stop and better shelter options need to be made available.
In the middle of all of this, the city’s Navigation Team is the front line response to unsanctioned camps.
With roughly 20 members, the team combines law enforcement and outreach workers. It’s tasked with dual roles: being both the carrot and the stick when it comes to addressing the growing number of people living on Seattle’s streets.
Navigation Team members offer services to people living unsheltered through outreach. They also organize camp removals, like the one scheduled under the viaduct, for camps considered to be hazardous.
Jerome Riley has experienced both sides of this team’s work. On a recent afternoon, he sat on an upturned crate under highway 99. He wore jeans and a T-shirt and carried a green plastic bag. He has been homeless for about five years, he said.
The Navigation Team has offered him shelter and services before, but he’s turned them down.
He said mat-on-the-floor type shelters aren’t a good fit for him. He worries about bedbugs; a common worry among the unhoused.
But it’s not easy to move every time the team clears the camp.
“It’s been rough," Riley said. "You’ve got to keep moving back and forth. Keep tearing down and building up, tearing down and building up."
City officials cite public safety concerns as justification for the removals. Tents under the viaduct often obstruct sidewalks and are too close to the roadway. Health risks — garbage, rats, human waste — can also get a camp shut down.
But Navigation Team spokesman Will Lemke said removals are always paired with offers of shelter.
On this day, Riley took that offer. He wants a shelter with case management so he can get into permanent housing.
“I go by the rules; there ain’t no problem with me,” he said. Riley nodded toward a Seattle police officer, a member of the Navigation Team.
“The officer right there said he’s going to get me in today,” he said. “Where I can take a shower and stuff when I want to and I won’t be in nobody’s way, like this.”
Riley accepted a spot at First Presbyterian, one of the city’s new 24-hour shelters that includes case management. In the past couple of years, the city has put more emphasis on shelters that allow people to come and go — rather than forcing them to line up every night — and that allow pets and partners and offer services. Some even allow booze and drugs for people with addictions.
“I’m just tired of doing what I’m doing," Riley said. He’s ready to go inside.
For the Navigation Team, this counts as a win.
As they walk along the line of tents under the viaduct, team members get a mix of "yes" and "no" when they offer services and spots in shelters.
One man looks close to tears with exhaustion as he accepted bus tickets and directions to a shelter where team members have secured him a bed.
Another man, who said he wants to return to school to become a marine biologist, was excited to get inside.
And then there are those who listen to the team's spiel and then go about their day, turning down offers of help. It’s not unusual for the team to make a case several times before someone accepts assistance.
Seattle spent $10.2 million on the Navigation Team’s outreach and camp removal efforts in 2017, according to a recent report.
The team formed in February last year after people pushed back against the city’s disorganized approach to dealing with unsanctioned camps.
Roughly four days a week, the team is out connecting with people living unsheltered. They do outreach in camps all over the city, whether they’re slated for removal or not.
Between February and December 2017, the Navigation Team's self-reported data show they made more than 7,000 contacts with 1,842 individuals living outside. Of the people they engaged, 675 — or, roughly a third — accepted an offer to get out of their tent and into some sort of shelter. The team said they call shelters to confirm if people have actually gone through the intake process after accepting an offer. They say only people who went through intake are included in that number.
Roughly another third of those contacted accepted another service, like case management, medical help or job training. The final third declined any help at all.
KUOW could not independently verify these numbers.
And that’s where the data stops. The Navigation Team doesn't track how long people stay in shelters, or if they end up in permanent housing.
That means no one knows how many of the people contacted by the Navigation Team eventually return to the streets.
Lemke, the Navigation Team spokesman, said the team doesn't track this partly because they don’t have access to the county’s Homeless Management Information System, a database with information from all service providers. He also said tracking these outcomes are outside the scope of the team’s mission and under the purview of a different city department.
The team's job is to get people who are currently unsheltered into a better situation, Lemke offers.
Seattle's Human Services Department also did not respond to a request from KUOW asking how many people referred to shelter by the team have actually been placed in permanent housing.
Of all the work the team does, camp removals are the most controversial part.
It takes time for the team to build trust with people living inside the unsanctioned encampments--an average of four contacts with someone before that person accepts help.
Standing at a camp by the side of the highway back in December, August Drake-Ericson, a Navigation Team coordinator, said this also depends on the individual person and their circumstances.
“Some people, one request and they’re ready to go," Drake-Ericson said. They may not even know they had options until the team stopped by. “Some people… many, many times before they’re really ready. And when they say they’re ready to go, it’s like cha-ching!”
Sergeant Eric Zerr, of Seattle Police Department and a team member, said removals are a tool to help people out of dangerous conditions.
The number of people who accept services increases before a camp removal, Zerr said. Camps typically get at least a 72 hour warning before a camp is cleared.
In 2017 the team orchestrated the removal of 191 encampments around the city, according to their data. Some, like the one under the viaduct return after being cleared.
Some neighbors and businesses are frustrated with what they see as a lack of progress. J.C. Parker, a maintenance manager for the Trailside Apartment building in the Ravenna neighborhood, said he’s tired of the impacts of the camps.
Officials recently cleared an unauthorized camp near his building.
"[People will] come in here and sleep, do their drugs, make a mess out of things," Parker said. "It’s got to be cleaned up all the time."
Parker said he used to have empathy for the people sleeping outside his building, but not anymore. Already tents have started reappearing near the building.
“When the police do these little sweeps, they just take their broom and sweep it around," Parker said. "What they need to do is get a dustpan.”
Lemke, the spokesman, said he knows people are frustrated. But he pushed back on Parker’s criticism.
“Before the Navigation Team launched, there was no citywide effort that was coordinated like this," Lemke said. "We’ve been able to get people into safer spaces, and the city has stepped up to create more safe spaces. It’s hard and slow-moving work."
Before the Navigation Team, the acceptance rate of shelter for people in encampments was in the single digits, Lemke said.
But people like Professor Sara Rankin with Seattle University’s Homeless Rights Advocacy Project, say the city needs to stop removing encampments.
“I approach the Navigation Team with very mixed feelings because I think it has some promise over the status quo, but at the same time it’s a very imperfect approach to homelessness,” Rankin said.
She said she worries the offers of service may not always be meaningful because the system is overwhelmed and many shelter spots don’t work for people living on the street.
And Rankin said camp removals just displace already vulnerable people.
“If you give someone an offer of shelter or services and their alternative is to be swept, it’s a forced displacement. You’re going to move one way or the other,” Rankin said.
Lemke countered that a removal is better than letting people stay in unmanaged conditions with no support.
Sergeant Zerr said he knows some people will cycle back to the street. He said he’s not disappointed when he sees someone back out in a camp because, even though it’s not perfect, that gives the team more information about how well they’re matching people to services.
“There’s still a connection with our team, and there’s still some trust involved in that," Zerr said.
One of the team’s big challenges, according to Zerr, is a lack of attractive shelter spots for people. He said the city’s authorized encampments and 24 hour shelters, like the Navigation Center, are desirable for people living on the streets because they can bring their pets, partners and possessions and they don’t have to line up every night to get in.
Data from the Navigation Team show a jump in acceptance of shelter in July, 2017, the same month the city’s Navigation Center and the First Presbyterian 24 hour shelter opened.
A single day this month saw the Navigation team with only 40 available spots to offer those they approached, roughly half in ‘desirable’ shelters. Similarly, a snapshot of vacancy in the city’s authorized encampments in May shows just 10 open spots on any given day.
Availability changes day-to-day. Desirable spots fill quickly and open slowly due to a lack of affordable housing for people to move into.
Ultimately, Sgt. Zerr said the system needs more enhanced shelters and more case managers. As for the long-term solution, everyone agrees more affordable housing is needed in Seattle.