By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
Hours after a shoutout in the mayor’s State of the City address, the city’s Navigation Team was in the spotlight at last night’s West Seattle Crime Prevention Council meeting.
Sgt. Eric Zerr, who’s been the SPD team leader since the team started its homelessness-focused work two years ago, was the featured guest, as you can see in our video above and toplines below. But first, Southwest Precinct commander Capt. Pierre Davis gave a crime/safety update:
CAPTAIN’S UPDATE: Capt. Davis said crime trends “look pretty good” though it’s early in the year (assisted by the weather) – key points, a “significant decrease in property crime” but a “spike” in robberies. Some are “shoplifts gone bad,” others “rogue street robberies” including teens taking other teens’ cell phones), he said. Often, in those cases, the victims even know the robbers, and “there are a couple different groups out there doing it.” As always, there was an opportunity for attendees to ask questions and surface concerns, but nothing of note emerged.
NAVIGATION TEAM: Sgt. Eric Zerr explained its origins during former Mayor Ed Murray‘s administration.
The team currently includes 10 officers plus a sergeant, all of whom volunteered to be on the team, as well as case managers and other “partners” helping with everything from outreach to cleanup.
Right now, Zerr said, about a third of the people they contact take offers of shelter, another third take case management, the final third decline all help and “wander away.” They’ve been involved with 600 cleanups in the past two years and had contacts with 4,000 unique individuals. In the past 10 days of wintry weather, they handled about 250 calls of people out in the cold. “Give us a chance to get out there” and make a contact, if you’re not sure about calling 911 about someone who might be in need of help.
He said the Navigation Team deals with “very strict rules” but “not overly restrictive” in cleaning up some of the city’s 450+ unauthorized encampments. If it’s an immediate hazard, they don’t even have to follow posting rules. “We are in constant litigation over not only what we do but how we store property, how the city behaves,” though, he noted.
Here in the Southwest Precinct, they’re being asked to re-examine “emphasis areas,” places where you “cannot camp,” so the Navigation Team is talking with local police about areas of most concern, such as greenbelts. Deputy mayors will decide over the next couple months which are the areas of most concern. Giving Myers Way a chance to “heal” and be “repurposed” is something he mentioned – his team led the cleanup there last fall. If you have other areas to suggest, you can contact Sgt. Zerr. “I answer my phone all the time, at all hours, and if I don’t, I’ll get right back to you.”
The homelessness-info page on the city website is a place where you can research not only what the team’s done but the rules they have to follow. He described the team members as “problem-solvers.”
“People aren’t one or two choices away from being homeless -” it turns out to be a case of things spiraling out of control, and they drop off a cliff, “a cascade of things in their lives that they have to put back together (so) if you provide them some hope,” they can start to rebuild.
Asked about the gender split, Sgt. Zerr says the homeless people with whom they deal are 85 percent male, 15 percent female. His team has three female officers.
In response to a suggestion for clarification, he said they’re not allowed to clean up an encampment unless there are shelter beds available for everyone who lives at that camp – if not, they have to “shut down the (cleanup) operation.” So they’ve been doing “smaller encampments” and also providing notices further in advance, in hopes of more lead time to get more people into shelter.
What happens once someone is in shelter, to keep them from ending up back on the street? asked one attendee. Consistent contact with case management, was the sergeant’s reply.. He also explained the concept of substance abusers being allowed into no-barrier shelters, because they can be supported with a roof over their head until they can make the choice to get help for their addiction. “It’s really individualized,” he said, adding that they keep a database about each person and what they need. The shelters are getting that information as a result of the relatively new “performance-based contracts” and that should result in some stats soon.
He said Seattle thinks about the problem more “deeply” than many other cities.
“Where do you get your funding?” asked another attendee. As a Seattle Police sergeant, for example, Zerr said, he’s still on the SPD payroll. The attendee wondered where private donations such as the recent Pearl Jam fundraising go. Zerr said that was in partnership with nonprofits rather than with the city, so far as he knows.
What about people living in vehicles, including RVs? Zerr was asked. That responsibility’s primarily handed over to Community Police Team officers at precincts, he said. His team does all the referrals to the Navigation Team and certain other shelters, which is in support of the CPTs’ work.
What about parks? asked WSCPC president Richard Miller. Usually the assessment is done by the Parks Department which then brings in the Navigation Team if needed, Zerr said.
Regarding why there are so many campers in evidence downtown, Zerr noted that people want to stay close to services.
About people who repeatedly refuse help – sometimes they change after repeated contact, he said, citing one recent case of a man who had been so hostile to them for so long, they were surprised when he finally changed his mind and accepted shelter.
Asked about city-authorized Camp Second Chance, he said LIHI management and transition from tents to tiny houses has left the encampment with very few issues. Those who denigrate its tiny houses as sheds are unrealistic, he suggested, saying he had grown up in a farm family and tiny houses are much closer to the kind of conditions in which some rural residents were housed, survivably, than we all acknowledge.
Dealing with people who are regulars outside, they have case managers who are so low-key, the person living on the street might not even realize they’re being approached by a case manager.”Give us a chance” if you know of a case like that. “We have a lot of options, shelters and things, that may be attractive to them.”
In response to a question from Miller about the perception that Seattle somehow “draws” more homeless people, Sgt. Zerr said it’s not free services that “draw” people so much as the prospect of working for a higher minimum wage, without realizing how competitive the job market can be, so if it doesn’t work out, they find themselves on the street.
Zerr noted that he also does “a ton of living-room conversations” so if you want to set up that kind of dialogue you can contact him. If you want to report an encampment, he said the city’s Find It Fix It app is useful – “go to #8” and put “encampment” in the subject line.
NEXT WSCPC MEETING: 7 pm March 19th at the precinct (2300 SW Webster), with Miller hoping to book a guest to talk about 911.