A year ago this month, Jason Johnson – the head of Seattle’s Human Services division, which may manage the largest city budget for homelessness in the Pacific Northwest – announced his resignation.
On the same day, just a few miles away, COVID-19 claimed its first victim in the US. Johnson, who was to become the temporary head of department, quickly realized that he could not resign just yet.
Coronavirus has turned Johnson’s world – and the world of everyone struggling against homelessness – upside down, completely switched accommodations and made painfully clear the unsustainable number of people living outside in Seattle.
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Johnson was a controversial leader: he never got enough votes from the Seattle City Council or support from nonprofits to be named permanent director. He clashed with the council on the role of the navigation team that manages unapproved homeless camps and certain villages with small houses.
As the head of the department, Johnson rarely consented to interviews. And with his exit, fundamental questions remain open as to why the city is spending so much money and why the problem is not getting better.
After quitting the job in town last month, Johnson agreed to speak. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Seattle Times: During your time in Human Resources, the money for homelessness has gone up dramatically. In 2018 it was almost $ 90 million – and this year I think the budget is $ 165 million. After you are out, how do you explain this phenomenon: “We are spending more money and the problem seems to be getting worse”?
Jason Johnson: I think since 2015 and 2016 we have literally doubled investment in combating homelessness. 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 twice the cost per bed – was moving our simple overnight system to one that was serviced around the clock.
If people had a place to store their belongings, if people didn’t have to stand in the rain to get a roof over their heads overnight … it costs more money.
Given that 12,000 people were homeless in our county, it was obvious that the level of investment the city was making was not enough. it is still not enough. And there are study after study, and I think the most telling is the McKinsey study that showed we need hundreds of millions more [dollars for housing units] – across the county, not just the city of Seattle, and not just the city of Seattle, but our entire system.
Some of my personal realizations are that we are doing this on our own: The city of Seattle has had to consistently increase investments in combating homelessness, as no other city in King County is doing the same. The city of Seattle really bears the brunt of serving a regional affair with city dollars. You can’t go on with that.
And that’s one of the many reasons I’m so excited [King County Regional Homelessness Authority]. And I think the agency’s intent is that the governance structure and the CEO and their staff can help to get the right size or balance what is needed in our region to address this issue.
And it will again require a lot more investment. However, that doesn’t mean more investment is required in Seattle. It takes investment from cities across the county, and they have a long way to go before they catch up.
ST: Let me just rewind to that $ 165 million. Correct me if I’m wrong but very little or none of it goes to the home itself. It’s mostly services. Some people have argued, “Hey, why are we giving all this money to nonprofits? Why don’t we just try to get it right for the people who need it? “Do you think some of that money is being misused for a lot of different nonprofits trying to help the people off the street but without them having to go anywhere?
Johnson: You are absolutely right: this sum does not include the capital that the Office of Housing invests in the housing development.
What doesn’t work is that vendors and lawyers have their own relationships with members of the city council. And so, budget-by-budget with these types of pet projects is approved, and sometimes even the continued funding of non-standard projects through a (call for proposal). And here we see problems. There we see that the budget continues to rise. And we continue to see that programs that really don’t do well and don’t target equity continue to be funded by the city.
I think our providers are doing an incredible job. And I see this work. I know they are doing the right things to give people the help they need. And there are better providers; There are some who are better than others. And with advice that doesn’t work with the department and department processes that we use to ensure that this taxpayer’s money is fairly held, distributed, and then somehow accounted for because of this public investment – that’s where things really get really messy.
ST: Can you give me a recent example?
Johnson: I mean, it’s in the past, but not that long ago. So the city of Seattle is the only one through the Human Services department [public] Supporter of the organization Nickelsville, SHARE / WHEEL (a democratic, but for many homeless known punitive group of homeless and formerly homeless activists who run emergency shelters, tent cities and tiny house villages). United Way has withdrawn. King County has withdrawn.
Over and over again they will go into a procurement process, they will not be funded, and then the city council will fund them and we will be forced to sign a contract with them.
They fill the town hall when their funding is threatened, they show up and they bring their customers with them and they tell compelling stories. And the council fills them out over and over again.
I don’t mean to say it’s isolated for this Nickelsville SHARE group.
ST: I have to ask a question about the navigation team (a team of police officers and social workers who would provide shelter and then sweep camps) because I think there is a lot of talk right now about the carrot and stick approach. There’s an idea that we should go to camp and say, “Look, you can take shelter, you can get treatment, but you can’t stay here on the street.” This is how the navigation team worked before the pandemic.
And then, when the team was unable to do the enforcement area of its job, like removing bearings (for violating the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s COVID-19 guidelines), it seems like it has some of its Work best when it comes to helping people find shelter. So, in retrospect, do you think the carrot and stick approach the team used before the pandemic was doomed because of its two conflicting missions?
Johnson: First of all, I would like to say that the earlier approach worked in that there was a large number of people who could direct the navigation team towards a shelter that otherwise would not have been served.
Sometimes, even when your own health and safety are at risk, you will not make a decision for yourself, including a healthy decision for yourself, until you absolutely have to. And so there have been many cases where the week or sometimes even the day of [the removal]Then finally people said, “OK, yes, I’m going in.”
Defining shelters has always been a problem. So there are days when you have access to 50 properties. There are other days when they are single digit numbers, you know, and that kind of inconsistency makes it really difficult.
ST: What is your advice to Regina Cannon … probably the executive director of the new regional homelessness agency?
Johnson: Regina is an expert in this field and has great knowledge, great expertise, great ability to build relationships and run organizations. I have no advice for them.
My advice to mayors, councilors, and non-profit executives is: We must end all of these struggles. We need to stop micromanaging every political decision. And we have to unite in a way that everyone supports Regina or whoever [accepts the position] – the success of the regional authority.
We cannot invite a new leader into our community and continue to argue with each other by pitting different policies, different providers, and different policies against each other. We have to agree, we have to agree, that she will lead this effort now and that we have the right kind of governance structure in place, that we have put our diligence into creating an accountability structure so that we can allow someone like Regina to be successful.
So this is my advice – – Not to Regina, but to everyone who works in this field: We have to get better.