Editor’s Note: As part of its privately funded Partnership for Zero effort to end visible homelessness in downtown Seattle, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority hired several dozen “systems advocates” with personal experience of homelessness to help to hundreds of people living unsheltered downtown navigate the byzantine homelessness system and access resources and housing. The initial idea was simple: The systems advocates would get to know people living downtown and work to overcome their barriers to housing, rapidly connecting them to either permanent supportive housing or subsidized, private-market apartments and helping them sustain that housing.
The homelessness authority revamped the program several times over its first year, changing the systems’ advocates roles and creating geographic “zones” within downtown in an attempt to address smaller, more manageable areas one at a time. But the authority never came up with a sustainable long-term funding source for the program, assuming—despite warnings from existing service providers and outside experts—that it would be able to rely on a novel use of an existing Medicaid program to pay for ongoing operations.
Last month, the KCRHA shut down the program, laying off dozens of systems advocates, including many who were recently homeless. Some had moved to Seattle from other cities or given up their housing vouchers to take jobs at the agency, and are now facing the possibility of becoming homeless again. This piece is by a group of system advocates who reached out to PubliCola to tell their story.
As former Systems Advocates for the recently shuttered Partnership for Zero program, we have been deeply disappointed in and betrayed by the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, as have all of you.
While much has been made of us being hired because of our lived experience of homelessness, the majority of us also had years of direct homeless service and community-building experience and were considered some of the best in our field, which is why we were chosen for this team. We were tasked with building a trauma-informed, holistic approach to deal with one symptom of the systematic economic and social abandonment of Seattle’s poor and working class. All of us signed on to spend five years of our lives building this approach. We left stable jobs and some of us traveled across the country to participate.
From day one, however, our team was undermined by a constant barrage of consultants and bureaucrats, most of whom had spent years failing up the ladder within the Homeless Industrial Complex. Our program was stalled for months at a time by indecisive management more concerned with pleasing politicians than fulfilling our mission.
We were also forced to waste three weeks trying to resolve an “encampment” at Occidental Park, where no people actually camped, because the mayor wanted to put in an ice skating rink; another four months navigating clients who mostly came from outside downtown Seattle from hotels into housing; and the last two months resolving another non-encampment at a dog park in Belltown so the hip restaurants across the street could sell overpriced biscuits and $8 tacos without having to gaze upon the results of decades of bad public policy. These were our assignments, instead of working in the four actual encampments we had repeatedly identified as good candidates for a housing-first approach.
Some of us would not have pursued this job, as this layoff has put several of us in a position to be homeless again ourselves. This action by management has resurfaced feelings of instability in our own lives, and most certainly in the lives of our clients
In addition, it is shameful that the equitable wages that we received for our skilled and challenging work have been cited as part of the reason for the closure of this program. Our original mandate was to do housing navigation and stabilization, which is normally the work of two separate full-time positions; later, the KCRHA expanded our jobs to include outreach as well, even though the authority is already paying longstanding and skilled organizations to perform that work.
At the end of the day, King County and the city of Seattle got a steal, off our backs. We cannot expect to break the cycle of homelessness by supporting anything less than an equitable wage for the people who do this work. That brings us to KCRHA’s labor practices. We were hired as full-time, permanent employees. Our program was never described as a “pilot” in our hiring paperwork, job descriptions, or any of the founding documents. The first time we heard the word “pilot,” or any official word about the precariousness of Partnership for Zero funding, was when KCRHA management decided to discontinue our team.
Some of us would not have pursued this job, as this layoff has put several of us in a position to be homeless again ourselves. This action by management has resurfaced feelings of instability in our own lives, and most certainly in the lives of our clients. KCRHA has also stalled union negotiations for the entirety of our team’s existence and is now pleading poverty in a transparent attempt to avoid paying out our sick and vacation hours, while simultaneously hiring nearly a dozen new administrative and management staff in the last two months.
The first System Advocates were not hired until June 29, 2022, and the program was not at functional capacity until late October of last year. In the short time we were allowed to work toward our mission, we were able to permanently house hundreds of people. We count this as a great success. Compared to downtowns in other major cities, our work has been some of the best in the country. If even 40 percent of the people we were able to put in rapid rehousing are allowed to economically and socially stabilize, taxpayers will save more than the cost of the program in carceral and medical costs alone, as well as reaping the benefits of a healthier society.
We could’ve done much more if our program was given the chance. But the KCRHA is clearly not living by its founding ideas of creating a homeless response system that centers the needs and voices of the unhoused. Instead, the agency seems intent on becoming yet another bureaucratic barrier to getting people housed. We expected more, and the staff, our unhoused neighbors, and the people of King County deserve better.