City council member Kshama Sawant finally got an opportunity to question interim Human Services Department director Jason Johnson last week, when the council’s select committee on homelessness and housing held the first official hearing on his nomination as permanent director on Friday.
Johnson’s nomination was moved to the special committee, which is chaired by council member Sally Bagshaw and includes the entire council, after human services committee chair Kshama Sawant refused to schedule the nomination for a hearing.
Sawant opposed Johnson’s nomination, arguing that Mayor Jenny Durkan had failed to conduct a “transparent and inclusive process,” and held multiple rally-style hearings to which she invited Johnson opponents to voice their concerns about the nomination. Only one proponent of Johnson’s nomination showed up at those meetings; in contrast, a number of people spoke on his behalf during public comment last week.
“I don’t have a bias for or against SHARE/WHEEL. What I do have a bias for is performance and stewardship.” – HSD Interim Director Jason Johnson
Sawant also proposed a resolution that would delay the appointment of an HSD director—a position Johnson has held on an interim basis for 11 months—until the appointment of a committee consisting of human service providers, HSD employees, and people experiencing homelessness to recommend a nominee. That resolution failed 7-2.
On Friday, Sawant addressed Johnson publicly for the first time, saying, “We have to recognize how much courage it takes for workers to speak against their leadership and… against the direction of the leadership. It is really unfortunate that the mayor, in her press conference. chose to characterize the meetings where hundreds of employees [had] courage … and spoke openly, as ‘circus-like.’”
At a press conference on February 25, Durkan criticized Sawant’s decision not to hold hearings on Johnson’s nomination, leading the council to move the nomination to the special committee, saying, “It does a disservice to the department … to have a continued circus instead of a substantive discussion on what we need to do as a city, and I am disappointed that the current chair of the committee basically was AWOL month after month after month and had no hearings whatsoever.”
Sawant also asked Johnson his reaction to a survey of HSD employees that found high dissatisfaction with management, particularly within the Homeless Strategy and Investments division. Employees have also complained about harassment and intimidation within the department.
Johnson said that a similar survey in 2014—also a time of “immense change” and “instability,” including a new mayor and a new department director—revealed a similar rate of dissatisfaction among employees. “I’m not saying those are [the] exclusive [reason], but they are a part of the reality when I look at this data,” Johnson said. “It also gives me a baseline understanding [of] things I need to work on,” including communication with staff, recognizing employees’ achievements, and the need for “real, intentional healing” between management and staff.
Sawant pressed Johnson about the department’s decision to cut off a contract with the homeless shelter and tent city operator SHARE/WHEEL in June unless it shows clear improvement on the city’s performance metrics. “Why do we continue nickel and diming these services?” she asked. (It’s worth noting that even one of SHARE’s most stalwart proponents, council member Lisa Herbold, felt the need to correct the record on Sawant’s claim that the city was “closing” SHARE’s shelters in June.) Johnson responded by noting that, under new performance standards adopted in 2017, which include specific targets for data collection and success moving people into permanent housing, SHARE/WHEEL did not qualify for any contract. In its application, SHARE wrote that the city’s permanent housing goals were “painfully impossible” and declined to provide a plan for moving its clients into housing. (HSD changed the way it enforces those standards for 2019, as I reported on Tuesday). SHARE received temporary “bridge” funding for 2018 after advocates complained, but refused to create a transition plan for its clients to move to other shelters once the bridge funding ran out, which was a condition of that funding. Last year, Durkan’s budget again extended SHARE’s funding; the announcement last month makes additional funding contingent on continued improvement.
“This is in no way retaliation for anything that has been said inside of this chamber” by SHARE’s clients and proponents,” Johnson said. “Likewise, it wasn’t an isolated enforcement. Because SHARE/WHEEL … was not selected [for funding in the first place], we are going to pay careful attention to how this program is funded. … I don’t have a bias for or against SHARE/WHEEL. What I do have a bias for is performance and stewardship.” Under HSD’s new performance standards, which reward programs that move people into permanent housing, enhanced shelter programs tend to do better than basic shelter programs like SHARE’s, which don’t include case management and often offer little more than mats on the floor.
Johnson dodged cross-examination from council member Lorena Gonzalez on whether he would be “independent” from Durkan—first saying that the department, as a whole, employs “evidence-based strategies,” then acknowledging that he wouldn’t say it’s “my way or the highway” if Durkan disagreed with his recommendations on a policy. “There are times when politics win, and I will need to be really clear, as a leader of this organization, what I think the impacts of that are going to be and then start planning for that end result.”
HSD has become one of the city’s highest-profile departments in the last few years, as Seattle’s homelessness crisis has continued to worsen. Last month, as The C Is for Crank first reported, Durkan was forced to acknowledge that the city does not know how many individuals have actually been moved from homelessness into housing. Durkan and King County Executive Dow Constantine recently announced plans to consolidate the city and county’s homelessness response into a new regional agency. The exact structure of that agency, which would exist alongside HSD, remains unclear.