Someone has been taping up posters on Capitol Hill (and I hear, though I haven't seen, across the city) encouraging people to use the city's "Find It, Fix It" app to report homeless people sleeping in tents. "See a tent? Report a tent," the poster reads. "Living outside without access to sanitation is inhumane. Here's what to do." The poster then directs people to download the app and report the person who set up the tent, or else to pursue a general inquiry with the Customer Service Bureau.
At the Select Committee on Homelessness and Housing affordability today, Jason Johnson, interim director of Seattle's Human Services Department, said the posters were "not an HSD document." However, Johnson appeared to endorse the poster's message.
After explaining that people normally use the app to report potholes, litter dumps, and general stuff that needs fixing, Johnson said, "If there is someone you're concerned with who is sleeping outdoors, [Find It, Fix It] is also a way to get that on the Navigation Team's radar," he said. "So it was through the Find It, Fix It app that we can be alerted to someone who's in distress and needs a connection to services."
That disposition tracks with information on the city's Homelessness Response webpage, which shows that the city learns about "unauthorized encampments" through the app.
Alison Eisinger, executive director at the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, couldn't disagree with this use of the app more. "People who print or follow instructions from that sign ought to have their heads and hearts examined—along with their understanding of the word 'inhumane,'" she wrote in an email. "There is a fundamental difference between reporting a broken sidewalk, pothole, or other city infrastructure in need of repair and asking for a municipal response to human beings who don’t have the most basic of basics—a home."
Eisinger called on Seattle to do more to meet people's needs for housing, and in the meantime implored city officials to "reject simplistic and cynical efforts to treat this social and economic storm as something to be addressed by an app."
Shortly after the poster was posted online, other critics offered signs of their own:
Speaking for Mayor Durkan's office, Mark Prentice said, "We think that this poster was inappropriate." I asked if they thought the content of the poster was inappropriate and will update if I hear back.
In the committee meeting, CMs Teresa Mosqueda and Kshama Sawant called such use of the app "inappropriate." In a written statement later on, Mosqueda emphasized her "extreme disappointment that the city’s Find it, Fix it app is being promoted as a tool to further traumatize people experiencing homelessness" and promised to follow up with "Calvin Goings, the Director of the Department of Finance and Administration Services to see what their plan is to respond to any reporting of people living outside."
Mosqueda added: "I want to make sure that we have an outreach plan, are following the 72-hour notice and offer people shelter and services."
Council Member Mike O'Brien declined to comment.
Will Lemke, a spokesperson for the Navigation Team, provided some more context on the relationship between FiFi and the Nav Team. When people notify the city of an unauthorized encampment through the app, the Navigation Team's Field Coordinator checks out the report and decides on an appropriate response, "which may include getting outreach to the site or crews to pick up garbage," Lemke said.
"FiFi information may help the team understand what's going on in places, but it does not dictate the team's work," Lemke added. "With a rough estimate of 400+ encampments throughout Seattle and hundreds more reports being sent to the City through other means, the team will only remove an encampment if it poses significant public health and safety concerns. Encampments blocking sidewalks or park facilities or are clearly dangerous like 10th and Dearborn are prioritized for removal."
Anyhow, this isn't the first time someone has urged Seattleites to use the city's pothole app to narc on homeless people. In 2017, Mike Stewart, executive director of the Ballard Alliance, a neighborhood business organization, wrote a post in a private Facebook group telling "business owners and residents in Ballard" to report unauthorized encampments to the app. At the time, he told the Stranger that the city told him "the best way to connect those living in unsanctioned encampments to Navigation Team services is by using the Find It Fix It app." Dae Shik Kim Hawkins wrote a nice piece for the Atlantic with more info on that.
Johnson spent a lot of the committee meeting singing Navigation Team's praises, while Council Members Lisa Herbold, Sawant, and Mosqueda questioned whether the team's newly added "system navigators" have been helping people access "enhanced shelter" and useful services rather than just setting people up with a "mat on the floor" of a shelter.
Council Member Lorena González also expressed concerns about the newly expanded team and its "system navigators," who she says have "effectively replaced REACH," a nonprofit with whom the city contracts to connect the homeless with shelters and services before sweeps.
As first reported by The C Is For Crank, Mayor Durkan's office directed the Navigation Team, a group of "specially-trained" cops and outreach workers, to focus "primarily on removing encampments deemed to be 'obstructions,' a designation that exempts the team from the usual notice and outreach requirements." Durkan's spokesperson denied that the city had changed focus, but the Crank showed that one-day removals had increased.
Before Durkan made the change, the team was supposed to notify people sleeping in tents 72 hours before removal. The city still gives those notices, and REACH, according to Johnson, still comes along on those sweeps, but REACH doesn't work on the no-notice sweeps.
At the meeting, Sawant read a letter from REACH addressed to Johnson dating back to January of this year, wherein the organization expressed its concerns with the Navigation Team's practices. They claimed the city had been asking them to offer people shelter rather than more helpful, longer-term housing plans, and said the focus on one-day "obstruction" removals had led to "increased mistrust" between REACH outreach workers and their clients.
In committee, Johnson said the new system navigators..."can be a resource to park staff, or SPD, or the utility staff when there is an obstruction to a public right of way," and that they are "often on site the day of the clean," emphasis mine. He added that it's ultimately SPD and the Parks Department official's call whether to send for the system navigators in any given situation, but later suggested that those officials "immediately contact the systems navigators" when "engaging with someone who is causing an obstruction."
But Johnson also said recently that most of the homeless people in tents have been "complying" with officers, "meaning they are moving themselves and belongings out of the right of way, and are not necessarily engaging in a services conversation with the system navigators." So they're just picking up their tent and moving out of the way without getting hooked up to services or shelters.
I've followed up on all this with the Department of Human Services and the Department of Finance and Administration Services and will update when I hear more.
Update, 7/23: Looks like it will be difficult or nearly impossible to determine how often the city clears encampments as a result of requests through the app.
In an email, FAS spokesperson Cyndi Wilder said there is "no way to determine if an unauthorized encampment was removed due to a report made via the Find It, Fix It mobile app." Though the city's FAS and the Customer Service Bureau does keep data on different kinds of "service requests" submitted to the city, they don't "necessarily" record the "specific resolution or action" taken as a result of a particular kind of request.
"Some encampments are reported multiple times via multiple intake methods. The Navigation Team has its own system for logging and prioritizing unauthorized encampments. As such, there is not a way to determine that a particular unauthorized encampment was cleared as a result of a particular service request submitted," Wilder added.