Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan announced Friday a new temporary human services leader to replace outgoing interim director Jason Johnson, while the city looks for a candidate to fill the permanent position overseeing the city’s homelessness response.

Helen Howell, most recently the senior director of policy, research and social impact initiatives at the King County Housing Authority, will take on the role. Howell ran the influential homelessness nonprofit Building Changes for more than three years and served as Pierce County’s Department of Human Services director between 2010 and 2015.

Johnson announced his resignation in February after nearly two years of leading the department on a temporary basis. He intended to depart in June, but stayed on to help manage the city’s response to COVID-19.

“I’m grateful that he chose to stay and support our city during the most challenging time in our history,” said a statement from Durkan. “His quick and decisive actions kept our most marginalized communities safe throughout the pandemic.”

The Seattle Times’ Project Homeless is funded by BECU, The Bernier McCaw Foundation, Campion Foundation, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, Raikes Foundation, Schultz Family Foundation, Seattle Foundation, Starbucks and the University of Washington. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over Project Homeless content.

Durkan had nominated Johnson as her permanent pick, but withdrew the nomination last year following protest from some City Council members, human services providers and some city employees over his leadership and a call for a more robust search.


In the time that he’s led the Human Services Department, Johnson has overseen a department budget that has grown by more than a third and the city’s shift to a still-forming new regional homelessness authority with King County.

“Jason and his team have done incredible work to ensure our neighbors furthest from equity have access to critical resources,” Durkan said in a statement.

Howell will start in January 2021, Durkan’s office said. Incoming deputy mayor Tiffany Washington will lead the recruitment process for the permanent director position.