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Interim head of Seattle’s homeless response to leave role as search for full-time director continues

Homeless in Seattle. (J. Warne)

Seattle’s interim Human Services Department (HSD) Director Helen Howell informed staff this week that she will be leaving for a new job with the nascent King County Regional Homelessness Authority (RHA) in early September.

Report: Chronic homelessness reaches crisis levels in King County

Howell was appointed as interim head of HSD last December, replacing outgoing interim Director Jason Johnson. Originally, the plan was to have her fill the role until a permanent replacement could be chosen.

In an internal email to staff announcing her decision Wednesday, she also emphasized that her job as HSD’s interim director has largely been “to guide and support the department for a temporary stretch.”

When Howell starts her new job as the deputy CEO of the RHA in September, Seattle will get its third interim HSD director in as many years, with Tanya Kim tagged to step in as acting director until the next mayoral administration makes its choice for a full-time department head.

Kim has served in various roles with HSD over the last 11 years, starting as a summer program supervisor in 2012, and currently serving as interim deputy director. Once the permanent director is chosen, Kim will return to her previous position.

The department tasked with managing Seattle’s homeless response has struggled to find consistency within its leadership in recent years. Mayor Jenny Durkan had initially sought to have Johnson named the new full-time HSD director in 2019. That led to a process met with delays, brought on by accusations from Councilmember Kshama Sawant that the city wasn’t going through a robust enough search process to find the most qualified candidate for the job.

Seattle homelessness in-fighting pits Sawant vs. Durkan

Despite accusations from the mayor that the council as a whole was “deeply unfair” to Johnson in not considering him for the role full-time, she eventually withdrew her nomination. In February 2020, Johnson announced he’d be resigning, before agreeing to stay on longer in the wake of the pandemic.

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