As Longtime Encampment at Bitter Lake Closes, Allegations Against Nonprofit Founder Raise Questions About Oversight

Anything Helps’ Mike Mathias and deputy Seattle Schools superintendent Rob Gannon take questions at Broadview-Thomson K-8 school earlier this year.

By the end of this week, dozens of tents that have dotted the hillside behind Broadview Thomson K-8 School will be gone, and the former campground, which borders the south side of Bitter Lake in North Seattle, abandoned except for the security guards who will ensure that no more unsheltered people move in. Many of the residents have moved into the Low Income Housing Institute’s new Friendship Heights tiny house village nearby, where 22 tiny houses are reserved for Bitter Lake residents. Another 18 have moved into the new Mary Pilgrim Inn, run by the Downtown Emergency Service Center, nearby.

In a letter to parents at the end of November, school principal Tipton Blish wrote, “With active support from the City of Seattle, the people who have been living at the camp now have an opportunity to move out of the elements and onto a path to break the cycle of homelessness.”

It’s a positive outcome for dozens of people who have spent more than a year waiting for services and support that never came.

But the past year at the Bitter Lake encampment, which culminated in disturbing allegations against the nonprofit director the school district tapped to relocate encampment residents, highlights ongoing policy questions about the homelessness crisis in Seattle, including the role that local government and nonprofits play in deciding which encampments get resources, and which get ignored.

It also raises a number of questions for the school district, the city, and the King County Regional Homelessness Authority. Why did Seattle Public Schools place so much responsibility in the hands of an untested, brand-new nonprofit run primarily by a single volunteer? Should the district have done more to monitor what was going on at the encampment, including the power dynamics between the nonprofit and encampment residents? Why did the city take so long to step in and help encampment residents? And how did 14 housing vouchers end up in the hands of an unvetted nonprofit with no track record—or staff?

 

People began setting up tents at Bitter Lake shortly after the pandemic began, attracted by both the bucolic lakeshore location and the site’s proximity to a restroom in the city park next door. Walking to the site from the Bitter Lake soccer field, you might not realize you’ve crossed an invisible border from city property to school property; even the public boat ramp is technically on school district grounds, contributing to the sense that the lakeshore is part of the park itself.

But while the public may not have found the distinction meaningful, the city did, and when the school district asked for help picking up trash and providing services to the several dozen people living at the encampment earlier this year, Mayor Jenny Durkan said it was not the city’s problem, suggesting that perhaps the school district might want to use its “reserves” to set up its own human services department to provide outreach, case management, and housing to encampment residents.

In response to the allegations, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, which is in charge of distributing 1,314 emergency housing vouchers to organizations throughout the county, has “frozen” the 14 vouchers it had allocated to Anything Helps.

Casting around for allies, the school district settled on a new, but highly engaged, nonprofit called Anything Helps, led by a formerly homeless outreach worker named Mike Mathias. Within weeks, the school district had charged Mathias with the herculean task of finding shelter or housing for everyone on site. His plan, which involved enrolling every encampment resident in the state Housing and Essential Needs program, proved more challenging than either Mathias or the school district expected and ultimately didn’t pan out.

Instead, after many months of inaction, the city finally stepped in earlier this month, connecting encampment residents with shelter and housing through a very conventional avenue: The HOPE Team, a group of city employees that offers shelter and services to encampments that the city is about to sweep, started showing up and providing referrals to two new tiny house villages and a hotel-based housing project that recently opened nearby. Outreach workers from other nonprofits, who had mostly stayed away from Bitter Lake to prioritize people living in worse conditions elsewhere, showed up as well, and in the end, almost everyone on site moved into temporary shelter or housing.

Outreach workers, volunteers, and one school board member who spoke to PubliCola on background said they were relieved that encampment residents were finally able to leave, noting that the situation at the encampment had been deteriorating for some time.

Last week, volunteers for Anything Helps sent a letter to community members, the school district, and other homeless service providers making a number of disturbing allegations about Mathias. Among other charges, the letter alleges that Mathias used some of the money Anything Helps received from the school district and individual donors to pay for drugs; that he threatened and used federal Emergency Housing Vouchers as leverage over several women at the camp; and that he engaged in “verbal aggression, threats, and retaliation toward staff,” including accusing one volunteer of stealing money.

Because Mathias said he had seven full-time case managers on staff, Anything Helps probably received a score more than twice as high as it would have if Mathias had said, accurately, that the group had no paid case managers.

Mathias told PubliCola that “a lot of these allegations are false,” except for one that he declined to identify until he could talk to an attorney. He also said he would “step away from the project completely” and had appointed an interim executive director, former Lake City Partners Ending Homelessness outreach specialist Curtis Polteno, as his replacement. PubliCola was unable to reach Polteno to confirm his new role.

In response to the allegations, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, which is in charge of distributing 1,314 emergency housing vouchers to organizations throughout the county, has “frozen” the 14 vouchers it had allocated to Anything Helps, according to agency spokeswoman Anne Martens. “These are very serious allegations that need to be investigated,” Martens said. Mathias had not officially assigned any of the vouchers to specific encampment residents yet when KCRHA froze the vouchers.

The city’s Human Services Department, which runs the HOPE team, did not respond to PubliCola’s questions about the allegations.

The survey Mathias submitted as part of Anything Helps’ voucher application, which suggested the fledgling organization had a case management staff similar in size to longstanding service providers such as the YWCA, the Somali Family Safety Task Force, and Africatown, did not apparently raise eyebrows at the homelessness authority.

For months, Mathias and a handful of volunteers have been out at the encampment daily, setting up a makeshift “headquarters” that has consisted of a portable awning, some card tables, a few laptops, and a printer. None of the volunteers, who Mathias referred to as “volunteer staff,” received a salary, including Mathias. Nonetheless, on his application for vouchers, Mathias wrote that Anything Helps had seven “FTE case managers,” or the equivalent of seven paid full-time case managers, on staff.

For context, the vast majority of agencies that requested federal housing vouchers through the regional authority reported having just one or two case managers on staff. Out of 80 agencies that submitted applications for vouchers, according to a spreadsheet provided by the homelessness authority, only 17 reported having seven or more case managers on staff, which would make Anything Helps one of the larger organizations in the county by this significant measure.

The presence of full-time case managers is important in this context for two reasons. First, case managers are necessary to help voucher recipients find a place to live and to help voucher recipients maintain their housing over time (in the case of emergency housing vouchers, for at least one year). Second, the more case managers an organization has, the higher their score on an algorithm the KCRHA used to determine which nonprofit agencies received federal emergency housing vouchers, and how many. Out of 80 agencies that submitted applications for vouchers, according to a spreadsheet provided by the homelessness authority, only 17 have seven or more case managers on staff, which would make Anything Helps one of the larger organizations in the county by this significant measure.

Because Mathias said he had seven full-time case managers on staff, Anything Helps probably received a score more than twice as high as it would have if Mathias had said, accurately, that the group had no case managers—and likely would have received fewer vouchers, or none at all. (The total score Anything Helps received is not reflected on a spreadsheet of voucher recipients provided by KCRHA; PubliCola calculated the group’s probable score by entering Mathias’ responses to KCRHA’s survey questions into the algorithm KCRHA used to allocate vouchers.) Mathias said he did not know that volunteers didn’t count as full-time equivalents and had hoped to use some of the money from the school district and individual donors to hire at least one case manager.

“None of us are paid, so I didn’t mean actual [paid staff], Mathias said. “There wasn’t a ‘zero’ option, so I figured at that time we had five solid volunteers.” Mathias said he was hoping to use some of the money Anything Helps had on hand to “try to hire somebody at minimum wage. … We were very concerned about the one year of case management” requirement, he said.

It’s unclear how much money remains in Anything Helps’ bank account.  According to deputy school superintendent Rob Gannon, Mathias received a total of about $20,000 from the district, in the form of two direct payments to the organization. Gannon said he had read the email containing the allegations against Mathias, and that the district was “in the process of evaluating” them. However, he added, “I have no reason to believe, outside those allegations, that the funds from Seattle Public Schools have been used inappropriately. Anything Helps is a registered nonprofit organization and they’re subject to their accounting practices.”

Mathias said he spent some of the money on “positive incentives” like short-term motel stays. “We do have receipts for a lot of it, but a lot of the money was just being given out,” Mathias said. He specifically denied the allegation that he used donor money to purchase drugs. 

The school district has not yet begun an internal review of its actions to respond to the encampment over the last year; Gannon says that will happen at some point after the site  is cleared and secured. In the meantime, he says he’s just relieved to have a resolution.

He says he doesn’t blame the city for declining to take action for so long. “Yes, we can speculate about ‘had the city entered into this earlier, would we have resolved this earlier,’ but they were also dealing with multiple homeless encampments and issues,” Gannon said. “The game changer was really when they came in as a fully active partner. … Had we not repaired the relationship with the mayor’s office and the city, I don’t know that we would be where we are.”

2 thoughts on “As Longtime Encampment at Bitter Lake Closes, Allegations Against Nonprofit Founder Raise Questions About Oversight”

  1. So there’s less than 1400 housing vouchers on the table and over 80 non-profits trying to get them? That’s around 17 housing vouchers per non-profit. Maybe that’s the real story…. how much money and effort is pumped into the homeless problem without adding more housing.

  2. Appreciate the research and post mortem on the schools districts involvement here. I always hated how the Board President tweeted her way into homeless policy in this one. Note she did not back down from her “no sweeps” position and yet the district has hired guards to be sure it never happens again, how disingenuous. C’mon, own a mistake.

    Hope you report on any additional reviews/findings of the district about this.

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