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Pros and cons of disbanding Seattle's Navigation Team

caption: Tents are lined up under the viaduct in Seattle as members of the City's Navigation Team are doing outreach.
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Tents are lined up under the viaduct in Seattle as members of the City's Navigation Team are doing outreach.
KUOW photo/Kate Walters

The Seattle City Council took a step this week toward dismantling the city's Navigation Team, a group of outreach workers and police that remove unauthorized homeless camps and attempt to get people to accept shelter.

The move is part of the council's broader plan to reimagine policing in Seattle. We talked to a proponent and an opponent of the council’s move.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Chloe Gale is co-director of REACH, a nonprofit that contracts with the City of Seattle to provide outreach for people experiencing homelessness. She worked with the Navigation Team for years, and supports its dismantling.

We're really supportive of this decision. I know it's been a hard one to make and it's been a long time coming. Over the last four years, we've really seen the Nav Team move in the direction of more enforcement response, more rapid response, more responses to obstructions and hazards that have fewer opportunities for people to move forward in a positive way, and more increase in the law enforcement side.

The whole structure of the Nav Team has really been about encampment removal for a long time. We believe there's a much better model, which will rely on all of our community partners to build a path for people to get off of the street.

We've already been doing this. We've actually been piloting a neighborhood outreach model, in partnership with the business associations, that's been incredibly successful. We really want to see that expand, and we want to see the responses on the street lead to permanent solutions for people, where they really get off the street, rather than just moving around.

Share an example of how you think the Nav Team is not serving the homeless population.

One example that was reported on by the Real Change newspaper was that a year or two ago, unfortunately in an encampment that was scheduled to be removed, there was a body found the day before the removal. All of the people in the encampment were incredibly impacted, and traumatized.

We asked, could that encampment removal be delayed so that those people had some time to grieve, and get their heads together, and respond to the situation? The response was, well, you know, the machines have been scheduled. We've got to move forward. So, that encampment removal went ahead as scheduled. I just think that the machine of the Nav Team continues to move forward in a way that does not always really respect the trauma of people who are living outside.

Part of the city council's vote is to remove police from the Navigation Team. If the Nav Team does end up surviving in some fashion, do you agree with not having police on it?

I do not believe that uniform officers should be the front door of how we get people into safer situations outside. I think sending uniform officers sends a signal that we believe that what people are doing is a criminal activity, and they're not.

They're surviving outside for a number of reasons. They've been left out of the solutions and institutions in our city. Sending police officers really sends a signal that they're actually criminals. What we want to do is send actual social workers who understand their experiences, who often have had lived experience themselves, and are really respectful, and know how to build trusting relationships to help move people to change.

If the Navigation Team does go away entirely, what would you like to see in its place?

At REACH, we’ve moved to more of a neighborhood-focused outreach model, where we really have our providers understand the nature of that community. We're connecting with the businesses in the community, with other community members. We're aware of the things that are of concern in the community. We're aware of the resources in the community.

And, we have really strong relationships with people on the street, so that we're able to bridge the gap and come to a win-win solution as often as we can to help resolve challenging situations in the community. I think if we can build on that model, expand that model, bring more clinical services, and more resources to that model, we’ll actually see a better response.

Mayor Jenny Durkan put out a statement this week saying she's concerned the council voted to eliminate the navigation team without a plan to bridge the gap with outreach services.

We also spoke today with Christina Korpi, with the City of Seattle. She manages the Navigation Team’s outreach efforts. We asked her about the potential impact on Seattle's homeless population if the navigation team went away.

The navigation team has had many challenges over the years. I think we are always working, and should always be looking to improve the way that we practice our work.

I also believe that going back to what the city was doing prior to the Navigation Team, or coming up with some new iteration of moving folks who are presenting obstructions to traffic or sidewalks, or safety concerns to the public, my concern is that those issues would go back to being addressed by police, or some other form of law enforcement, and would not be provided with the human service and resources that the professionals on our team provide.

The type of work that we do, given that if someone is being asked to move or relocate, regardless of who is doing the asking, I think that it is important to have resources available to the folks who are being asked to move and be able to offer assistance of whatever kind the individual is looking for, in a way that is trauma-informed and meeting folks where they're at.

I think that that is what our team is able to do. Like I said, we should be constantly looking to improve our practices in whatever way we can, but I do think that there is an importance, if people are going to be asked to move, I think it is important to have outreach available on site, to talk with them, and assist them in whatever way they would like.

The city council voted to eliminate police officers from the Navigation Team, if there is a navigation team in the future. What's your reaction to that? Could this work continue without police officers present?

I think it really depends on the direction that the city decides to go with response to encampments. I think that, as we have seen in the last couple of months, there is definitely work to be done. That is around trash abatement, and litter removal, and engagement from outreach providers at encampments that need attention from the navigation team.

However, if the city does go back to encampment removals, or asking folks to move from any location, I think there is benefit to having police involved in that work because putting outreach providers or outreach professionals in a position where they are being asked to force someone to move from their location is not the role of an outreach provider.

An outreach provider is there to provide resources and assistance, and talk with folks about where they're at. I think law enforcement does have a different role when it comes to asking people to move or vacate that requires a level of enforcement that I don't believe outreach workers should be put in the position of enforcing.

The city council is expected to take a final vote on dismantling the Navigation Team on Monday.

Listen to the interview by clicking the play button above.

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