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.
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.
Cato 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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
"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.
"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."
"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."