By Erica C. Barnett
When the King County Regional Homelessness Authority’s founding CEO, Marc Dones, announced they were stepping down earlier this month (news PubliCola broke on Twitter from vacation), reactions among homeless service providers, advocates, and agency insiders ranged from sighs of relief to deep concern over what’s next for the beleaguered agency.
Over the past two years, since Dones was hired in March 2021, the KCRHA has struggled to find its footing through a series of pivots, funding battles with Seattle and King County, and internal and public debates over its mission.
Did Seattle and King County create a regional homelessness agency to solve homelessness as quickly as possible, or is the KCRHA merely a clearinghouse for homeless service contracts previously administered by Seattle and King County, its two primary funders? Should the KCRHA set regional policies and spending priorities and expect its member cities to fall in line, or should cities have freedom to establish their own strategies based on their own local politics and context? Is “housing first” a nonnegotiable goal, or is shelter, even basic shelter with mats on the floor, a critical part of the region’s approach to homelessness?
One thing is clear: With Dones out, there is a power vacuum at KCRHA that will be difficult to fill, in a very practical sense: Despite the usual talk of a “thorough national search,” it’s unlikely the agency will be overwhelmed with qualified applicants. Dones, readers may recall, was the second pick for the position, and ascended to the job after the KCRHA board’s first choice, Regina Cannon, turned it down in 2020. The position now comes pre-loaded with two years of baggage and more urgency than ever; a new CEO will need not just a big-picture vision for the region, but a plan to show swift progress on homelessness and get the authority back on track.
Prior to taking the CEO position, Dones was a homelessness consultant whose firm, the National Innovation Service, created the framework for the KCRHA. As the architect of the regional plan, Dones frequently fought efforts to alter it, battling with local leaders over funding priorities, questioning the expertise of longtime service providers, and expending scarce political capital on ambitious plans that didn’t always pan out—like an early proposal to make big investments in safe parking lots for the thousands of people living in their vehicles across King County.
Under Dones’ leadership, the KCRHA established a clear picture of the homelessness problem in King County, but the agency also fell behind schedule on many of its initial goals.
Dones’ supporters praised them as a visionary who emphasized the disproportionate impact of homelessness on people of color, particularly Black King County residents, foregrounded and empowered people with direct, “lived” experience of homelessness, and never shied away from telling the unvarnished truth about what it would take to truly end homelessness in the region. Critics said Dones elevated lived experience over practical expertise, engaged in unnecessary battles with potential allies like Mayor Bruce Harrell and homeless service providers, and focused on the 10,000-foot view while neglecting ground-level basics, like opening severe weather shelters and paying homeless services providers on time.
Under Dones’ leadership, the KCRHA established a clear picture of the homelessness problem in King County—tens of thousands of people are living unsheltered, in vehicles, and in emergency housing such as hotels and congregate shelters—and housing or even sheltering them all is a problem with a price tag of billions of dollars a year.
But the agency also fell behind schedule on many of its initial goals, including relatively short-term commitments like the plan, announced with great fanfare in February 2022, to end unsheltered homelessness in downtown Seattle in “as little as 12 months” through a public-private partnership with the corporate-backed nonprofit agency We Are In. Although efforts to respond to homelessness continue downtown—including escalated sweeps by the city of Seattle, combined with more thoughtful one-off projects like the Third Avenue Project—unsheltered homelessness remains a pervasive issue in the area.
The plan, known as Partnership for Zero, was for the KCRHA to use private donations to hire dozens of outreach workers with “lived experience,” who would serve as a single point of contact for people living unsheltered downtown, navigating them “longitudinally” and directly from street homelessness into permanent housing, much of it provided by private landlords motivated by a desire to help solve the homelessness crisis. The coordinating body for this partnership is a “housing command center” that meets daily to discuss clients’ individual cases, with the goal of moving them into permanent housing that works for them.
From inception, there were a number of issues with this approach, chief among them the fact that Seattle—unlike, say, New Orleans and Houston, two cities that have successfully moved people directly from the streets to housing—does not have an abundance of vacant apartments, much less housing low-income people can afford. (The Partnership for Zero plan assumes that, in many cases, people will begin paying full rent after a year or so of subsidy).
The plan also assumes that Medicaid will become the primary funding source for the partnership, an assumption many providers have called premature, given the difficulties existing agencies face securing Medicaid reimbursement even for services that are traditionally covered by the federal program.
By setting up a in-house outreach program that duplicated work the agency’s own nonprofit outreach contractors have been providing for years, the KCRHA also created an unequal system in which government employees receive substantially higher pay, and access to more housing resources, than existing outreach providers. This two-track system has understandably irked some nonprofit outreach agencies, who have protested that setting up a parallel system puts them at a disadvantage when it comes to helping clients and retaining qualified staff, who can earn far more money doing the same job for the KCRHA.
The agency’s initial five-year plan—widely, if somewhat unfairly, criticized for being a “$12 billion plan to end homelessness”—included a number of unforced errors, beyond its eye-popping price tag.
More importantly, the partnership hasn’t produced the results it promised, putting about 200 people so far on a “path” toward housing, according to the KCRHA—one reason agency leaders could sunset the program in the post-Dones era.
One criticism of the KCRHA, under Dones’ leadership, is that Dones’ big-picture proposals have sometimes been at odds with political and practical realities. For example, the agency’s initial five-year plan—widely, if somewhat unfairly, criticized for being a “$12 billion plan to end homelessness”—included a number of unforced errors, beyond its eye-popping price tag.
Under the agreement that established the KCRHA, the five-year plan was supposed to set out practical goals for the first five years of agency operations, with the goal of reducing homelessness among specific population groups. Instead, the initial version of the plan laid out what it would cost, in theory, to eliminate unsheltered homelessness in five years. (The plan does not deal directly with housing, which is the responsibility of other agencies, like the city of Seattle’s Office of Housing.) The plan proposed spending billions of dollars a year on shelter, along with thousands of new “safe parking” spaces for people living in their vehicles—an utterly impractical proposal, given the region’s inability to site even one permanent safe lot in more than a decade of efforts to do so.
The initial five-year plan also called for reducing funding for tiny house villages, singling out this shelter type (along with the region’s tiny house village provider, the Low Income Housing Institute) as undesirable despite the fact that the city of Seattle, the KCRHA’s chief funder, prefers to fund tiny houses over almost every other form of shelter. Defending the proposal to cut funding for tiny houses while investing billions in other forms of shelter and parking lots for people to live in their cars, Dones said it was “just math,” pointing to a survey the agency conducted of about 180 homeless people that was used to determine the mix of services in the plan.
The proposal antagonized other existing shelter providers, too, by asserting that almost one in four shelter beds are vacant (and, by implication, useless). And it set off alarms among suburban city leaders because it called for the complete elimination of funding for congregate shelters—the only form of shelter that exists in many cities outside Seattle.
Ultimately, the agency adopted a rewritten plan that omitted most of the prescriptive language from the initial proposal, along with language criticizing the purported failures of the existing shelter system. While the original proposal included seven goals and dozens of sub-strategies, the plan adopted by the agency’s boards earlier this month focuses on “one goal”: Reducing unsheltered homelessness and preventing homeless people from dying. More than 30 pages lighter than the original proposal, the new five-year plan meets the bare minimum requirements of the KCRHA’s charter while allowing plenty of room for future leaders to pick their own priorities.One issue that was already in question before Dones announced their departure is the role of people with lived experience of homelessness within the agency, whose theory of change is “If we create a homelessness response system that centers people who have lived experience of homelessness, then we will be able to focus on responding to needs and eliminating inequities, in order to end homelessness for all.”
Under Dones, the Washington Lived Experience Coalition—which shares a board member, Lamont Green, with We Are In—gained considerable clout at the agency, appointing members to the KCRHA’s implementation board and securing a substantial grant to operate hotel-based shelters, which the Partnership for Zero used as part of its effort to reduce visible homelessness downtown.
The KCRHA’s policy of “centering people who have lived experience” also extends to other decision-making bodies within the agency. For example, the KCRHA’s Continuum of Care board, which reviews and approves applications for federal funding and monitors the performance of contract recipients, is composed primarily of people with lived experience, rather than the subject-matter experts who have traditionally made up this board.
The question of how much the KCRHA should prioritize lived experience came to a head after a couple of recent incidents. First, as PubliCola reported, the LEC ran out of money for its hotel-based shelter program, forcing the KCRHA to come up with money and a plan to keep people in the hotels. Then, a recent CoC board meeting erupted in shouts over the proposed appointment of a sex offender, who also serves on the board of the Lived Experience Coalition, to that body.
While homelessness may be a regional problem, cities still have the prerogative to address “their” homelessness problems at the local level, and they will continue to do so, with or without a regional agency telling them what they ought to be doing instead.
Although the nominee, Raven Crowfoot (also known as Thomas Whitaker), later withdrew his application, the incident provided more fodder to local leaders and KCRHA board members who were already starting to question how much the regional authority should privilege current or past homelessness over other qualifications, and to what extent people with lived experience should serve in leadership roles at the agency. It’s still too soon to say how this will play out—as of this week, the continuum of care board still plans to adopt a revised charter saying that all its members must have direct experience of homelessness or housing insecurity—but the question has been called, and Dones’ departure could provide a spur to action by the agency’s restive implementation board.
One thing on which most observers seem to agree is that whoever the KCRHA picks as a leader—the interim director, Helen Howell, has reportedly said she will leave in six months—they will have to focus first on practical matters, like paying contractors on time and assuring federal funders that the authority is on solid footing. Homeless service providers have complained bitterly about having to dip into reserves or take out loans to cover costs this year while their contracts languish.
While it’s easy to counter that late payments have always been a problem, their specific gripes—among them, a bug-riddled new system for uploading contract details that creates far more work for agencies than previous contract software—seem eminently fixable, if the KCRHA decides to buckle down on some of the picayune details of running an administrative pass-through agency instead of focusing primarily on big-picture hypotheticals, like what it would take to end homelessness in five years.
In their resignation letter, Dones made the case that the structure of the KCRHA itself hampers progress on homelessness, arguing that “We need to revisit the structures of the boards and their capacity to partner with the CEO to effectively get work done.” The county and city adopted the agency’s structure, in which an implementation board makes decisions and a governing board made up of local officials approves them, when it adopted the interlocal agreement that set up the agency in 2019.
Whether or not the agency revisits this structure, the underlying issues with a regional authority for homelessness are baked into the very premise of the agency: With no authority to raise funds of its own, the authority will always be subject to the whims of Seattle, King County, and any additional cities that decide to channel their own homelessness funding through the authority in the future. While homelessness may be a regional problem, cities still have the prerogative to address “their” homelessness problems at the local level, and they will continue to do so, with or without a regional agency telling them what they ought to be doing instead.
This is not a failure that can be laid at Dones’ feet, or those of any future CEO; it’s a bedrock flaw of a regional authority that doesn’t (and, by its very structure, can’t) have any real authority over its own budget or the priorities of the cities within its jurisdiction. What may be necessary now isn’t a thought leader but a tough, low-profile administrator willing to acknowledge the limitations of the KCRHA and work within them: A diplomat who will focus on making the agency consistent and reliable, even when it means looking at the small picture. Whether that person exists is anyone’s guess; as one insider quipped to PubliCola shortly after Dones’ announcement, “anyone who wants this job probably shouldn’t have it.”