City council cutting Navigation Team for responding to homelessness

SEATTLE — For years now, people have been camping on the street outside Ben's Cleaner Sales in SODO.

"The street is filled with criminals, drugs, homelessness, people with mental illnesses that really need help that are unable to help themselves," said sales manager Russ Meyer.

He said until COVID-19 slowed things down, the city's Navigation Team was the only way people were moved out.

On Wednesday, the city council voted 5-4 to effectively dismantle the entire team — after first voting to eliminate police officers on the team as part of a larger push toward defunding law enforcement.

"I think that's probably one of the worst ideas they could do," Meyer said.

Supporters of the Navigation Team believe the team is effective for referring homeless people to services and responding to neighbors.

"These departments are working as a unit, which has made a much more efficient process," said Erin Goodman of the SODO Business Improvement Area.

The Navigation Team includes police and city social workers.

Launched in 2017 under then-Mayor Ed Murray, it was widely seen as a solution, even a national model.

But critics said the team increasingly focused on sweeping people out, even during the pandemic.

Council President M. Lorena Gonzalez called the Navigation Team's 6% rate of placing people in housing "dismal" and said contractors can do a better job than city workers.

"We're making a choice here to invest in the outreach services that have shown greater success in moving people out of encampments," Gonzalez said.

Daniel Malone of the Downtown Emergency Service Center said police coercion is rarely needed or useful when helping people who are homeless and said the real solution is more housing.

“You can have the greatest outreach workers in town, and you’re not going to convince people to change their situation if the thing you have to offer them, in their estimation, is no better than what they already had,” Malone said.