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April 17, 2021

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‘We have to stop all this infighting’: Seattle’s former homelessness director on why we spend so much without a fix

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SEATTLE — A year ago, Jason Johnson — the leader of Seattle’s Human Services Department, which manages potentially the largest homelessness city budget in the Pacific Northwest — announced he would be resigning from his position.

The same day, mere miles away, COVID-19 claimed its first American victim. Johnson quickly realized he couldn’t step down just yet, and he ended up staying on until the beginning of this year.

Coronavirus turned Johnson’s world — and the world of everyone who works fighting homelessness — upside down, completely changing shelters and making it painfully clear the unsustainable number of people living outside in Seattle.

But some basic questions persist about why the city is spending so much money, and why the problem isn’t getting better. In his role at the city, Johnson rarely agreed to interviews.

Johnson was a controversial leader in that role: He never earned enough votes from the City Council or support from social services nonprofits to be named the permanent director. He clashed with the council on the role of the Navigation Team and certain tiny house villages.

After he left the city in January, Johnson agreed to an interview about his time as director of the largest homelessness budget in the Pacific Northwest and his perspective on why the problem hasn’t improved.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Scott Greenstone: In your time at the Human Services Department, the money spent on homelessness totally ballooned. It was almost $90 million in 2018 — and this year, I believe they’ve budgeted $165. Now that you’re outside, how do you explain this phenomenon of: “We’re spending more money, and the problem seems to be getting worse?”

Jason Johnson: I think going back to really 2015, 2016, we have quite literally doubled the investment in addressing homelessness. And part of that has been some major improvements to the homeless system that I’m really proud of.

One that was very expensive — more than doubled the cost per bed — was transforming our overnight-only, basic shelter system to one that’s 24-7, enhanced with services.

When people had a place to keep their stuff, when people didn’t have to line up in the rain to be provided a roof over their head overnight … that costs more money.

All that said, with 12,000 people experiencing homelessness in our county, it was evident that the level of investment that the city was making … wasn’t enough; it still is not enough. And there is study after study, and I think most telling is the study by McKinsey [Global Institute], who showed that we need hundreds of millions more (housing units) across the county, not just in the city of Seattle, and not just from the city of Seattle, but our system as a whole.

Some of my own personal insight is that we are doing this alone: The city of Seattle has had to consistently increase the level of investment in addressing homelessness because no other city in King County is doing the same. The city of Seattle is really bearing the brunt of serving a regional issue with city dollars. That is something that cannot continue.

And so that is one of the many reasons I’m so excited about the (King County Regional Homelessness Authority). And I think the intention of the authority is that the governance structure and the CEO and their staff can help right-size or balance what’s needed across our region to address this issue.

And it’s going to require, again, much more investment. But that does not mean that it has to require more Seattle investment. It needs investments from cities across the county, and they’ve got a long way to go before they catch up.

Scott Greenstone: Let me just rewind to that $165 million. Correct me if I’m wrong, but very little of that, or maybe none of it, goes to actual housing. It’s mostly services. Some folks have argued, “Hey, why are we giving all this money to nonprofits? Why don’t we just try and get it right to the people who need it?” Do you think some of that money is misallocated to a lot of different nonprofits that are sort of trying to help folks off the street, but without anywhere for them to necessarily go?

Jason Johnson: You’re absolutely right: That total does not include the capital money that the Office of Housing invests in housing development.

What is not working is that providers and advocates have their own relationships with members of city council. And so budget after budget after budget is approved with these sort of pet projects, and sometimes even the continued funding of projects that failed to meet standards through a (request for proposals). And that’s where we see problems. That’s where we see the budget continuing to increase. And we continue to see programs that really aren’t performing well, who aren’t centered in equity, continue to be funded by the city.

So I think our providers do incredible work. And I see that work. I know they are doing the right things to get people the help that they need. And there are better providers; there are some that are better than others. And with a council who does not stand with the department and the department’s processes that we use to make sure that these taxpayer dollars are equitably held, distributed, and then also sort of held accountable because of this public investment — that’s where things get really, really messy.

Scott Greenstone: Can you share with me a recent example?

Jason Johnson: It’s, I mean, in the past, but not so long ago. So the city of Seattle, through the Human Services Department, is the only (public) funder of the Nickelsville, SHARE/WHEEL organization (a democratic but, to many homeless people, famously punitive group of homeless and formerly homeless activists who run shelters, tent cities and tiny house villages). United Way has pulled out. King County has pulled out.

And time and time again, they have shown an unwillingness to share data. And Nickelsville is the sort of most extreme, where they quite literally, just even last year, would not let Human Services Department employees on site to assess the kind of services they were offering to people staying there.

So there’s been a long-standing tension between those organizations and the city, because time and time again, they will participate in a procurement process, they will fail to be funded, and then city council will fund them, and we are then forced to contract with them.

They fill City Hall when their funding is threatened, they show up and they bring their clients with them and they tell compelling stories. And council always, you know, backfills them.

I don’t want to say that it’s isolated to this Nickelsville-SHARE group.

Scott Greenstone: I have to ask a question about the Navigation Team (a hybrid team of cops and social workers, who would offer shelter and then sweep encampments), because there’s a lot of talk right now, I think, about the “carrot and stick” approach. There’s this idea that we should go to encampments and say, “Look, you can take shelter, you can take treatment, but you can’t stay here on the street.” That’s the way that the Navigation Team worked before the pandemic.

And then, when the team could no longer do the enforcement part of its job, like removing camps for the most part (because it went against COVID-19 guidance from the CDC), it seems like it did some of its best work when it comes to helping people get into shelter. So looking back, do you think that the carrot and stick approach the team used before the pandemic was doomed to fail (because of its two conflicting missions)?

Jason Johnson: First I’ll say the former approach did work, in that there were a large number of individuals that the Navigation Team were able to direct toward shelter that would otherwise have not been served.

Sometimes, even when your own health and safety are at risk, you will not make a decision for yourself, even a healthful decision for yourself, until you absolutely have to. And so there were a lot of instances where, you know, the week of or sometimes even the day of (the removal), that’s when people finally said “OK, yes, I’ll go inside.”

The limitation of shelter spaces has always been an issue. So there are days when you have access to 50 units of shelter. There are other days where it’s single digits, you know, and so that kind of inconsistency makes it really hard.

Scott Greenstone: What is your advice to Regina Cannon … (likely) the CEO of the new regional homelessness authority?

Jason Johnson: Regina is an expert in this field, and comes with great knowledge, great expertise, great ability to develop relationships and run organizations. I don’t really have advice for her.

My advice is for mayors, councils, nonprofit executive directors: We have to stop all of this infighting. We have to stop micromanaging every policy decision. And we have to unify in a way that is all in support of Regina, or whoever (accepts the position) — the regional authority’s success.

We cannot invite a new leader into our community and continue bickering at one another, pitting different policies, different providers, different politics against each other. We have to be unified, we have to be agreeable, that she is now going to lead this effort and that we have established the right kind of governance structure, that we have done our due diligence to create a structure of accountability so that we can allow someone like Regina to succeed.

So that is my advisement — not to Regina, but all of us who work in this field: We need to be better.

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