Seattle business tax plan doesn't include funding for Navigation team that helps homeless

Seattle’s Navigation Team, cleans up an unsanctioned homeless camp along the waterfront on Tuesday, May 15, 2018. The group is tasked with getting people into shelter beds and getting encampments quickly tidied up, but it will no longer be funded if it’s up to the City Council. (Photo: KOMO News)

SEATTLE - Along Seattle’s busy waterfront Tuesday, Bob Donegan looked toward the garbage trucks, police officers and Union Gospel Mission staff talking with a handful of people carrying garbage bags.

For weeks a stretch of Alaskan Way, just steps from restaurants and shops popular with cruise ship visitors, tourists and people visiting the waterfront, has been the site of one of Seattle’s most visible homeless encampments.

“On Monday there were 56 tents and today the Seattle Navigation Team is cleaning them out and relocating them,” said Bob Donegan, president of Ivar’s restaurants.

Donegan said the people, tents and piles of trash have led customers from out of state to ask him plenty of questions. He said a few aggressive confrontations led him to require all staff to walk in pairs when heading toward Light Rail.

“Needles, feces, garbage, blocking the sidewalk, barbequing food on the sidewalk,” he described seeing.

Donegan has harsh words for the city, especially the Seattle City Council who passed a controversial employee hours tax on big business Monday. He said the tax will cost his restaurant chain $151,000 per year, money the city will dedicate toward the homeless crisis.

Donegan, though, praised the work of the team of social workers, police officers and parks employees cleaning up the encampment.

Seattle’s Navigation Team, tasked with getting people into shelter beds and getting encampments quickly tidied up, will no longer be funded if it’s up to the City Council.

In their tax plan, which will generate nearly $50 million per year by taxing the city’s biggest businesses, the council has pinpointed where they’d like to see the funding go – subsidized housing, garbage collection at encampments, even outreach. Not a dime designated to go to the Navigation Team.

According to the Navigation Team there are some 400 encampments in Seattle.

“The Navigation Team works. It gets people in to counseling, it cleans up an area and it makes is safer,” Donegan said. “We need more Navigation Teams, not fewer.”

Donegan has brought his concerns about the future of the Navigation Team to Mayor Jenny Durkan. It will be up to Durkan to dedicate some of the tax money to pay for the navigation team. A city hall source tells KOMO the Mayor plans to fund their work.

“The Navigation Team always offers shelter to those experiencing homelessness, and brought more than 36% of the people with whom they were in contact off the streets and into shelter – that percentage was in single digits the year before,” Navigation Team spokesman Will Lemke said in a statement Tuesday. “

The Navigation Team has faced harsh criticism from Councilmember Kshama Sawant who says they illegally “sweep” encampments and shuffle people around.

A couple who had lived at the waterfront encampment until it was broken apart Tuesday, said this was the second time an encampment they called home has been cleared by the Navigation Team,

This couple said they were offered shelter beds if they left the waterfront - they refused.

“Different shelters and whatnot, but they’re all full of sex offenders and drug addicts and thieves,” said the man who would only identify himself as “Yogi.”

He added, “you’re better off on the streets.”

Yogi said the region’s wealthiest businesses owe the homeless for making it so expensive to find a place to live. He cursed out Microsoft and Amazon, and said the money the city spends to fund the Navigation Team should go toward subsidized housing.

The woman with him, who identified herself as “Ray,” said “they really just want us off the streets because we’re getting in the way of tourists.”

Donegan agreed with her, saying the waterfront encampment is bad for tourism.

“We’ll have four million people walk by us, right here, in the next four months. We can’t welcome tourists to Seattle by having this kind of display.”

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