Jason Johnson, the embattled acting director of the Seattle Human Services Division, announced his resignation in a letter to staffers Friday morning—two days after an off-the-rails presentation to the city council about the work of the encampment-clearing Navigation Team. Johnson will leave the city in June. Navigation Team operations manager August Drake-Ericson, who presented at that meeting alongside Johnson and team director Tara Beck, announced her retirement shortly after Johnson’s resignation announcement went out. The high-level departures come on top of a wave of resignation notices within HSD’s homelessness division, which recently started offering unprecedented incentives to keep staffers from leaving.
I first reported the news of Johnson’s resignation on Twitter.
Johnson’s tenure as HSD director has been contentious. As deputy HSD director under former mayor Ed Murray, Johnson oversaw the implementation of Pathways Home, a realignment of the city’s homelessness spending toward “rapid rehousing” rather than temporary shelter or transitional housing, a framework that has ended up being more theory than practice. Also as deputy, Johnson oversaw the department’s shift toward performance-based contracting, in which agencies do not receive full funding unless they meet performance goals. And he oversaw the city’s new investments in enhanced shelters—shelters that offer some combination of 24/7 access, storage, services, and a lack of barriers such as sex segregation and sobriety requirements.
Johnson came under fire from the beginning of his tenure as acting director. As soon as Durkan sent his name to the city council for nomination (nine months after she tapped him for the job), HSD employees raised objections, saying he was not responsive to lower-level staff and requesting that the city do an open search process for a new director. (Employees from the homelessness division, in particular, were unhappy under Johnson and his predecessor Catherine Lester’s leadership; according to internal surveys, the number of people in the division who felt unappreciated and unacknowledged increased under their tenure.) During his appointment process, council members grilled Johnson on allegations of harassment and intimidation within the department, as well as whether he would make decisions independent of political direction from Mayor Jenny Durkan; after it became clear that he did not have the council votes to win nomination, Durkan withdrew his nomination, and he has served on an interim basis ever since.
Under Johnson’s leadership, the Navigation Team, which removes encampments from parks and public spaces, shifted its focus away from its nominal purpose—navigating homeless people to shelter and housing—to simply removing encampments whenever they pop up in parks, on rights-of-way, and in other public spaces, with no advance notice or offers of shelter or other services. As the team’s latest quarterly report revealed, the Navigation Team now declares virtually all the encampments it encounters exempt from all of the once-standard notice and outreach requirements established in 2017, by deeming then “obstructions”—a designation that allows the team to remove them right away. As Johnson articulated on Wednesday, HSD considers any encampment or tent in any park to automatically constitute an “obstruction,” whether it is actually obstructing anyone’s ability to use the park or not. In the last quarter, the team provided advance notice and outreach to just 11 encampments, compared to 292 encampments that were deemed “obstructions” or “hazards” and removed without warning. This is likely among many reasons that only a tiny fraction of the team’s contacts with people living in encampments lead to shelter.
At the same time, the total number of encampment removals has continued to escalate; in the last quarter of 2019, according to a memo by council central staff, the number of encampment removals doubled compared to one year earlier. This escalation corresponded with annual increases in the size of the team: Over two years, the team ballooned from 16 members, including eight outreach workers from nonprofits that specialize in case management, to 38, which allowed the team to remove encampments seven days a week. Also over that period, contracted outreach workers from REACH (Evergreen Treatment Services) stopped participating in encampment removals, citing the damage their participation caused to their relationships with the vulnerable people they serve, which prompted the city to hire two in-house “system navigators’ to be on site during encampment sweeps. The Seattle Police Department also trained 100 bike and Community Police Team officers to remove encampments directly, vastly increasing the number of police officers who can remove encampments without any participation from outreach workers.
Johnson’s departure (and Drake-Ericson’s, for that matter) leaves the future of the Navigation Team in question. Although most of the functions of the homelessness division are moving over to the new King County Regional Homelessness Authority over the course of 2020, the city insisted on keeping the Navigation Team in-house, moving it to another division within HSD (likely Youth and Family Services.) The council, which has been reluctant to rein in Durkan’s yearly expansion of the team, may finally balk this year, as council member Teresa Mosqueda takes over as head of the budget process.
And whoever Durkan nominates to replace Johnson should expect intense scrutiny. As new council member Tammy Morales—a former member of the city’s Human Rights Commission who opposes encampment sweeps—put it, “Seattle deserves leadership who listens, even when they might not like what we have to say, and it’s incumbent on this city’s leadership to include the community for HSD’s next director in the hiring process.”