Seattle advocates: Get police out of handling homeless

Tents put up by homeless in Seattle (Photo by Gilfoto, courtesy of Creative Commons)

Joaqlin Estus

Removals ‘often re-trigger trauma, deepen mistrust between Native community members and government institutions’

Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

The National Coalition to End Urban Indigenous Homelessness wrote to the mayor of Seattle this week demanding the removal of the Seattle police department from a team handling homelessness.

It recommended that the $2.6 million that goes to police to address the issue instead go to organizations that specialize in serving Indigenous people experiencing homelessness.

Coalition partners Chief Seattle Club, Mother Nation, Seattle Indian Health Board and United Indians of All Tribes Foundations signed the Wednesday letter.

“Police officers are not the best-suited to respond to our homeless community’s needs,” Mike Tulee, Yakama, executive director of United Indians of All Tribes Foundation, said in a statement. “There has always been distrust between the Native community and police officers, and our community looks elsewhere for support when it’s needed.”

The mayor’s office and Seattle police department did not respond to a request from Indian Country Today seeking comment. 

Rather than being trained in law enforcement, the coalition wrote, staff providing services to Indigenous homeless people need a different set of skills. They need to be trained in cultural responsiveness, cultural humility, trauma-informed care, de-escalation and behavioral health – intersecting with mental health and substance abuse.

The coalition told the mayor it has been concerned for years about the city’s approach, which includes encampment removals by police, and what the authors call a “lack of culturally attuned services.”

“We’ve continued to express that what’s in place is not working and ineffective for our community,” said Colleen Echohawk, Pawnee and Athabascan, executive director of Chief Seattle Club. “Police officers retrigger trauma, which makes our relatives less accepting to services.”

The removals “continue to tell our community experiencing homelessness that their temporary living circumstances are criminal acts and that past encampment removals that lacked culturally relevant service referrals, were just,” the letter stated.

The coalition said the city has taken the view that 96 percent of encampments are exempt from notification and referral to support services before removal, adding to the harm and trauma caused by removal.

“We need people on the Navigation Team whose goal is to help our homeless population live better lives,” said Norine Hill, Oneida, executive director of Mother Nation in a prepared statement. “These workers need to understand, better than police officers, what it takes to respond in a culturally appropriate way.”

The coalition said the lack of culturally appropriate assertive outreach, shelter referrals and support resources during the removal of unsanctioned encampments deepens racial disparities.

The group further recommended the city provide safe hygiene resources for the unsheltered.

“Given the ongoing novel coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) concerns as well as public service closures (libraries, community centers, park programs, and organizations), it is important to provide safe, sanitary, public spaces that are accessible to unsheltered individuals.”

As an alternative to predominantly White efforts, the coalition said Native-led organizations have invested in long-term and meaningful relationships with people experiencing homelessness.

The Chief Seattle Club, for instance, has seen client retention increase as a direct result of its ability to “assess historical trauma, employ culturally competent assertive outreach and service providers, focus on the immediate priority of shelter, and tailor services to the unique needs of Native people,” read the letter.

Native Americans make up less than 1 percent of the city’s population but constitute a third of the chronically homeless, according to data gathered by the Chief Seattle Club. And the number of homeless in Seattle is expected to rise dramatically as unemployment and other financial assistance ends.

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Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today, and a longtime Alaska journalist.

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