Navigation Team talks details of Spokane Street encampment closure

KING 5's Heather Graf reports.

Seattle is moving forward with plans to shut down a sprawling homeless camp on Spokane Street in SODO.  But with more tents going up every day, it will be a tough transition for a lot of people.

On Wednesday, KING 5 spoke to the leader of the city's Homeless Navigation Team about exactly how the upcoming closure will work.

"We knew we needed at least a couple weeks to talk to people," said Sergeant Eric Zerr.  

He's in charge of the Navigation Team that's made up of eight Seattle police officers and eight outreach workers.

"We spend all of our time out at encampments, connecting people with resources.  We just start going tent by ten, talking to people, introducing ourselves," he said.  "Then we start the discussion of what led you to be here, is there help that you need, do you have any medical concerns, do you need shelter?"

It's work Zerr's team does every day, but with one of the fastest growing encampments in the city now set to close on the morning of September 12, he says the outreach will be even more important in the coming weeks.

The City of Seattle revealed new details about its plan for camp's closure just a few hours after a deadly shooting took place there Tuesday morning.  The shooting took the life of a 31-year-old man. Seattle police are still looking for suspects.

Zerr maintains it was purely coincidence that the encampment's planned closure was announced on the same day as the shooting.

"It's been planned for almost a month," he said.  "We had already set the dates and when we were going to do the clean-up."

Zerr says the timing of the camp's closure actually was planned to coincide with the opening of a new, 100-bed, low barrier shelter on Capitol Hill.  It will be located inside First Presbyterian Church.  Zerr says the shelter is expected to be open the first week of September.

Sixty of the shelter's 100 beds have been set aside for use by the Navigation Team.  

"All that week, we'll be able to move people in if they want to," he said.  

He says the additional beds are desperately needed for the 50 to 70 people currently sleeping at the Spokane Street encampment on any given day.

The challenge is convincing them to accept the offer for help.

"I mean my street family lives here.  Where are they going to go?" one man told KING 5.  

When asked why he doesn't want to go to a shelter, the man said beg bugs were one of his biggest concerns.

Starting Monday, August 28, the city says intensive, individualized outreach will begin on Spokane Street. The city's announcement says the Navigation Team will work to identify an individual's specific needs and provide assistance based on those needs. That includes everything from substance use recovery options, mental health treatment, housing assessment, and relocation to appropriate alternative living arrangements.

The Navigation Team will focus their attention on the stretch of Spokane Street that runs from Airport Way to First Avenue.  

Some people currently living at the encampment are skeptical of the city's plan and whether it will make a difference.  

"I was moved out once. They tagged me up there with a piece of tape.  And I just left for a few days, let them come through and do a mild clean-up, and then I just got more bedding and I came back," one man told KING 5.

He said he's been camping on Spokane Street for nearly four years.  He prefers it that way, and says a traditional homeless shelter is not for him.

"They offered me housing, but I don't want to live on Capitol Hill or in Columbia City," he said. "I've been homeless since 1974. I'll get by."

People living and working nearby also had some criticism of the city's plan to gradually close the encampment.

"It's just kicking the can down the road," said Sam Wells. "I'm not an expert, but I will say that the people who claim to be experts haven't been solving the problem.  We need them to do something substantial."

The city says the newly created Navigation Team is making progress.  According to the city, the team made 4,199 total contacts to 1,157 homeless individuals between February 20 and August 11.  Of those individuals, the city says 721 accepted some sort of service; 419 individuals were relocated to alternative living arrangements.

"I do know that 35 percent of the people we contact, they actually do take up our offers of moving into shelter.  Before we started, it was less than five percent.  So I do know this model we're doing, the model we've been doing since February, is more effective," said Zerr.

In April, crews cleared out the west end of the Spokane Street encampment after two RVs caught fire beneath the viaduct.  Back then, the city fenced most of the area off to deter RV parking and camping on that end of Spokane, and says the deterrence effort has been relatively successful.

KING 5 asked whether the city plans to install fences on the section of Spokane Street that runs from First Avenue to Airport Way once the camp is cleared out and closed.  A spokesperson said a final decision had not yet been made.

Zerr said the closure is permanent and campers will not be allowed to come back.  

Signs posted along Spokane Street cite public health and public safety hazards as the reason for the encampment's closure.  

The signs say all personal items must be removed before September 12 at 9 a.m.  Navigation Team members will be on-site at that time to assist with access to shelter and services.

Zerr said the Navigation Team will also store people's personal belongings for up to 70 days after the camp is shut down.

© 2017 KING-TV


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