The causes and solutions to homelessness are complicated, but our goals are not. We want to bring every person inside. Get them the services, help, and support they needs. And connect them with permanent housing.
In the last two years, the City of Seattle and King County have been working towards those goals. We have devoted more resources to prevention, to keep people from falling into homelessness, and to diversion to try to rehouse people quickly.
The reasons people lose their home are as varied as the life stories of those individuals. We must craft solutions to these challenges. Different life events can push a person to the place where they no longer have a safety net and home — a sudden life change or illness, loss of a job, the need to escape domestic violence or behavioral health challenges. Far too many individuals experiencing homelessness are disproportionately Native American, African American, LGBTQ youth and from communities of color. Each person or family require a different set of solutions to get them housed.
A key part of bringing people inside is to do repeated outreach and to try to connect people with services and shelter. Because 24/7 enhanced shelters and tiny homes are at least five times more effective than basic shelters, the City has largely remade our shelter system to have more 24/7 shelters with case mangers, housing navigators and nurses.
Helping individuals who are living unsheltered in tents or doorways is the first and most important step towards the transition to permanent housing. The Navigation Team, which consists of specially trained Seattle Police officers, Field Coordinators, and outreach workers, have the critically important job of connecting people experiencing homelessness to services and shelter and removing dangerous encampments that have public safety or public health concerns. When launched, the City recognized that storage of personal belongings would be an important step both to recognize the potential importance of that property to the people involved and to remove a barrier to shelter acceptance.
As the City works to bring people inside, it must be done with compassion and dignity and to get people the services they need. In each large encampment removal, the process is documented carefully — from notice, to outreach, to removal of hazardous materials, to storage of property. The process, which typically can occur over several days or weeks, is documented publicly online through site journals, which document the safety, health and environmental risks, including proximity to highways, garbage, human waste, bio-hazards, and syringes.
Since 2018, the City has added staff to the Navigation Team to increase capacity and improve operations including in storage management. Since 2018, Mayor Durkan has added 24 members to the Navigation Team including 10 members, field coordinators (6), data analysts (3), and an administrative specialist (1) who was added to assist with the storage and retrieval on personal belongings. The City collected and stored thousands of items last year, and each encampment removal documents property stored at request or because it was abandoned. These logs are also available on line. A full description of the process is below, With that said, the City continues to evaluate and seek improve systems for collecting, storing, and the timely return of items to their owners.
2019 Storage Utilization
Storage of belongings occurs both when the City does a 72 hour encampment removal and when it clears obstructions and hazards. Storage was utilized by individuals in nearly 50% of all 72-hour encampment removals and in 20% of all obstruction/hazard removals. Obstruction/hazard utilization is lower due to the majority voluntarily complying with moving their items.
The City collected and stored items for individuals experiencing homelessness in 343 instances accounting for:
- More than 500 bins of storage;
- More than 60 bikes;
- More than 25 large luggage items; and
- More than 40 large items such as furniture, equipment, musical instruments, and other objects that cannot fit in a storage bin were stored.
The City tries to keep people connected with their medicine, important papers, and other personal belongings. Records show that among the thousands of items, medicine was logged only eleven times (medicines, vitamins, canes, EpiPens) and personal identification two times (IDs). Papers and paperwork were logged 18 times, and personal items were logged 25 times.
Item Verification: Navigation Team Field Coordinators are responsible for identifying, collecting, cataloging and creating a log number for storage, leaving contact information, physically storing items, and delivering items found in an encampment back to owners after verification. Last year, hundreds of contacts were made to offer services like shelter as well as storage.
While much of the property left behind is abandoned, the City understands it might be the last possessions a person has. The Field Coordinators document possessions at each remaining tent or structure, which can be found in the site journal. By both guidelines and practice, the Navigation Team collects individuals most personal belongings – this includes medicines, personal papers, identification or medical devices.
Following an encampment removal, the Navigation Team leaves physical notices at a site that include the phone number for people to call or text to retrieve their belongings. A card is issued to any party who self-packs their property. The phone number is staffed by the administrative assistant with the Navigation Team. Incoming calls and/or messages are recorded, and staff will establish a dialogue with an individual to verify the requests. To maintain the security of items in storage, log numbers are not provided to the public in order to prevent individuals from improperly obtaining items that do not belong to them.
Storage: When conducting an encampment removal, of the items secured for storage, all belongings in one tent or structure would be recorded on one inventory log with a unique identifying number. Inventory logs list a description of the items stored and the location from which they were obtained. In many instances, the log may include the name of an individual who requests storage (or self-store), or other relevant details such as “Found in Debris,” indicating the item logged was found in debris (not within a tent or structure) but identified as a storable item. Individuals who self-store are provided a phone number for recovery/delivery of items. When storable items are left behind and have not been identified by people camping as garbage, those items will also be secured with notice posted at the site that the property was removed from the location and stored. The post includes the contact number for recovery/delivery.
It should be noted that the City makes every effort to return items especially personal belongings at the location where collection and storage takes place. Once collected, items are taken to the storage facility and held until individuals call to retrieve them or a minimum of 70 days has passed.
Delivery: When individuals call with inquiries about stored belongings, the Navigation Team’s administrative assistant notes details to assist with connecting the proper owner with their belongings.
The Navigation Team received 106 incoming phone calls or text messages pertaining to approximately 70 instances of storage.
Once deliveries are coordinated with the owner, the Team attempts to make deliveries. If the delivery is not successful, which means an individual is not able or does not make the arranged meeting, follow-up efforts are made to reschedule and successfully deliver the items requested. If an individual is in active contact with the Navigation Team, the team will extend the time items are in storage to accommodate the persons need. If no one attempts to recover the items within 70 days or if a request is not able to be properly verified, those items are discarded. Of the thousands of items collected and stored, only a small number of calls are made to reclaim items.