Tag: Helen Howell

Fizz: As Homeless Authority Regroups, City’s Homelessness Division is At the Breaking Point

1. On Monday night, less than a week after Atlanta homelessness consultant Regina Cannon declined an offer to serve as the CEO of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, the authority’s implementation board met to debrief and talk about what comes next. That was the plan according to the agenda, anyway; in reality, the meeting devolved into a lengthy discussion about whether it was more important to act quickly (the authority is already six months behind schedule, due in large part to its lack of a leader) or carefully (to ensure that whoever the board picks, they’ll be prepared and able to do the job.)

The options on the table Monday included appointing an interim director, starting the entire recruitment and hiring process over, and choosing a new director from among the 17 candidates who were in the potential hiring pool as of late last year. The city of Seattle hired the Hawkins Company, an LA-based executive recruitment firm, to narrow down the list of candidates. According to board member Gordon McHenry, the president and CEO of United Way King County, Hawkins had narrowed the list to four candidates before their contract ended. The second runner-up for the position was Marc Dones, a New York City-based consultant who drafted the original blueprint for the new authority.

After an hour of public discussion about values and priorities, the board retreated to a private session to talk about what they wanted to do. When the public meeting reconvened, the group announced that they would take another look at each of the candidates in the original 17-applicant pool, essentially replicating Hawkins’ work in search of a different result.

Durkan press secretary Anthony Derrick said that two people have accepted the city’s offers of shelter so far, which still leaves an unknown number who will be displaced when the parks department clears out a 16-tent encampment at Denny Park morning.

Board members said they would reach out to Cannon to see if she could elaborate, publicly or in small-group meetings with board members, on why she decided not to take the job. Some have speculated that one reason was the divisive relationship between some of the county’s smaller cities, such as Renton, and Seattle (as well as King County government) on the causes of and solutions to homelessness. Earlier this year, Renton, Bellevue, Issaquah, and other cities opted out of the county’s Health Through Housing sales tax for homeless services, and Renton just passed a law evicting a Downtown Emergency Service Center-run shelter at the Renton Red Lion in June and effectively banning homeless shelters within city limits.

When the public meeting reconvened, the group announced that they would take another look at each of the candidates in the original 17-applicant pool, essentially replicating Hawkins’ work in search of a different result.

2. Helen Howell, the interim director of the Seattle Human Services Department, was among those urging the board to act quickly to appoint a new interim or permanent director, in part because HSD’s own Homelessness Strategy and Investment Division of HSD has been hemorrhaging staff for more than a year and is nearly at the breaking point. Since last year, as PubliCola has reported, the division has been doing more work than ever with half the staff it had a year ago—just 15 people, most of them in temporary or “out of class” positions. “If there’s going to be a significant delay, we would probably have to look at hiring, and the training is a burden on the people there” who are already stretched thin, Howell said.

HSI staffers have already received layoff notices saying their positions will end in June—one reason so many have already left the department. According to PROTEC17 labor representative Shaun van Eyk, the latest CEO hiring delay will probably push that date back another several months, creating more staff uncertainty about whether they will have jobs and where.

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Meanwhile, van Eyk said, HSD has has not hired for a position the city council added in last year’s budget to help reduce the burden on HSI employees tasked with managing and fulfilling contracts for homeless services, many of which are already substantially delayed, and has refused requests from some of the 15 remaining staffers to go back to their original positions or take new positions within the city. Van Eyk said he is trying to get a succession agreement in place to guarantee HSI staffers jobs at the new authority if they want them.

“I have a real hard time with everyone talking about how great and vital their work is and the best you can do is say, ‘We’ll offer them a great letter of recommendation’?” van Eyk said. “I’m not going to let my members suffer that indignity.” 

Meanwhile, van Eyk said, HSD has has not hired for a position the city council added in last year’s budget to help reduce the burden on HSI employees tasked with managing and fulfilling contracts for homeless services.

3. On Wednesday, the city’s parks department will remove a longstanding encampment in Denny Park. The removal is one of the first high-profile sweeps the city has done since disbanding the Navigation Team, a group of police, city staff, and outreach workers who removed encampments and offered information about shelters and services to their displaced residents. For months, according to Mayor Durkan’s office, members of the new HOPE team and Health One, a Seattle Fire Department unit that responds to non-emergency calls, have been doing outreach and offering services to residents of the camp. Continue reading “Fizz: As Homeless Authority Regroups, City’s Homelessness Division is At the Breaking Point”

Shakeups at the City: Durkan Announces New Interim Directors for Human Services and Arts Departments

By Erica C. Barnett

Seattle Human Services Department interim director Jason Johnson—interim, since 2018, because the city council declined to approve his nomination after a series of contentious hearings—is leaving his position at the end of the year. In his place, Mayor Jenny Durkan is appointing King County Housing Authority senior policy director Helen Howell on an interim basis “while the City embarks on an inclusive, nationwide search for the permanent director,” according to a press release announcement the appointment.

Interim deputy mayor Tiffany Washington—who just replaced Shefali Ranganathan in the mayor’s office—will head up the search for a permanent director.

Johnson will officially leave the city on January 15, but will be taking a “long planned vacation” starting next Monday, he told staff in an email. “My work throughout 2020 has been on borrowed time,” Johnson’s email continued. “As you may recall, I delayed an earlier announced departure from HSD in order to help the City and our partners respond to COVID-19, develop the department’s 2021 budget, and to ensure the governance structure of the regional homelessness authority was launched and positioned to hire a CEO. … This was not an easy decision for me to make—especially given how much the department is holding at this time—but with these priorities accomplished and in good hands, it is time for me to step away. ”

Howell, the new interim director, is also the former executive director of Building Changes, a Seattle-based group that focuses on homelessness.

Howell is In 2016 and again in 2018, Howell wrote op/eds for the Seattle Times promoting diversion—programs to move people from homelessness to better housing situations, such as “getting back in the good graces of a previous landlord or negotiating with a relative who can offer a place to stay”—as “a common-sense and cost-effective strategy that helps families identify immediate options for housing without relying on housing provided by or subsidized through the homeless system.”

In 2005, she stepped down from her position as director of the state Department of Financial Institutions. According to a Seattle Times report, she was popular with consumer advocates—and unpopular with the institutions she regulated, including payday lenders—because of her focus on consumer protection. She was also the head of Washington state’s Obama delegation in 2008 and one of 11 applicants to fill Dow Constantine’s county council seat when he was elected county executive in 2009.

The Human Services Department is transferring much of its role overseeing Seattle’s homelessness system to the King County Regional Homelessness Authority next year, although HSD will continue to oversee outreach to unsheltered people through the new HOPE team established in the 2021 city budget. Encampment removals, once the purview of the Navigation Team and largely halted during the pandemic, will likely resume to some extent next year, although it’s unclear how the responsibility for future removals will be distributed among the various departments that are responsible for them now.

Johnson officially resigned his position at the end of February, but stayed on because of the pandemic, which required major shifts in how the city responded to homelessness. The city council decided not to approve his appointment, in part, because several members felt he did not respond adequately to questions about his willingness to make decisions independent from Mayor Jenny Durkan, his commitment to race and social justice, and his lack of responsiveness to questions about layoffs at the homelessness division, among other issues.

In a statement, Mayor Jenny Durkan praised Johnson’s decision to stay on board during the pandemic. “His quick and decisive actions kept our most marginalized communities safe throughout the pandemic,” Durkan said. “Because of his vision and leadership, the Human Services Department is primed to build on these efforts for years to come.”

Although the job of HSD director will be less directly focused on homelessness in the future than it has been under Johnson, the new director will also be in charge of a perpetually dissatisfied Homelessness Strategy and Investment division that has been bleeding staff due to uncertainty over whether and when they’ll get jobs in the new RHA; the delayed hiring of a CEO for that authority has exacerbated the uncertainty.

Durkan also announced two other departmental shakeups this morning: Randy Engstrom, the longtime director of the city’s Office of Arts and Culture, will be replaced by current deputy director Calandra Childers on an interim basis. According to Durkan’s announcement, Engstrom “will turn his attention to teaching, advocating for national cultural policies, and spending time with his family.”

Durkan is also replacing the acting director of the Office of Emergency Management, Laurel Nelson since longtime director Barb Graff left (only to come back temporarily to head up the city’s COVID emergency response) in 2019, will be headed by Curry Mayer, who was most recently director of Bellevue’s Office of Emergency Management.