Seattle's new ‘Navigation Team' tackles homeless camps under I-5

SEATTLE — Seattle’s new navigation team, a team of police officers and contracted outreach workers, zeroed in on cleaning up a stretch of homeless encampments on Tuesday as part of its second day of work.

The encampments stretch from I-5 Colonnade Park at Lakeview Boulevard E and Harvard Avenue E down to Seattle Cancer Care Alliance on Eastlake Avenue E.

“There's been a significant increase in crime, really associated specifically with these encampments. Not to say all unauthorized encampments are associated with crime, but some are, and we have to recognize that and deal with that,” Scott Lindsay, with the Seattle Mayor’s Office, said.

KIRO 7 was there as the team worked to clear hundreds of items from underneath I-5. Some of the items -- including pillows, video games, bags and plastic crates and buckets -- were tucked in the rafters below the interstate.

“These are items that are being bagged for storage and will be returned to this individual if he or she requests that they be returned,” Lindsay said, adding that items could be delivered to people, provided they have a safe location, not a “hazardous one,” he said, such as one under a freeway.

KIRO 7 asked how much the cleanup has cost the city.

“Frankly, not a lot of people actually ask to have their items returned in many cases,” he said. “The truth is that we have a lot of garbage and refuse.”

Lindsay said the navigation team began contacting the people who lived in the area two weeks ago and posted notice about the upcoming cleanup at least three days before. The goal, he said, is to get people into shelters and treatment as needed and to reduce crime in the area.

The expected cleanup zone includes the area around Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, which is filled with piles of garbage, clothing, needles and other items.

Dr. Fred Appelbaum said there have been two fires in the encampment areas over the past few weeks. In at least one of the fires, patients had to be evacuated from buildings.

“We've had cars that have been broken into,” he said. “We've had computers that have been stolen. We've -- of course, finding needles on the ground all the time.”

Tuesday afternoon, a judge denied the American Civil Liberty Union’s request for a temporary restraining order, which would have halted the cleanups.

The ACLU requested the stoppage as part of a lawsuit against the city and the state.

It argued the sweeps cause "ongoing and irreparable harm" and subject the homeless to unlawful search and seizure.

But Sunshine Sang, who works in the area and has noticed the trash, is pleased.

“Oh, fabulous,” she said when KIRO 7 informed her of the cleanups. “That's great news.”

The city said the navigation team will respond to complaints filed at 206-684-CITY (2489).