Plan to Eliminate Visible Homelessness Downtown is “Clearly Behind Schedule,” but Backers Remain Optimistic

By Erica C. Barnett

Last week marked the one-year anniversary of the Partnership for Zero, a $10 million public-private partnership aimed at ending visible unsheltered homelessness in downtown Seattle. During the official announcement on February 17, 2022, King County Regional Homelessness Authority CEO Marc Dones said they considered it “feasible” to reduce the number of people living unsheltered in the downtown core to “30-ish people” within a year. “Straightforwardly based on the data, yes,” it is doable, Dones said, “and then secondly, straightforwardly based on what we have to do to help people—yes.”

Since that announcement, the partnership between the KCRHA and We Are In, the umbrella group for the KCRHA’s philanthropic donors, has hit a number of milestones—including a “by-name list” of almost 1,000 people living downtown and the establishment of a “housing command center” to coordinate housing placements—but has not come close to the goal of housing or sheltering a large majority of people living unsheltered downtown. According to an announcement from We Are In and the KCRHA last week, the downtown effort has housed 56 people so far in a combination of permanent supportive, rent-restricted, and private-market housing—about 5 percent of the people the agency’s outreach workers have identified downtown.

As of last week, according to KCRHA spokeswoman Anne Martens, another 96 people were in “interim options”—mostly hotel rooms paid for by vouchers distributed by the Lived Experience Coalition—waiting for housing placements. Hundreds more have either filled out questionnaires about their housing needs, gotten new IDs, or are “moving through the housing process at three prioritized sites (specific encampments or geographic areas),” according to last week’s announcement.”

Jon Scholes, the director of the Downtown Seattle Association, told PubliCola that Partnership for Zero is “clearly behind schedule, and I think they clearly need to pick up the pace.”

The KCRHA is under intense pressure to resolve several encampments in and around the Chinatown/International District, which is in the Partnership for Zero area, as well as another longstanding encampment in North Seattle that neighborhood residents have called a threat to public safety. During a recent meeting of the KCRHA’s governing board, agency CEO Marc Dones said the agency is working to “activate pathways inside” for people living in those encampments, “inclusive of the existing shelter resources, emergency housing, and permanent housing as available.” Mostly, these pathways appear to involve hotel vouchers, not housing.

Jon Scholes, the director of the Downtown Seattle Association, told PubliCola that Partnership for Zero is “clearly behind schedule, and I think they clearly need to pick up the pace.” Most of the people the KCRHA’s outreach workers, known as systems advocates, have identified downtown have been homeless for years and have significant behavioral health conditions, Scholes added. “This is a population that can be challenging to get into housing quickly, and then once you get them there, to keep them there,” he said.

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Still, Scholes said, he’s hopeful that “as they are able to free some resources up from the work in some of these encampments, they’re able to continue to move into the central neighborhoods of downtown.” Kylie Rolf, the DSA’s vice president for advocacy and economic development, added that “in the amount of time that the Unified Command Center has been operational and the system advocates have been on the ground, I think they have made remarkable progress.”

Martens said the agency learned several “key lessons and improvements” for the program in the first year. The first: “Setting up the infrastructure takes time.” Training the system advocates, setting up the housing command center, and creating a new outreach system has taken longer than expected, as has “gathering the documentation to obtain a photo ID” for people who have been living outside for years and, in many cases, don’t have an official address or other documents that could prove they are who they say they are.

The agency has retooled the concept of system advocates so that they no longer will stay with a single client through every stage of the shelter and housing process. Instead, “we’re increasing the efficiency of the Systems Advocates team by shifting advocates into specialized teams, instead of every advocate managing every step of the process,” according to a spokesperson.

Additionally, Martens said, the agency has retooled the concept of system advocates so that they no longer will stay with a single client through every stage of the shelter and housing process. Instead, she said, “we’re increasing the efficiency of the Systems Advocates team by shifting advocates into specialized teams, so instead of every advocate managing every step of the process, we now have teams of advocates focused on Outreach & Engagement, Housing Navigation, and Housing Stability.”

This appears to be a shift from the original concept of system advocates, who were supposed to be a single, “longitudinal” point of contact through every stage of the housing process, from identifying a person and getting them on a “by-name list” to connecting them to housing to ensuring that they have the resources they need to stay housed. We’ve reached out to the KCRHA for clarification about the currentrole of the system advocates.

Scholes said one complicating factor downtown is that many of the people causing a feeling of “disorder” downtown are fentanyl users who aren’t actually homeless. “They may be housed and they may have a fentanyl addiction, and that’s why they’re on the sidewalk. And we sort of shorthand it as homelessness… [but] they’re going to need a different set of interventions” than what the homelessness authority can provide.

Last week’s anniversary announcement included news that the Partnership for Zero has received another $1 million in funding, bringing the total to around $11 million. Although the KCRHA previously said it would use Medicaid funding to pay for the system navigators after last year (prompting skepticism from some Seattle councilmembers) the authority is paying for the outreach workers through its general budget, which is funded by the city of Seattle and King County.

10 thoughts on “Plan to Eliminate Visible Homelessness Downtown is “Clearly Behind Schedule,” but Backers Remain Optimistic”

  1. 2020-2021: City of Seattle, Seattle Human Services Department, CATHOLIC COMMUNITY SERVICES OF WESTERN WASHINGTON and Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) : COVID Homeless Hotel Project
    Permanently Housed: 59 People
    Sheltered: 213 People
    Budget: $15 Million+

    2021-2021 (7 Months) Seattle Public Schools, Anything Helps, Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) and DESC (Downtown Emergency Service Center) : Supportive Outreach at Bitter Lake
    Permanently Housed: 58 People
    Sheltered: 69 People
    Budget: $60k+

    2022- 2023 King County Regional Homelessness Authority, We Are In, Building Changes (LEC) : Partnership for Zero
    Permanently Housed: 56 People
    Sheltered: 96, (40+ of which are hotel rooms through Building Changes LEC)
    Budget: $16M+

    Oh, and our by name list spans across King County and has almost 3000 names and more information than the KCRHA collects for each person.

    1. The math on KCRHA:16 million divided by 150 people housed? It’s about $106,666 per person. We could just pay the rent for a market rate studio apartment for $16,800 per person per year and house about 950 people. There is a good chance if the people being housed were addicts they would do considerable damage, as has happened with hotels now closed down due to meth contamination. But even those costs might be less than the KCRHA “plan” (whatever that plan actually is) which is in track to be a complete failure.

      1. Thank you! It’s amazing to me that no one in government will even come near discussing these figures. Of course, that might lead to loss of funding for cronies like Sharon Lee/LIHI, and others. I am astounded that more taxpayers like you & me aren’t insisting on an explanation for why government isn’t making these connections and spending our money this way. We are spending astonishing dollars that do nothing but enrich the so-called non-profits. It’s ridiculous. Thanks for calling it out!

    2. Wow! Under 500 people served for all that money, and for those who were “sheltered” we don’t know how long they were sheltered or where or whether they are still off the street, and those are the majority of the numbers cited. Pathetic!

  2. This Partnership for Zero, along with the DSA, are part of the problem, not the solution. The hard truth is we need visible unsheltered homelessness in downtown Seattle for decades to come. Because the alternative is what we have seen for thirty years now. Out of sight, out of mind. Sweeping the homeless under the rug like this simply leads to their deaths.

    What we have now is the chickens coming home to roost. Nothing will change until we stop spending millions on the old and busted ways of doing things.

    1. The only “old and busted” way of doing things is NOT building low-income housing. Until we do so, with state and federal funds, as we did before Reagan came into office, people will be on the street. Your desire for them to be there is cruel.

      1. “Your desire for them to be there is cruel.”

        Agree 100%. What is that person going on about? Accelerationism?

      2. It is my desire for the homeless that exist to remain in the public eye. I am all for a “shelter first, shelter always” system, and have no desire for anyone to suffer needlessly.

        At the rate we are going, even if the KCRHA gets its budget and it is all spent wisely it will still take decades under current rates before we could ever house everybody. It is that reality of which I speak.

    2. 100% Agree with you A Joy. The fact of the matter is visible homelessness creates the political pressure needed to fund the right outcomes, like the ones sallykinney is describing. Sweeping it away by providing shelter is not only the least humane thing to do in the long run, but shelters are incredibly expensive, and contribute to our inability to fund permanent housing subsidies at market rate, which we could do otherwise. Not doing anything is unacceptable, though. That’s why Anything Helps addresses encampments by providing them with services on-site, the same services a shelter would provide: Food, Showers, Internet, Printer/Fax/Phone, Address, Case Management and Housing Navigation. And we do this by training volunteers in the community. We’ve accomplished almost identical results that the KCRHA has with 0.4% of the budget in a bit more than half the time.

  3. So, pretty much a fail in terms of doing what they said they would do. Who’s surprised with a clown like Dones making bank and sharing it with cronies old & new? Meanwhile we taxpayers are in $11 million or so (not counting all the many millions that came before that also have garnered no results) and we still have almost nothing to show for it. Another surprise? Hardly. We could have built housing for that money and the amount of time already spent with pretty much nothing to show for it. Instead we have no accountability and no success–and this is just downtown. Because the city apparently is not concerned about the filth and depravity being visited on the neighborhoods. Disgusting!

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