By Erica C. Barnett
The King County Regional Homelessness Authority’s Partnership for Zero program—a heavily hyped public-private partnership aimed at ending unsheltered homelessness in downtown Seattle—is ending, PubliCola has learned. About 35 “systems advocates”—formerly homeless people KCRHA hired to do outreach and case management for people living unsheltered downtown—will be laid off. Their union, PROTEC17, was informed of the decision to end the program Monday evening, and the staff were informed this morning, KCRHA spokeswoman Anne Martens confirmed.
“We are winding down the Partnership for Zero pilot program, and we will be applying the lessons we learned to the system as a whole,” Martens said Monday. The positive lessons, she said, included the fact that the “emergency management approach and style is effective at building cooperation” and that having a centralized access point for all private housing resources is better than requiring every individuals service provider locate housing on an ad hoc basis.
The KCRHA posted an official update on the end of the program Tuesday afternoon.
Martens said the KCRHA would be posting 11 new jobs in the areas of “housing navigation and stability and housing acquisition” internally, and that system navigators will be encouraged to apply. Many of these employees are recently homeless, and some were hired only a few months ago.
“One of the challenges is when people are spread out and mobile across downtown, it’s much more difficult than focusing on one defined encampment that’s in a place.” —KCRHA spokeswoman Anne Martens
In a joint statement to PubliCola, Mayor Bruce Harrell and King County Executive Constantine called the news “a disappointing end result” to the pilot program, “for the Authority, their workers, philanthropists, and, most importantly, people living on the street unhoused downtown.” The two executives said they will be “meeting with program leaders and the financial supporters of this effort to better understand lessons learned and how best to move forward,” adding, “This experience provides further confirmation of the need for the comprehensive review we launched of the organization’s governance structure, oversight, and accountability systems.”
Although the program used one-time funding, the KCRHA had planned to fund it with Medicaid reimbursement through a program called Foundational Community Supports, including the funds in the agency’s budget for 2025. Officials as well as experts familiar with FCS were skeptical about relying on the complex federal program to fund the downtown initiative, and a report, commissioned by the KCRHA but never released, outlined the challenges KCRHA would face if it tried to tap the funding directly. Martens acknowledged that the Medicaid funding, which former CEO Marc Dones confidently predicted would pay for 85 percent of the program by next year, “has not come to pass.”
Additionally, Martens said, the agency learned that “there are challenges in having an administrative agency run direct service” instead of contracting nonprofit partners to do the work, the standard approach in King County. With Partnership for Zero, the KCRHA was essentially running a parallel service system that duplicated, and in some ways competed with, the existing system of nonprofit providers that already do similar work; REACH, for example, lost a number of skilled outreach workers to better-paying positions as systems advocates.
Another lesson, Martens said, was that focusing on a large geographic area like downtown Seattle was less effective than working to house people in specific, identifiable encampments. “One of the challenges is when people are spread out and mobile across downtown, it’s much more difficult than focusing on one defined encampment that’s in a place,” Martens said. This past summer, the KCRHA divided the Partnership for Zero area into five discrete “zones” in an effort to break down the downtown region into smaller sub-areas, but this move did not solve for the fact that people can, and do, move around.
Other challenges, Martens said, “involve coordination across systems—when you’re looking at the public health system and the behavioral health system,” for example, “we need full systems coordination, not just project by project.”
As part of Partnership for Zero, the KCRHA established a “Housing Command Center,” using technical assistance from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, to meet daily and coordinate housing for individual clients. The KCRHA referred to the HCC as an “incident command center” that would respond to downtown homelessness the same way local emergency operations centers respond to major events like protests and extreme weather. The HCC stopped meeting regularly earlier this year, but the agency will continue to deploy the approach for emergencies and “system-wide challenges” that require coordination across many different partners, Martens said.
Martens said the authority is now working to narrow its focus, under interim CEO Helen Howell, to “focus on system administration” and spending money on existing contracts more effectively—for example, by making sure providers get paid on time, an issue that came up earlier this year and still has not been completely resolved.
Launched with a high-profile press event in 2022, the program never produced the kind of results the agency and its then-director Dones promised. Under the original five-phase plan, the agency was supposed to have reduced the number of people living unsheltered downtown to “functional zero” in “as little as 12 months”; in reality, since the program launched 19 months ago, it has housed just 230 people, from a “by-name list” of people living downtown that totaled nearly 1,000. Many of those 230 are using temporary vouchers that will expire after their initial one-year lease.
The end of Partnership for Zero coincides with the pending release of three separate audits into the program—one federal, one state, and one by King County—which reportedly reveal significant dysfunction within the program and the agency as a whole. KCRHA director Helen Howell has scheduled meetings with members of the agency’s boards to discuss the audit results later this week.
We Are In, the organization that coordinated the private funding for Partnership for Zero, told PubliCola in a statement that the program “successfully moved more than 230 individuals in over 210 households living unsheltered into permanent housing, developed a comprehensive data infrastructure for identifying individuals experiencing homelessness and their unique needs, and built trusting relationships with unhoused neighbors, setting them on the path toward stable housing.”
We Are In, the statement continued, is “committed to ensuring that the learning from Partnership for Zero is applied to create sustainable systems change and to continue working with government partners to design and implement the next phase of this critical work.”
We Are In did not identify what “the next phase” would look like, nor did it identify what the group had learned, specifically, while the program was in effect.
When the project launched, its funders said it would serve as an example of what the agency could accomplish by being innovative and experimental in its approach, starting in downtown Seattle, where many of the city’s largest businesses are located.
By building a “by-name list” focused on a certain geographic area, hiring people with lived experience to do most of the work typically done by established nonprofits, and placing most people in regular, market-rate housing through incentives and agreements with private landlords, the new approach would “build infrastructure and add capacity to the system in order to deliver comprehensive services and housing or shelter for those experiencing unsheltered homelessness in target areas, helping to revitalize our communities and providing all residents an opportunity to thrive,” according to We Are In’s 2022 Partnership for Zero press release.
Alison Eisinger, the director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, said the successes Partnership for Zero managed to achieve illustrate the need for more resources to help people get and remain housed; the collective contribution from private groups and companies worked out to about $11 million. “While it was ill-conceived for the RHA … to attempt to create its own service provider team, we and others welcomed additional resources and focus to walk with people experiencing unsheltered homelessness to help them secure homes quickly,” Eisinger said. “That’s what our whole system desperately needs: more housing resources, more focused and urgent attention to get people housed.”
The fact that Partnership for Zero was an experimental pilot that did not include sustained resources, Eisinger added, “reveals weaknesses of the philanthropic model as a driver of service delivery. We need to focus on getting the significant and sustained additional public dollars that every honest analysis demonstrates is necessary. Period.”
Three of the four original co-directors of the program told PubliCola they received little guidance from the agency about how to stand up the Partnership for Zero program and were under tremendous pressure to hire people quickly and start collecting a list of names right away. “There was this big push to just hire people based on having lived experience, and not requiring any sort of formal work experience or even work history at all,” said Dawn Shepard, a former (and now current) staffer for the outreach agency REACH who was featured prominently in media reports touting the KCRHA’s approach to downtown homelessness.
“They said, ‘We’re just going to train you from the ground up,’ and we didn’t have the capacity for that. We’re trying to stand up a new program and we’re making commitments that there’s no way in hell we’re going to be able to meet.” The “philosophy” KCRHA promoted, Shepard said, “was ‘overpromise and underdeliver,’ and at REACH, “it’s the opposite. You never are supposed to be further damaging to clients by promising them stuff you can’t provide.”
PubliCola spoke with Shepard and two other former co-directors for a planned story we planned to write about the system navigators earlier this year.
According to one of those former co-directors, Elijah Wood, he was hired after just one interview, a process the agency replicated when hiring the system advocates. “We had virtually no onboarding and were told, ‘You need to have the entire workforce by May, which gave us two months to hire 36 people,” Wood said.
“The biggest red flag, from the beginning, was the amount of work that we were expected stand up with very little support,” a third former co-director, Joe Conniff, said. “We were very disenfranchised as directors.” One of the results of this “chaotic” rush, the former co-directors noted, was the new system advocates, many of them recently out of homelessness or trying to maintain their sobriety, were thrust into risky or traumatic situations, including places where people were actively using and dealing drugs, without adequate training on safety and strategies to protect their own mental health.
PubliCola was the first to report on the Partnership for Zero in February 2022, when the system advocates were known as “peer navigators” and the plan was to have each navigator follow a client “longitudinally” through the entire housing process, from living on the street to signing a lease. At the time, philanthropic donors and business leaders were enthusiastic about the idea, which would take some of the work already being done by many nonprofit agencies and hand it to KCRHA employees whose primary qualification was prior experience being homeless.
On Tuesday, the Downtown Seattle Association sent PubliCola a statement calling Partnership for Zero “the right approach that was executed in all the wrong ways. The effort lacked sound management, oversight and focus.
“If the KCRHA wants to be recognized as the leading entity on the region’s response to homelessness, it must effectively execute a strategy to reduce homelessness in downtown Seattle, the area of the region with the highest concentration of individuals experiencing homelessness,” the DSA statement continued. “It’s unacceptable for the region’s homelessness response agency and local government to have no plan for the area with the most significant homelessness crisis. If the KCRHA isn’t up to the task, the city and county should assume responsibility and immediately and stand up a plan for downtown Seattle.”
When Partnership for Zero launched in 2022, DSA director Jon Scholes said the program “takes [the response to homelessness downtown] to a different scale, and brings in the housing resources that [existing] outreach teams, for the most part, haven’t had, or have had a limited supply of.”
But those existing outreach agencies expressed skepticism about the plan from the start, noting that housing people experiencing chronic street homelessness requires more than a personal history of homelessness (which, many leaders noted, most of their employees have) but practical experience doing the complex, often grueling work of case management and housing placement, which requires navigating many byzantine systems.
Additionally, providers pointed out, the new KCRHA staff would make significantly more as government employees than nonprofit agencies are able to pay, producing a brain drain from an industry that already struggles to retain qualified staff.
The Partnership for Zero program evolved significantly over time, once it became increasingly clear that the original plan to have one person navigate a group of clients through every aspect of the homelessness and housing system was unrealistic. The program was first revamped to allow people to specialize in certain parts of the housing process—making sure people made it to court hearings, for example, or working with landlords to convince them that someone will be a responsible tenant.
According to former co-director Conniff, it was clear from the beginning that they were being asked to do too much. “We were having to wear all these hats, while simultaneously having to deal with an oppressive structure and a system that felt very biased.”
More recently, the system advocates placed more than 120 clients in hotels run by the Lived Experience Coalition, which ran out of money for the hotels back in April, forcing the state to step in and help the KCRHA move people elsewhere.
System advocates were also required, over time, to fill a number of emerging needs that weren’t directly related to its original purpose. Instead of doing outreach broadly, for instance, system advocates focused on specific encampments within the downtown “catchment” area that raised concerns and objections from nearby residents and businesses, a process that sometimes required the team to displace large groups of people they had never worked with before, Wood said. Just before Thanksgiving, for example, the Housing Command Center directed his team to “resolve” an encampment along Alaskan Way that was the source of a number of complaints, despite the fact that they had never done outreach to the site.
Wood, who went on administrative leave in late 2022 and was subsequently fired, said he was frustrated by the emphasis on resolving high-profile encampments instead of everyone experiencing homelessness downtown. “There was no strategy for people who were outside of encampments, so we were cleaning up encampments and doing nothing for the people who [were] just sleeping outside,” Wood said.
KCRHA is funded primarily by the city of Seattle and King County. In their joint statement, Executive Constantine and Mayor Harrell said they were committed to helping KCRHA succeed. “We need an effective regional approach to make sustainable, permanent progress addressing homelessness,” they said. “We believe for that approach to be successful, KCRHA must be a working part of the solution.”