Morning Crank: City Homelessness Director Resigns, Offers New Explanation for Decrease In 72-Hour Encampment Removals

1. Seattle Human Services Department deputy director Tiffany Washington, who heads up  the Homeless Strategy and Investment division within the city’s Department of Human Services, has submitted her resignation to interim HSD director Jason Johnson, the C Is for Crank has learned. As I reported on Twitter Wednesday morning, Washington will be taking a new position as deputy director at the city Department of Education and Early Learning starting on September 18.

The news, which was just announced to HSD and DEEL staff late Wednesday morning, comes at a tumultuous time for the division, whose functions will be at least partly subsumed by a new regional agency that is supposed to launch later this year. Parts of the homelessness division are currently undergoing reorganization, and staffers are experiencing “a lot of anxiety” because “they don’t know where their jobs are going to be or what’s going to happen to them” as part of the regional consolidation of county and city homelessness services, says Shaun Van Eyk, a union representative for PROTEC17, which represents about 3,000 city workers.

Many positions at HSI are currently vacant, including the job of division director, which was Washington’s title until she was promoted to deputy director in 2018. One in three positions in the grants and contracts section, which prepares and administers contracts with human services providers, is currently empty.

In an email to homeless service providers, Johnson announced Washington’s resignation “with great gratitude and sadness” and cited a number of accomplishments during her two years heading up the homelessness division: heading up the first year of competitive contracting for homeless service providers, including a controversial “performance pay” provision that docks human service organizations for failing to meet predetermined performance metrics; opening new tiny house village encampments; expanding the Navigation Team, a group of police officers, data crunchers, and city outreach and cleanup workers; and increasing the number of shelter beds.

But Washington also presided over a time of low morale within her division. In to an employee survey released earlier this year and first reported here, homelessness division employees reported feeling left out of major decisions, unheard by management, and uninformed about matters affecting them. At the time, Johnson was seeking permanent appointment to the position and was facing intense scrutiny, much of it coming from HSD employees who felt Johnson was insensitive to racial dynamics at HSD and demanded a transparent and competitive hiring process. Less than a month after the survey was released, it became clear that Johnson did not have the council votes to secure a permanent appointment, and Mayor Jenny Durkan pulled his nomination, saying that he would continue filling the role in a technically interim capacity through at least 2020 (Durkan’s term ends in 2021).

Johnson’s email to service providers Wednesday concluded by noting that “Currently, there is a job posting open for a Division Director to help carry this work forward for the next year. Please recommend this opportunity to those in your network who might be interested.”

In an email, HSD spokeswoman Meg Olberding said the department’s top priority was filling the long-vacant Division Director position, and that once that happens, the department will “evaluate any other needs, as we also continue to move on the regional authority work. Each open position will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.”

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2. Washington’s imminent resignation was not yet public knowledge (nor were all council members at the table aware it was coming) on Tuesday, when she presented the latest quarterly report on the Navigation Team’s progress at the city’s civil rights committee meeting. I wrote about the report, which helped to confirm my own reporting that the Navigation Team is now primarily removing “obstruction” encampments that do not require advance notice or offers of services,  back in May.

Council members pressed Washington to explain why the Navigation Team has shifted its focus away from what Washington called “72-hour cleans”—encampment removals in which residents get 72 hours’ advance notice, plus access to one of the enhanced shelter beds that are set aside for Navigation Team referrals. Initially, Washington questioned whether this shift was even happening (“you’re saying that there are less 72-hour cleans than there were at this time last year; I don’t know if that’s true,” she said—an assertion that prompted committee chair Lisa Herbold to respond, “It’s 95 percent”). Then she said the team has shifted away from doing 72-hour removals because there simply aren’t enough “viable shelter options” to offer beds to all the people living in encampments who might want to move inside. “The number of shelter beds that are available dictate the number of 72-hour cleans,” she said. On a typical night, according to the quarterly report, there are 17 shelter beds available exclusively to the Navigation Team.

Update: HSD spokeswoman Olberding says Washington’s intent was not to suggest any relationship between the reduction in 72-hour removals and the increase in removals of “obstruction” encampments, which she says “are occurring at a higher rate to address encampments that consistently impact the public’s ability to safely access rights-of-ways and open spaces.”

Last month, the head of the Navigation Team, Sgt. Eric Zerr, told me that Mayor Jenny Durkan “really wants us to focus on right-of-way and parks,” adding that the change should not be attributed to “anything except for shifting around some priorities.” And Mark Prentice, a spokesman for the mayor’s office, said the increase didn’t represent “a new trend,” but was part of a “long-term and concentrated focus by the team to remove obstructions that are impacting the public’s ability to safely access rights-of-way, such as sidewalks and mobility ramps.”

5 thoughts on “Morning Crank: City Homelessness Director Resigns, Offers New Explanation for Decrease In 72-Hour Encampment Removals”

  1. Sally, strangely enough, this Conservative Republican agrees with your assessment.

    Erica calls ‘em like she sees ‘em! And her writing is pretty good. And she does not – at least as often as others do – inject political diatribe to muddy the waters. Oh, and she has the BEST and MOST sources into city hall that I have seen.

    Where I see some issues in this article is the combination of “empty slots” and comments about low morale in the Homelessness Division (and in other articles, SPD). When you have $100k jobs going wanting there is a way bigger problem in the city than a few employees grumbling.

    After 30 years in the military and several more in state and local government, I can assert that if morale is low and jobs are going unfilled, leadership is the problem. So, 99% of the time I would, therefore, posit that the elected Mayor is THE problem. In this case, I am going with the 1%. Jenny and her department heads can only go so far in hiring, firing, priorities, and funding.

    So who the hell is in charge? Who is setting priorities? Who is writing the budgets? Who is setting policy for the city?

    If not Jenny, or the do-nothing City Attorney, or the jurisdiction constrained City Courts, then who?

    Ahh, you say, go back to HS Civics and the answer is obvious: the City Council.

    But this City Council is a fractious, immature, visionless, in-cohesive body. There are nine members going in nine different directions (or more) – all of which are the opposite of each other. (And lemme tell you, there is no mathematician Ph.D. at the U who can put into formula nine exact opposites unless he or she chooses to operate in an alternate reality. Which may be what is happening on the City Council.)

    My bottom line is some non-partisan advice to the City of Seattle:

    A. When you go to the polls later this summer, vote AGAINST anyone who is now on the Council; and,

    B. When you go to the polls in the fall, vote FOR anyone who is contemplative, thoughtful, and caring of the Emerald City. Oh, and absolutely supports through action that old homily: God gave everyone two ears and one mouth and He expects you to use them in that proportion.

    1. No, Deryl, I don’t say “Go back to the City Council”, and I certainly don’t think the City Attorney is setting policy. Speak your opinion, don’t assume others’.

  2. Erica, you have become the only journalist in Seattle who honestly and comprehensively reports what the City is doing regarding housing and homelessness. That’s a compliment to you and an indictment of other news outlets.

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