By Erica C. Barnett
The new King County Regional Homelessness Authority, which administers contracts and sets policy for the region’s homelessness response system, has seen its share of hiccups in the two and a half years since the city and county voted to create the agency in December 2019. In addition to the pandemic, the agency has faced budget battles, hiring challenges, and open clashes with homeless service providers over the appropriate response to unsheltered homelessness.
A partnership with businesses that aims to eliminate all tents from downtown Seattle by providing intensive case management from people who have been homeless themselves sparked controversy, as did the authority’s request—the second in two years—for significantly more city funding than Seattle leaders said they could provide.
Recently, the agency’s CEO, Marc Dones, stood side by side with Mayor Bruce Harrell at an event celebrating the closure of an encampment at Woodland Park, which Dones distinguished from a traditional encampment sweep because most of the people living there received extensive outreach and shelter referrals. As a matter of official policy, KCRHA opposes sweeps—a position that puts the agency in constant tension with the city, which has dramatically accelerated encampment removals since Harrell became mayor.
I sat down with Dones in their bare-bones office in Pioneer Square last week to discuss some of the controversies they’ve encountered in their first year on the job, the authority’s relationship with the city, and where they believe the region is making progress on homelessness.
We started out by discussing the emergency housing vouchers provided by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development as part of its COVID relief efforts last year. HUD set up a complex, multi-layer process for delivering these vouchers to people who need them; as a result, many nonprofit service providers across the country have struggled to get the vouchers in their clients’ hands and ultimately get their clients into housing.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
PubliCola: To start us off, can you talk a little bit about where the region has made progress on homelessness in the year since you took over at the agency?
Marc Dones: I would say we have made really significant progress on engaging, for lack of a better term, non-standard providers, and I think our emergency housing voucher work is the best example of that. Our emergency housing voucher program is trending above national [rates], in terms of lease-up, by almost half. I think we’re at 60 percent, and the country’s at something like 33.
I’m using ‘provider’ really broadly here, because a lot of these folks who are linked to the EHV program were not funded by the system at all. They’re folks who do more mutual aid-style work, where they are supporting people who are experiencing homelessness, often through relational work, and case management activities. How we have been able to connect people with the vouchers as a resource, and then support them through lease-up and then into housing, has really hinged on this idea that if we went to where people have their relationships, and use that as the primary vehicle, we would see success. And I think that we are seeing success.
I [also] think of our severe weather response, because we tapped into who’s supporting people outside, and how can we get the money to better support people who are outside, instead of hyper-focusing on this idea that we have to open up 10 more severe weather shelters downtown that people probably aren’t going to use, because they don’t provide parking, or you can’t store your stuff, or it’s only overnight. [So we focused on], how do we get stuff to people that it’s going to meaningfully interrupt potential harm, like just straight-up supplies.
Some of the other stuff that I’m particularly proud of—controversial in some spaces though it is—is our ability to engage philanthropy and business and to be able to begin to migrate towards being on the same page as some of those folks who have historically been positioned as external to the narrative, and then securing their buy-in in to put a significant chunk of change into the system for single adults. Which, not for nothing, it’s always families [who get support through philanthropy]. And so being able to work with the team of folks to get that much buy-in around single adults felt like a really big deal for me.
“If timelines shift because we learn more about the people that we’re supposed to be serving, and we learn that we don’t have the thing that they need, or we learn that we will, but it’s going to be online in a month, those are the realities of doing this kind of work inside the scarcity that we operate in. And I think we should do a better job of communicating that to the public.”
PC: In implementing the public-private Partnership for Zero, how is the authority ensuring that KCRHA is not prioritizing people in one geographic area for beds in the whole system or for units in the whole system?
MD: I get this question from everybody. And I keep having to say, well, no, that kind of will happen to some degree, because we don’t have enough stuff. Full stop. And so part of what the authority is looking to do is create geographic areas of focus, where we drive a ton of good outcomes for people who need us.
Downtown was selected because it has the highest concentration of unsheltered homelessness in the county, particularly for chronically homeless folks. And my expectation is that the vast majority of the folks that we are going to be engaging with—because of how prioritization currently works in terms of having a severe and persistent disability, being eligible for permanent supportive housing, etc.—are folks who we know would rise to the top of lists if they were engaged anyway.
But I think that what we have said is, until such a time as we have enough resources to activate countywide, we are going to have to make choices about where is our specific focus, and then we’re going to have to drive real hard and then shift, and drive real hard and then shift. And I will not defend it as the best way to do this work. But I will defend it as what is possible for us inside the resource scarcity that we have.
PC: Do you think that you’re on track for “functional zero” [no permanent downtown homeless population] on the timeline you rolled out back in March?
MD: So far so good. I think we’re on track. [That said,] I do want this to feel less opaque to the general public. And I want timeline shifts to not be government failure, particularly when we’re doing complex, human-centered work. And it might take longer as we learn more about who those folks are. I think that if timelines shift because we learn more about the people that we’re supposed to be serving, and we learn that we don’t have the thing that they need, or we learn that we will, but it’s going to be online in a month, those are the realities of doing this kind of work inside the scarcity that we operate in. And I think we should do a better job of communicating that to the public so that when those shifts happen, they should have enough insight into what we do, so that their reaction isn’t ‘The government is out here playing with the timelines.’ We have to get that level of trust. And I know we don’t have it, but we have to get it.
PC: There has been a dramatic increase in encampment sweeps during the new administration. What the KCRHA’s role leading up to and during encampment removals?
MD: Our role is relatively limited. We play a role, but that role is outreach. Currently, we are in receipt of the removal calendar between 30 and 60 days in advance. And that is in part because the mayor’s office has done, I think, some good policy work to help prioritize which encampments are prioritized and why, so that it begins to skew away from what we’ve traditionally seen, if we’re just being totally, brutally honest, which is someone who’s elected or someone who is in a wealthy neighborhood is able to generate enough outcry about someone who’s experiencing homelessness.
PC: How do does the uptick in obstruction removals [encampment removals with less than 72 hours’ notice] affect the KCRHA’s ability to be trusted, and outreach workers that are contracted with your agency to be trusted?
MD: My responses are limited because we’re just not in that stuff. And where we have aligned with the mayor’s office is around what we are able to provide, in terms of engagement and support. On the obstructions, there is currently no authority role there. We have been very clear that a displacement-based strategy is not how we want to work. And recognizing that sometimes where an encampment is, for many reasons, including for the people who live there, doesn’t work. We want to work on timelines that make sense to get people inside.
PC: And did the mayor’s office ask the authority to participate in those removals or have any role?
MD: It was a conversation. And I think what I have pushed for is, give us time to engage people so that we can do right by them with what the system can currently offer. And [Deputy Mayor] Tiffany [Washington] was super open to that. And then it became, okay, on what cycle? And that’s how we’ve gotten to this 30-to-60-day, maybe even beyond, structure that gives us the capacity to engage people. So I do really want to say there was real collaborative work there.
“You can’t sunset [the HOPE Team], and nothing is in its place. And until we fully architect and deploy the thing that is more elegant, and can span the whole county, we can’t just be, like, ‘go away.'”
PC: What do you think of the fact that the HOPE Team has remained at the city as a kind of vestigial outreach team, while almost every other function of the city’s homelessness apparatus has moved over to the authority? Do they still serve a purpose?
MD: Currently, I would say yes. And I would say that part of it has to do with what we understand to be the case about when outreach teams don’t want to engage [during a sweep]. They have said very clearly that, after [removal signs are posted], our efficacy drops, and for reasons that are at this point nationally recognized as true. So I think that the [HOPE team] remains an important today feature. I don’t know if it’s going to make sense next year. I’m really trying to get it become vestigial over the next three-ish years, as we turn this around.
PC: Should the HOPE Team continue to have exclusive access to hundreds of shelter beds that aren’t available to service providers?
MD: When we talk about the set-aside beds, I don’t think that there’s actually an argument about whether or not the set-aside beds are the best way to manage bed availability. But in order to fully step away from set-asides, we need a better way to manage real-time bed availability across the whole system. And we’re working on that here—it is a hot topic around these halls. But we’re not quite there yet. And so there’s some stuff that I think we can talk about in the community as not ideal, and acknowledge that there will be a moment where we can say, ‘Okay, now we can turn that off.’
But I think it’s also really important to be really clear that you can’t sunset one thing, and nothing is in its place. And until we fully architect and deploy the thing that is more elegant, and can span the whole county, we can’t just be, like, go away, because then there’s chaos in that space, which is harmful. Again, we do still need to meet some of those functions to help people.
PC: It’s almost summer. Can you preview the authority’s plan for getting people inside during hot weather and smoke?
MD: For heat and smoke [unlike winter weather], you’ve got to come in. We’ve got to try to get you inside in some way. And so what we have been doing over the last two months is a census across the county of, where is there air conditioning? It turns out: Not a lot of places. So we’ve looked at any public or nonprofit space that we are at all connected to and have been assessing them for their heat and smoke capacity.
With heat, it’s very specifically: Do you have air conditioning? Smoke is more about, are you sealed? What kind of ventilation do you have? And are you able to close things without it becoming the hottest place on earth? And in both instances we are anticipating heavy partnership with Metro and some of the other transit agencies. Metro has become a good partner to us. The King County Library System has just a dream to work with. So suffice it to say that, I think I feel good about where we’re headed.
Even with good planning around physical locations, there will be people who will be outside. And so then the question becomes, how do we support those people? And some of our planning does go into that. We’ve got a fair amount in there about water distribution and who are we going to work with to distribute water, what agencies have that capacity etc., and then masks. So we will continue to think about the inevitable reality that there is not enough space for everybody. And so we will need to get appropriate supplies to folks who are not able to access.
“Even when it’s extremely misguided, I think people are asking for solutions, and they’re asking for real, sustainable change. And that makes me feel hopeful.”
PC: After being in Seattle, and in this position, for a year, how has your thinking changed about your role and the problem of homelessness in this region?
MD: For what it’s worth, six months into the RHA, one year into my tenure, I do have a lot of faith. I think the team that works here is exceptional. And I hesitate to say this, but my role is so strange. Because I’m not elected, but this role has got a lot of attention on it. And I get stopped on the street. People come up to me at dinner. I was at dinner for my partner’s birthday, and someone came up to me and they said, ‘I’m a Seattle resident, and I pay taxes, and I really want to support the authority. But I really want the suburban cities to pay.’ I said, ‘Sure, that’s fair.’ And they said, ‘Okay, thank you.’ And I said, ‘Have a great night.’
So that happens all the time. And what am I going to do—tell that man, ‘Listen, just so you know, they do pay, and here’s how they pay. And everybody actually spends about 1 percent of their general fund on homelessness across all 39 cities.’ Maybe next time, but not during a birthday dinner. But what I do think is remarkable is that, across all of that, even when it’s extremely misguided, I think people are asking for solutions, and they’re asking for real, sustainable change. And that makes me feel hopeful. I don’t believe that we are at the end of our capacity for empathy as a community. I don’t believe that we will succumb to the tidal shift that has Tennessee making it a felony to experience homelessness. I don’t think we’re going to be that way. I actually think we can be better.