'A sinking ship': As more staff flee, City of Spokane has no homeless response team

'A sinking ship':  As more staff flee, City of Spokane has no homeless response team
Daniel Walters photo
Community Housing and Human Services employees Tim Sigler (right) and Tija Danzig (left) in 2019. Both Sigler and Danzig left early this year — but their departures were only the first of many.

The Community Housing and Human Services department has had high turnover for a long time. But this year, the drip-drip-drip of departures has turned into a torrent that threatens to sink the entire department.

In the last two weeks, three more city staffers inside the department have announced they're leaving —  Homeless Program Professional Debbie Cato, Program Manager Becky Tuno, and Kelly Burnett, a city clerk who helped the department with grant proposals. While Burnett is simply transferring departments, Cato and Tuno are leaving the city entirely.

Mayor Nadine Woodward ran on the promise she'd address homelessness. But by Oct. 15, when Cato leaves, none of the employees who had been working on the city's homelessness team will be left.

The understaffed department could cause the region to lose out on millions of dollars to address homelessness, worries Ben Stuckart, chair of the county's regional Continuum of Care board. He sent a letter to city leadership today warning them that the recent departures would jeopardize that funding.

and Tuno, he wrote, had worked on a program that helped ensure the region continued to receive $4.3 million in homeless dollars annually. A draft application for the program is due at the end of the month, Stuckart says.

"In short, if Spokane loses this funding, we will never get it back and the homeless response system will cease to exist," he wrote.  "Someone must be guiding this process and making sure trains run on time. Someone should have been hired for this role weeks ago."

The staffing holes are even worse than they seem. Cecily Ferguson, who had technically been employed by United Way, was embedded within the city's homeless team. A recent promotion, Stuckart says, had removed her from the position and she hasn't been replaced yet.

"There’s nobody there. This is not a 'cry wolf [situation].' This is not an exaggeration," Stuckart tells the Inlander. "Literally, our homeless dollars are at risk. Our system will collapse."

Stuckart, who served as City Council president and unsuccessfully ran for mayor two years ago, has been among the most vocal critics of the chaos in the Woodward administration. He calls the latest departures "rats leaving a sinking ship."

City of Spokane spokesman Brian Coddington says, "there's a plan in place to ensure that work continues happening" that will be laid out tomorrow with the CHHS staff.

It involves assistance from a "strike team" the mayor put together to handle the staffing issues, composed of Public Works director Marlene Feist, along with IT team leader Eric Finch, and Interim Community and Economic Development Director Kris Becker, and Kirstin Davis, the acting deputy director of neighborhood services.

Coddington says that the CHHS department will get any resources they need to do their jobs. Coddington says there's also a plan to deal with the dearth of any staffers on the homeless team, but declined to reveal what it was until they had spoken with CHHS staff tomorrow. 

However, when staffers leave their expertise and knowledge go with them. Tuno, for example, had been in charge of distributing federal "HOME" dollars for affordable housing, a program that the city had put on hold for a year because of the lack of staffing.

She'd also had been the city staffer involved in communicating with the owner of the Ridpath, the apartment complex that the city gave $1.75 million to help operate.

It's all well-and-good to say that you'll just bring in consultants to replace the departed employees, Stuckart says, but consultants are helpless if they don't have any current employees with the knowledge to do their jobs.
Early this year, two key figures in the department — CHHS director Tim Sigler and senior manager Tija Danzig — resigned, putting intense pressure on the rest of the department.

Next came Cupid Alexander, the director of Neighborhoods, Housing, and Human Services, the division that includes the CHHS department. When he left, he sent emails decrying the administration's lack of support for their department and accusing City Administrator Johnnie Perkins of racism.

That triggered an independent investigation into Perkins. Coddington says the investigation was completed weeks ago, but is still going through "some legal review and notification" before it can be released to the public.

In the meantime, other employees like Brenda Schreiber and Matt Davis and David Lewis have left the department.

When Lewis, who had been serving as interim director of the department, told acting deputy director of neighborhood services Kirstin Davis on August 2 that he was leaving to take another job, she reacted with "a bit of shock without warning," according to public records obtained by the Inlander.

"Please let me know your plan for communicating this," Kirstin Davis writes. "It will in no doubt be a big impact on current staff and I would like to manage that as best we can."

In a follow-up email to Lewis, Davis stressed she would prefer to have it communicated "
internally rather than externally."

To put all these departures in perspective, of the seven city staff members in attendance at the May 26 Continuum of Care Board meeting, six have now left the city. And the one remaining staff member, Melissa Morrison, is the one working for the city council.

"Hiring is a priority for the mayor," City Administrator Johnnie Perkins said at a Sept. 23 City Council study session, noting that other cities across the country have also been struggling with staffing.

The study session was dedicated to the city's staffing crisis, as city council members and local nonprofit agencies all expressed serious concerns about the impact of the collapse of staffing in the department.

But Kirstin Davis, the interim deputy director, stressed that more would be hired for the department soon.

"We have people coming on board, but they're not on board yet," Davis said. "I feel like we've been on the cusp of getting these positions filled in the last couple weeks."

In the meantime, she pointed to all the "astounding" things the department had accomplished, including scoring a nearly $2.6 million "Youth Homelessness Demonstration Program" grant.

But in his letter sent today, Stuckart noted that "other cities across the country have a full-time staff member assigned for the planning" of how to spend the grant. But the City of Spokane hadn't identified anyone to lead the project, he wrote, and no one from the Woodward administration was present on a recent call with other cities.

At the study session last month, Dawn Kinder, Vice President of Stabilization Services for Catholic Charities, said she has a sense for why so many people had left the department. At one time, she'd worked there.

"That department is an incredibly brutal place to work," Kinder said at the study session. "It has been understaffed for a very long time. The retention problems all stem from those challenges."
The issues facing the department aren't simple, she says, and the team is often exposed to the brunt of public anger, and none of the recent administrations have done a good job supporting them.

"I don't mean to be harsh, but it feels personal to me, having been there and known how much that staff has struggled," Kinder said. "I know we've heard for a long time that this is the priority of the administration. But I'll be honest, it hasn't felt that way." 

APIC Karaoke Crochet Night @ Niche Coworking

Wed., May 31, 5-7 p.m.
  • or

About The Author

Daniel Walters

A lifelong Spokane native, Daniel Walters is the Inlander's senior investigative reporter. But he also reports on a wide swath of other topics, including business, education, real estate development, land use, and other stories throughout North Idaho and Spokane County.He's reported on deep flaws in the Washington...