“Lateral Transfers” at HSD, Nextdoor Comes to Cops’ Phones, Council Staff Unionizes, and More

1. Seattle Human Services Department director Jason Johnson told the council last week that the existing Homelessness Strategy and Investments Division, which runs the city’s day-to-day work on homelessness and will mostly be subsumed into the new King County Regional Homelessness Authority next year, is “a division of a little over 30 people.”

But a comparison of the agency’s organizational chart—which, indeed, includes more than 30 positions—and a separately compiled list of employees currently on staff shows that the true number is much smaller because people are leaving and not being replaced. In reality, the division appears to have fewer than two dozen employees left, and many of those are on loan from other divisions or departments, are temporary employees, or have given their notice.

The department has been slow to give staffers in the homelessness division clear direction on whether they will have jobs in the new regional authority, or elsewhere in the city, which could be contributing to the high rate of departures.

Last week, Johnson told HSI staffers in a memo that “in no way should be considered a layoff notification” that they would be eligible for “lateral transfers” to other HSD divisions, a new option that does away with the usual byzantine seniority-based “bumping” process. (Basically, if you get a layoff notice but have seniority over someone else with your position in another division, you can “bump” that person out of their job.) Under the new process, any time a job comes open in HSD, it will be held open for people in the homelessness division who want to transfer, which will happen after January 1, 2021, when the RHA officially replaces HSI.

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By effectively promising jobs to every homelessness division worker who sticks around, HSD could theoretically stem the exodus from the department.

“The Lateral Transfer strategy does not guarantee a placement for every HSI permanent employee,” Johnson wrote. “However, after extensive and 1 on 1 conversations with existing staff and extensive analysis of current and future job opening across HSD, we believe most staff that are interested in staying at HSD will be placed—should they desire to pursue this option.”

Council members have expressed frustration publicly that HSD has not been forthcoming about how many employees will lose their jobs in the upcoming transfer. Judging from the number of people who have left the department or who have reportedly put in their notice in recent weeks, they aren’t the only ones who are frustrated.

2. The city’s widely emulated Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, whose 2020 funding remains in limbo pending a consultant’s review of the program, is a law enforcement program that’s categorized by the city as a homelessness intervention, even though its main goal is reducing recidivism among low-level offenders, not getting its clients housed. Only about 70 percent of LEAD’s clients are homeless, and most of them score low on the county’s standard housing assessment, making then virtually ineligible for most housing when units do become available.

The city has decided to address this issue, which LEAD has brought up year after year, by moving LEAD next year to the division of Youth and Family Empowerment, which “supports positive youth and family development through strategic investments in community safety, youth employment opportunities, mentoring and educational supports, affordable living, family support, food and nutrition, and behavioral and mental health programs.”

HSD spokesman Will Lemke said the city hasn’t decided whether to move LEAD to YFE, and is merely ” leaving the option of moving the contract to another division, like YFE, open.” Another option would be moving the program to a different department. Last week, though, Johnson told council members that HSD was “cross training” grants and contracts specialists at YFE in anticipation of “working on a transition plan for that contract.” And Lisa Daugaard, whose organization, the Public Defender Association, runs LEAD, says at this point, she would “settle for any division in which we actually get offered a contract to run LEAD,” adding that she’s “not sure there is a better place in the city” than YFE.

“It would be preferable for the county to administer the whole thing including city funding, as with public health, since they have unique access to jail and [behavioral health] data,” Daugaard says. “But right now that seems like an impossible fantasy, and I would just settle for a contract to do the work.”

A petition demanding that the mayor release LEAD’s full funding for 2020 went up online last Friday.

3. Central staffers for the City Council—the group that provides financial and policy analysis to the council—have moved one step closer to unionizing. After an all-day meeting last Thursday, the state Public Employee Relations Commission (PERC) gave provisional status to a bargaining unit that includes all but three of the 19-member staff, which sets up the process for contract negotiations. Central staffers are among the highest-paid workers at the city, but they do have grievances—among them, reportedly, concerns that their work has been politicized by council members and management.

The city argued against including three staffers in the bargaining unit—one because he is technically a temporary employee, one because she holds a position that, under her predecessor, was fairly managerial, and one because she is listed as a supervisor on the central staff org chart. The city eventually conceded on all but one of those three. Unionizing takes a long time; a final decision on the bargaining unit probably won’t happen until early summer.

4. Nextdoor, the private social media site for reporting small grievances, missing pets, and “suspicious people,” announced a new stand-alone “Nextdoor for Public Agencies” app for law enforcement and other public agencies to post directly to the site from their phones, creating a new connection between public agencies and the people who use the private service. The app will allow police, for example, to post crime alerts to specific neighborhood Nextdoor groups directly from the field. It will also allow Nextdoor members to connect to cops more directly (and instantaneouslY) with a tool called “Forward to Police,” which allows members to alert police directly of “crime and safety related posts” on the site, according to a press release. 

A spokeswoman for Nextdoor says the new app simply provides easier access to the site for officials who aren’t at a computer, enabling cops, fire departments, and other officials to post real-time information to residents more quickly. But it also strengthens connections between a very specific group of people—people on Nextdoor —and public agencies, potentially at the expense of everybody else. Nextdoor has been accused of allowing racial profiling to proliferate, and accounts like @bestofnextdoor document some of the breathless, petty, and alarming discussions that spring up among the homeowners that tend to dominate the site.

Given that police resources are finite, it’s easy to see the issue with police prioritizing reports of “porch pirates,” people “loitering” outside a homeless shelter, and “man urinating,” to pick three recent “crime and safety” posts from my own neighborhood Nextdoor page, over urgent but unreported issues in neighborhoods that are less active on the site.

SPD, for its part, rarely uses Nextdoor for emergency alerts (although it does post frequently about SPD events), and a spokesman says they were not informed of the new app’s existence.