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.
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.