New strategy plan tackles homelessness in Seattle

SEATTLE — There is now a new team to deal with the growing homeless encampments in Seattle’s city parks, and it’s called the Unsheltered Outreach Response Team.

The Seattle City Council voted to approve the new team on Monday. It replaces a role previously filled by the city’s Navigation Team, which was disbanded by the council in August. Since then, frustration across the city has been boiling over as neighborhoods report increased crime, noise, needles and trash in areas surrounding unsanctioned camps.

“We are all stuck with this terrible crisis of homelessness, and the pandemic, and the complete inept mismanagement of this crisis,” said Lucy Auster, who lives in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood.

The new eight-person Unsheltered Outreach Response Team that addresses homelessness is a part of Seattle’s Human Services Department (HSD). The city employees will primarily coordinate deploying third-party outreach groups, such as REACH, DESC (Downtown Emergency Service Center), and the Chief Seattle Club, and help make sure city resources are available to those groups. City employees will not conduct any outreach work.

Council member Andrew Lewis proposed the legislation that the council approved, which includes the new team. The bill allocates $2.1 million for the work that will happen in the rest of 2020.

“What I’m hoping to see is some action,” Lewis said. “Really, getting some of these resources into the field to address the homelessness crisis with a sense of urgency that the situation demands,” he said.

The outreach groups will work on building one-on-one relationships, identifying root problems and getting people into shelters and more permanent housing.

What you will not see are police officers or large-scale “sweeps” that remove people from an area.

“In the spring, we did a big removal operation at Ballard Commons Park. People came right back after a couple of weeks. So it didn’t really materially resolve the situation,” Lewis said.

The “shared principals and agreed framework” for the new response method acknowledge some people might get relocated. It indicated, “There may be circumstances in which moving people is necessary, even in a pandemic, but in those limited cases such activity should be planned and implemented with great care and alternative workable living arrangements made available.”

Lewis said details on who would be doing the work of relocating any problematic camping would be handled on a situation-by-situation basis, and some of the plans are still being figured out. Lewis gave an example of a blocked sidewalk and said the new team would address it from a problem-solving approach — talking with those involved and coming up with a solution to the problem, which might just be getting folks to move a little.

Currently, the new team will only be approved for operation until the end of 2020.

“We’ve had a year defined with a lot of tension, and this is the way to get past that and start focusing on how can we bring a sense of urgency to a really critical situation,” Lewis said. “To resolve the underlying problems. That’s what we want to be moving towards. A sense of urgency, coordination and specific plans for specific problem areas. And with all of us going hand in hand instead of fighting about these things,” Lewis said.

HSD is now working on a plan to figure out how and when to deploy third-party resources.

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan has also proposed a new 425-bed shelter program for those unhoused who are interested in having shelter. That plan still needs to be approved by the council.

For an expectations category, the framework adds, “Many if not most people living unsheltered in Seattle, including many who are longstanding residents as well as others who were last housed outside Seattle, will remain in that situation over the next year.”