By Erica C. Barnett
In March, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority appointed Marc Dones, a peripatetic homelessness policy consultant, to lead the agency charged with creating a unified, regional approach to homelessness. The authority was already seven months behind schedule when Dones was appointed, and their short-term task will be hiring dozens of staff and migrating hundreds of contracts with homeless service providers from Seattle’s Human Services Department to the RHA—a mundane but massive task.
In the long term, the agency is supposed to adopt a truly regional approach to homelessness, bridging the gaps that have long existed between different parts of the county—urban, suburban, wealthy, working-class, exurban, and rural. This policy framework could have profound impacts on how cities prioritize spending, their response to encampments, and whether they focus on quick “fixes” like shelter or longer-term solutions like housing subsidies (and what kind.) I
Dones, who’s lived in Ohio, New Jersey, Boston, New York, and Michigan, is new to Seattle, but not to the regional authority, whose basic outlines they shaped as a consultant to King County in 2019. Dones has said their first priority is hiring up staff for the authority and moving all of HSD’s contracts to the new agency by the end of this year—an ambitious timeline, to say the least. PubliCola sat down with Dones last week to talk about their approach to homelessness, the magnitude of the problem in King County, and whether a “regional” approach can work in a region where there’s so much disagreement about the basics, like what causes homelessness and how to fix it.
PubliCola: This region has shifted its approach to homelessness many times in the last 10 years. We got away from the idea that people need to transition slowly from unsheltered to housed, but replaced it with the equally extreme idea that almost everyone just needs a short-term subsidy to get them on their feet until they can pay for a market-rate apartment on their own. Now we’re somewhere in the middle, acknowledging that not all unhoused people have the same needs but still using the same menu of options. Do you think the region’s current understanding of the causes and cures for homelessness is correct, or are we still falling short?
Marc Dones: I think we’re getting there. There’s still a lot of discourse around substance use and behavioral health that is not statistically correct. The driver of homelessness is economic, and when you when you do population segmentation, only between 15 and 20 percent of people experiencing homelessness have severe behavioral health or substance use issues. The vast majority of folks experiencing homelessness can’t, full stop, cannot afford to get into housing. We have a segment that does have health concerns, but from my perspective, we need to be centered on the economics first and foremost, and thinking about how do we essentially create housing options for folks in the zero to 30 percent space.
“The vast majority of folks experiencing homelessness can’t, full stop, cannot afford to get into housing.”
I think that where we are now, I hope, is recognizing that it’s a menu, not just “do the one thing.” People need options, and not every person needs the same stuff. And so we need to be personalizing how we are doing our work at sort of all levels, both through program design and the regional plan. If Spotify can create these bespoke playlists based on a couple things I toss into it every couple months, then we as system administrators can also seek to get to the same level of personalization and curation. Not through algorithms, but through human-centered design and dignity-centered work.
Government actors often talk about the need for better data and by-name lists of all people experiencing homelessness and the services they’re accessing i the system. Can you give a concrete example of how better data or an improved by-name list would improve the life of an unhoused person?
When I talk about the by-name list that I want us to have, it’s not just a list of names. I want us to know who’s out there, where they are, what are their needs, and what’s our plan. So I am really thinking about a database where we are really able to say on a granular and person by person level, here’s what this person needs. And I think that that the data itself does not necessarily improve the delivery of the service. I think that what the data is really going to help us do is appropriately identify and advocate for the right amount of funding. That, for me, is where I see data improving our capacity.
I’ll also say that the ability to gather that data is not just about asking people more questions. We really are trying to take an approach that is relational in its focus. And so we’re really trying to think about how we develop and deploy a peer navigation workforce that provides supports for folks for from the lens of, “Hey, I’ve experienced homelessness.”
Peer navigation has has really been efficacious in the behavioral health space and in the recovery space, and in the violence space. We haven’t really leaned into it in in the homelessness and housing space. And I don’t know why. But I think that the Lived Experience Coalition and other folks who have experienced homelessness have indicated a hunger to be able to do that kind of work. And we haven’t really acknowledged that or provided pathways for them to do it. And so we’re really keen on listening to that request and activating it. We really want to want to step away from invasive, repetitive ways of getting that information, and situate all of it inside relational architecture and trust.
What will that look like in practice, in terms of contracting and the way that money gets spent and the way that people get hired? What kind of changes can we expect to see in the homeless service system?
The first big shift will be that, moving into 2022, the authority will be the contract issuer. The city contracts will sunset and the county contracts will be migrated to us as well. And the authority will issue 2022 contracts. From that point on, we will also be the policy lead and helping to navigate the difficulties that arise. In ‘22, we will develop a whole system rebid that we’ll put out in the summer. And then in ’23, we’ll have a whole new system, full stop, very night and day, I suspect.
Alongside that, a third piece of business that we’re developing is around what we’re calling bridge housing. We have identified that there’s a gap in the system—we have the permanency of permanent supportive housing and we have shelter, but we don’t have a lot of stuff really in between. And so from a systems perspective, what that means is that the waiting lists for a lot of that stuff can be very long—sometimes many, many years.
“Administratively what we’ve said to people is, ‘You can choose to wait in shelter, or you can choose to wait outside.’ And that’s not acceptable.”
And so what that means is that even if we never said it out loud, administratively what we’ve said to people is, “You can choose to wait in shelter, or you can choose to wait outside.” And that’s not acceptable. We need to have something that is permanent, that is housing, and that allows people to have stability and to have lives while whatever the thing that they are waiting for is coming online. We really need to have something that is in the middle.
I really want to be clear when I say it needs to be not time-limited. How long a person can be there shouldn’t be dependent on how long it will take them to get to the thing that is their thing. Or if they identify another pathway. If they get there, spend a year, and they’re like, ‘Actually, you know, I don’t think I need that supportive housing, I got this job, or I’m gonna move in with my whatever,’ they can choose to leave. There will be no “Oh, you have 24 months.”
Dow Constantine has suggested that the hotels the county is purchasing with Health Through Housing dollars will be one-stop shops for services, including connections to permanent supportive housing elsewhere, treatment, and other services that aren’t necessarily covered by the tax. Do you think this approach is enough to put a substantial dent in the problem, and have you seen it work elsewhere on the scale the county is talking about (1300 vouchers, 1600 hotel rooms, and 500 new enhanced shelter spaces all told)?
What we are looking at is not necessarily hotel/motel acquisition, but more at single- and multifamily acquisition as a strategy. But I do I agree with the fundamentals of the county position, that that does begin to get us towards scale. One of the things that that we often say on our team is that when we are talking about solutions, we have to be talking about thousands every time. We can never really be talking about hundreds, because the rough estimate is that there are about 15,000 people in the county who probably need support from our agency in some way, shape, or form. And so we really always have to be saying 2,000, 3,000, 4,000.
Can you give a bit more detail about what bridge housing would look like?
So with the bridge housing model I’m stealing from other spaces that I’ve been in and other systems that have used this for a long time—recovery housing, medical respite, adult family homes, there’s disability housing that’s similar. We do this all the time, where we say, “Here’s a house and some unrelated people who were having similar experiences can live there until they don’t need to.” It is very successful. Because you can modulate the staffing plans to respond to different levels of acuity and different needs. And you know, my goal in everything is, again, to get towards a dignity-centered approach. And so it also allows people to be integrated into communities in a much more routine way.
:When I was 19 and went to college, I could have overnight guests. So why are we telling 40-year-olds that they’re not allowed to have overnight guests? It doesn’t make sense to me.”
And my hope is also that we’re able to figure out how to do this in such a way that some of the barriers that folks have experienced with regard to entering shelter or other options can begin to be navigated, in terms of things like overnight guests. When I was 19 and went to college, I could have overnight guests. So why are we telling 40-year-olds that they’re not allowed to have overnight guests? It doesn’t make sense to me. And so we have to figure out how to build programs that treat people like people, and meet those needs. And I think we’ve demonstrated that we can do that safely in a number of other spaces. And so we need to be learning those lessons and then applying them in the homelessness space.
Regionally, there seems to be an emphasis on chronic homelessness and on assisting people who meet the technical definition of chronically homeless—disabled and unhoused for a year or more. That’s obviously an important group to prioritize, but what can end up happening is that there’s a class of people who are just never going to get housed, like younger people who can survive better outside and people who do have some disability or serious addiction but have been unsheltered for less than a year. Do you think the current focus on chronic homelessness is the right approach?
That is the tough resource question, right? And that, to me, is part of the reason why, from a data perspective, we have to know better so that we can say, look at all these people we aren’t helping. That can’t continue to be true. Where I want to put our attention, in the near term, is on unsheltered folks broadly. I don’t think people should have to live outside. It’s not okay. And so I think we need to do a tremendous amount of work quickly, to ramp up capacity to give people options for coming inside that are appropriate, that are in line with how they want to live.
Long term, I think that we need to do a better job of looking at acuity in terms of people’s needs. Because acuity often correlates with mortality. This is this is actual life or death stuff. And so that is where we’re going to continue to focus, is to cut down on death and suffering and to ramp up the menu of options that that that gets us there.
During a recent meeting of the authority’s governing board, you mentioned that the agency just “discovered” a new subregion in East King County that the agency will have to plan for as part of its overall regional approach. As you know, there are a lot of differences of opinion about how a regional response to homelessness should work and whether areas outside Seattle should have to adopt the same policies as Seattle. What does “subregional planning” mean to you?
To me, that’s an anthropology question. So I could actually talk about this for a long time. Because I think that there’s the subregional variation that is both literally geographic or geospatial, and then there’s also the subregional variation that is about ourselves as a community. And I think both are really important. And so, from my perspective, I think that addition of another subregion for us was the recognition that Snoqualmie Valley, by virtue of being very rural, by virtue of having a very different service readout, and by virtue of seeing themselves as distinct from the Eastside as it is understood—that is what triggered for us the internal acknowledgement that yeah, okay, that makes sense.
So ultimately, the region will head in a direction. But how each subregion does that is going to activate I think, different kinds of strategies and approaches. Rural homelessness is really different than urban homelessness. And if we tried to drive strategies for more urban homelessness issues, they just would fail. And that’s what that’s what we’ve seen nationally, and certainly at state levels, before.