By Erica C. Barnett
A draft report on a short-lived hotel shelter program run by the Lived Experience Coalition—a group of advocates who have direct experience with homelessness—says the LEC was in over its head when it accepted $1 million in federal funding to run its first shelter program, which ran out of funding earlier year.
But the report, by independent consultant Courtney Noble, also concludes that other factors, including lack of transparency from the LEC’s fiscal sponsor Building Changes and a hostile relationship with the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, contributed to the program’s collapse.
“LEC did not have the capacity to run a direct service program of this scale,” while Building Changes—a small nonprofit that serves as a fiscal sponsor for other groups, including the public-private partnership We Are In— “did not have sufficient capacity to manage the exponential growth in accounting functions necessitated by the launch of the hoteling program,” the report concludes. Meanwhile, “[b]etter coordination between KCRHA and LEC was necessary and possible, but failed to occur due to personalities and expediencies.”
Marc Dones, the KCRHA’s former director, and LaMont Green, the head of the LEC, clashed over the hotel program and many other issues, and Dones went from embracing the LEC to distancing the agency from the group as the relationship between the two entities soured over the past year.
“The essential problem here was poor management of public (FEMA) funding, ultimately necessitating an investment of additional public and private resources” to save the program, the draft report says.
“An error of this margin evinces a complete abandonment of the oversight necessary of any direct service program.”—Draft report on hotel overspending
PubliCola has written extensively about the hotel shelter program, which provided temporary housing for hundreds of people during the pastd winter and early spring. The LEC ran the program using funds from FEMA’s Emergency Food and Shelter Program (EFSP), administered by the United Way of King County and funneled through Building Changes. Earlier this year, the LEC accused Building Changes of withholding critical information about their finances, and Building Changes countered by accusing the LEC of failing to keep its spending in check.
The draft report concludes that as fiscal sponsor, Building Changes (referred to as “BC” in the report) failed to provide timely information to the LEC about its finances, but the LEC should have had some inkling, based on the amount they were spending on the hotels from week to week, that their money was dwindling. “BC can be faulted for failing to provide regular financial reports,” the draft report says. “However, the hoteling program staff and LEC Leadership should have also been monitoring their expenditures in real time. An error of this margin evinces a complete abandonment of the oversight necessary of any direct service program.”
The LEC, Building Changes, and the United Way of King County declined to comment directly on the draft report. In a joint statement, the three organizations said, “We do not believe it to be productive to litigate the findings of this report nor resurface prior grievances regarding the actions or inactions that led to it. … All parties have acknowledged that there are areas for improvement and we have all taken steps toward that joint effort – both within our individual operations and among the coordinated efforts between us.”
One issue the report raises, but does not dwell on, is the question of whether the local Emergency Shelter and Food Program board, which is administered by a staffer for the United Way of King County, should have issued the million-dollar grant to the LEC in the first place. According to the report, the hotel program wasn’t actually eligible for EFSP funding, which was reserved for existing programs, not new ones. “As implemented, this was not an existing program, and should not have been eligible for this funding,” the draft report says. Complicating matters, the LEC itself holds five of 19 seats on the local board that chooses who gets funding through the EFSP program, creating “the appearance of self-dealing” even though LEC members recused themselves from the vote that resulted in the grant.
A spokesperson for the KCRHA said the draft report “captures some of the challenges of coordinating across our homeless response system, and the importance of trust in leadership and clear communication.”
In late April, the KCRHA unceremoniously took over the program, using state funding, its own money, and a contribution from We Are In to keep hotel guests in their rooms while transitioning them to other locations or, in some cases, back to the streets. This abrupt takeover created more ill will between the KCRHA and LEC, as the two organizations clashed over access to client information and other issues; ultimately, the KCRHA created (and took credit for) creating its own “by-name list” of people living in the hotels, a group the LEC already knew intimately but whose information they would not share with the homelessness authority without explicit permission from each client.
The report concludes that the homelessness authority and LEC could probably have worked out their differences, but “[p]oor communication and hostility between organization leaders” made it all but impossible for the two groups to work together.
The KCRHA has consistently claimed it knew next to nothing about the hotel program, even as the agency’s own “systems advocates”—case managers with lived experience of homelessness, including some from the LEC— were moving KCRHA clients into the hotels as part of the We Are In-funded Partnership for Zero program, which aims to eliminate homelessness in downtown Seattle.
“There are many fractured relationships, historical grievances and mistrust between parties,” the draft report says, and “[s]ome sort of mediation or reconciliation is necessary between KCRHA, BC and LEC.”
The draft report is skeptical about this claim. “While KCRHA leadership may claim they were unaware of the program, there were clearly many points of intersection between KCRHA and LEC on this work,” the report says. However, the report also that under We Are In’s funding agreement, system advocates were supposed to use available resources like the LEC hotel program before tapping into We Are In’s funding. This meant that system advocates—under pressure from KCRHA and the city of Seattle to show progress reducing visible homelessness downtown—came to rely heavily on the LEC program, ultimately moving 121 people into the hotels.
Half of We Are In’s board are members of the LEC or people appointed by the LEC. We Are In declined to comment for this story.
The LEC played a key role in the creation of the KCRHA, whose charter document cites the LEC as a co-author of the agency’s mission statement and theory of change. Over its first two years, the KCRHA deepened the entanglement between the two organizations, granting the LEC unprecedented authority to appoint members to the KCRHA’s governing and implementation boards, directly appoint the agency’s chief ombudsperson and hire some of their staff, conduct the annual “point in time count” of the region’s homeless population, and appoint members to the region’s homelessness continuum of care committee.
Although this relationship gave people who have actual experience being homeless an unprecedented voice in decision making at the authority, it also created the potential for huge problems when conflict inevitably arose between the two partners. “There are many fractured relationships, historical grievances and mistrust between parties,” the draft report says, and “[s]ome sort of mediation or reconciliation is necessary between KCRHA, BC and LEC.”
The report is still in draft form and will be amended in response to “factual” feedback from the LEC, Building Changes, and the KCRHA, before it’s finalized and released later this week.