By Erica C. Barnett
On Friday, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority will convene an unusual meeting to determine the future of a previously obscure body, the Continuum of Care Board, that made headlines earlier this year when its co-chair, Shanéé Colston, shouted down another board member who objected to the appointment of a registered sex offender to the board. That board member, who also described her own traumatic experience with the nominee, left the meeting after Colston and another board member told her she had no right to object.
The meeting includes a vote on a new charter for the organization as a whole, followed by a vote for new board members, including a replacement for Colston, who has not completed her three-year term.
In a statement on Wednesday, interim KCRHA CEO Helen Howell—said she hoped that “with new leadership in place, the CoC Board can refocus its energies on the upcoming application for over $50 million in federal funding to reduce and prevent homelessness across King County.”
The KCHRA’s leaders, Howell continued, “encourage the voting membership to consider the importance of electing a Board that will lead with empathy, build consensus, and focus first and foremost on our shared goal of bringing more people inside.” The statement was co-signed by the three chairs of the KCRHA’s governing board, Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell, King County Executive Dow Constantine, and Renton City Councilmember representative Ed Prince.
For the past few weeks, the KCRHA has been encouraging people and organizations with a stake in the region’s homelessness system to sign up as members of the stakeholder group that oversees the region’s Continuum of Care (CoC), the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s term for an agency, like the KCRHA, that oversees and coordinates homelessness services in an area.
On Friday, this stakeholder group—now, thanks in part to the KCRHA’s recruitment efforts, about 150 strong—is scheduled to vote on a new charter for the Continuum of Care as a whole, as well as new members of the CoC board. The new charter, if it’s adopted, will empower the entire CoC membership, rather than the board itself, to determine who sits on the board—a significant change that would make board members uniquely accountable to a large group of unelected stakeholders.
After the charter vote, the CoC is scheduled to vote on 13 candidates for board seats, including five current members and eight new nominees. Colston is not running for reelection to the board. KCRHA spokesman Anne Martens said members of the board itself, including two co-chairs, requested the change. “This process is a best practice to keep the board accountable to the community,” Martens said.
The KCRHA—whose first director, Marc Dones, recently resigned—is in a period of retrenchment. Under Dones, the KCRHA committed to empower people with direct experience of homelessness as key decision makers at the authority—sometimes at the expense of more conventional qualifications, like work experience and technical expertise. Now, after a chaotic first two years, the agency is starting to walk some of those commitments back.
The Continuum of Care board has a complex mix of responsibilities: It reviews and approves the KCRHA’s applications for federal funding, oversees performance metrics for homeless service providers, and creates a prioritization tool to judge funding applications, among other duties.
After PubliCola broke the story, right-wing media grabbed it and took it in a predictable direction, demonizing Colston—a volunteer board member with extensive personal experience of homelessness—as an out-of-control “official” for the KCRHA and demanding her resignation.
However, the board is probably now best known for the meeting in which Colston shouted down another board member who objected to the appointment of a man who has been convicted of multiple sex offenses involving teenage girls and who, according to the board member, had also touched her inappropriately. After the incident, KCRHA chief program officer Peter Lynn asked Colston to resign, saying her actions had created a “hostile environment for KCRHA staff and committee members.” The board has not held a public meeting since May.
Although the nominee, Raven Crowfoot (also known as Thomas Whitaker), later withdrew his application, the fallout from the incident was immense. After PubliCola broke the story, right-wing media grabbed it and took it in a predictable direction, demonizing Colston—a volunteer board member with extensive personal experience of homelessness—as an out-of-control “official” at the KCRHA and demanding her resignation. Colston, who did not respond to a request for comment, did not step down. But she is not running for reelection to the board, which means that if the vote goes forward on Friday, she will be replaced before the end of her term.
According Martens, new CoC board members (and current members who choose to attend) “will receive an in-depth onboarding,” including “training on the Open Public Meetings Act, CoC roles and responsibilities, trauma-informed practices, LGBTQIA2S+ equity, professional development for people with lived experience, and board roles and responsibilities among other items.”
The proposed new charter also removes all references to the Lived Experience Coalition, an advocacy group that was empowered, under Dones, to directly appoint members to the agency’s implementation board and weigh in on agency policies and priorities. The new charter even deletes a reference to the LEC’s role in creating the agency’s theory of change, instead crediting the community and the National Innovation Service, the firm where Dones developed the framework for the KCRHA as a consultant.
As we reported last week, the KCRHA recently terminated an agreement that gave the LEC the authority to staff the KCRHA’s ombudsperson office, and has been systematically removing references to the organization from job descriptions, the KCRHA’s Five-Year Plan, and other agency documents. The KCRHA has been distancing itself from the LEC for a while, but a major breaking point came when the LEC and its fiscal agent, Building Changes, ran out of money to operate several hotel-based shelters it was operating with federal funds earlier this year.
It’s unclear who, specifically, drafted the new version of the charter, which is dated “June 2023.” Martens said it was developed “with input from current Board members and KCRHA staff, with guidance from HUD [Technical Assistance] and KCRHA counsel.” An earlier, much different version of the charter, which had been on the KCRHA’s website since at least the beginning of May, was posted ” in error before counsel had a chance to review,” according to Martens.
The KCRHA’s “Meet the Continuum of Care Board” web page no longer displays the names of the board (available here); instead, it reads, “CoC Board Members are being voted on at the June 23rd, 2023 CoC Member Convening. Results of the vote will be posted here June 26th, 2023.” A list of candidates is available on the KCRHA’s website.