Category: human services

Union Says Homelessness Agency Has Failed to Negotiate Over Wages, Workplace Safety

By Erica C. Barnett

Unionized staff at the King County Regional Homelessness Authority say the homelessness authority has failed to come to the bargaining table to negotiate their first contract, canceling five out of eight scheduled bargaining sessions and refusing to discuss proposals for increased wages amid a “toxic work environment” that has driven at least 17 people to leave the agency, which recently surpassed 100 employees, since 2021.

According to a letter to the KCRHA’s governing and implementation board members from the Professional and Technical Employees Local 17 (PROTEC17), the workers—who unionized almost exactly a year ago—provided a draft contract to the agency earlier this year, but the union’s “calls for support and offers to negotiate at the bargaining table have largely gone unmet.” In March, the union filed an Unfair Labor Practice with the state Public Employee Relations Commission for refusal to bargain; four of the five cancellations occurred after that filing.

Although we are heartened by KCRHA’s response to our proposals at the June 15th bargaining session, this negotiation lacked any response or timeline for addressing our economic proposals, the letter to the agency’s governing and implementation boards says.

The union sent a similar letter to interim director Helen Howell this morning.

According to a source familiar with the negotiations, the KCRHA did not want to discuss cost of living adjustments, wage classifications, or other economic issues, and suggested that the agency has little control over what it can pay employees because its funding comes from outside sources—chiefly the city of Seattle and King County.

If not addressed soon, this could develop into an additional failure to negotiate. This lack of interaction with our union not only undermines the rights and well-being of the staff but also erodes trust within the organization,” the letter continues. 

Earlier this year, the KCRHA reportedly gave staffers a 3 percent cost of living adjustment, without notifying the union or negotiating the increase, which is below the rate of inflation.

The KCRHA has not responded to a list of questions PubliCola sent on Wednesday morning, including a request for confirmation of the 3 percent COLA. We will update this post if they respond.

It is disheartening to witness the immense potential of the KCRHA that brought staff to the organization being squandered due to ineffective leadership.”

The union also raised questions about the safety of the KCRHA’s system advocates—outreach workers with lived experience of homelessness—who go into encampments and other potentially dangerous situations to identify and follow up with clients in downtown Seattle. The system advocates were the brainchild of former agency CEO Marc Dones, and are funded through a public-private partnership with local companies and private philanthropic groups.

According to the letter, KCRHA leadership “targeted and retaliated against” one of the co-directors of the systems advocates, “for raising still unresolved safety concerns for our Systems Advocate workforce.” Earlier this year, after that co-director was terminated, organizers posted an online petition demanding safer working conditions for system advocates, including safety equipment and information about hazards that may be present at encampments.  

As we’ve reported, the KCRHA has had trouble hiring for a number of vacant positions, including grants and contract staffers who verify contracts and make sure hundreds of agencies who receive funding through the KCRHA get paid.

Projects and initiatives are delayed across the organization, including Partnership for Zero and contracting (which have been directly impacted by employee turnover),” the letter to the two boards says. “It is disheartening to witness the immense potential of the KCRHA that brought staff to the organization being squandered due to ineffective leadership.”

Homelessness Authority Attempts to Wrest Control Over Controversial, Consequential Oversight Board

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.

Human Services Professionals Help All of Us. It’s Time to Pay Them What They’re Worth.

Comparison of wages across industries, showing 37% wage gap for nonprofit and human services workers and 30 percent wage gap for human services workers
Image via UW Wage Equity Study

By Michelle McDaniel, Janice Deguchi, Jen Muzia, and Amarinthia Torres

If your children have attended child care or after-school programs, if you’ve accessed a food bank, or if you are a renter (or a landlord) who received rental assistance during COVID, your life has been touched by a human services professional. Human services professionals support Seattle’s human infrastructure. They work in child care, emergency shelters, food banks, family centers, home visiting programs, senior centers, and youth development programs. And their pay is so low that, too often, they can’t afford to stay in these jobs.

Sustaining our human services infrastructure requires compensating human service workers equitably, in alignment with the difficulty and responsibility of the work they do. City officials and nonprofit leaders agree that wages for human service workers do not reflect the education required, difficulty, or value of their work. These are workers who hold college and advanced degrees, speak multiple languages, and often share the lived experience of the people they serve. It is shameful that human services professionals are often paid so little that they qualify for the support programs they administer.

How far behind are human services wages? A 2022 City of Seattle-funded study conducted by the University of Washington School of Social Work found that King County human service workers are paid at least 37 percent less than workers with comparable skill sets in other industries. The report provides irrefutable evidence that human service workers—who are disproportionately women and people of color—are significantly underpaid for the essential work they perform.

The primary near-term recommendation in the report is an immediate seven percent increase to all city of Seattle-funded human service contracts, which represents the minimum level of investment needed in the short term to address high rates of turnover and align human service worker pay with the rest of the labor market

Low wages result in high turnover and vacancy rates, which are preventing human service nonprofits from being able to fulfill their mission. From early learning classrooms unable to open to delayed affordable housing projects, low wages are preventing human services providers from hiring the staff to implement critical community services.

By funding the study on wage equity across industries, the city of Seattle has already taken a meaningful first step toward addressing the crisis in human service worker pay. The report provides a number of evidence-based recommendations that the city can implement now to begin closing the gap.

The primary near-term recommendation in the report is an immediate seven percent increase to all city of Seattle-funded human service contracts, which would enable nonprofit service providers to increase their employees’ pay across the board. This represents the minimum level of investment needed in the short term to address high rates of turnover and align human service worker pay with the rest of the labor market. This increase needs to be funded in addition to inflation adjustments already guaranteed under city law.

Seattle City Councilmember Lisa Herbold has introduced a resolution that would put the council on a path to adopting this set of recommendations in the coming years. We urge supportive community members to send a message to their council members supporting this legislation at this link.

Over the next few years, the city of Seattle has an opportunity to build on these investments and support the substantial wage increases recommended by this report. We call on City leaders to work in concert with other public and private funders to identify revenue necessary to pay the full cost of providing essential, life-saving human services to all Seattle residents.

Michelle McDaniel is CEO of Crisis Connections and Co-Chair of the Raising Wages for Changing Lives campaign.

Janice Deguchi, is Executive Director of Neigohborhood House and Co-Chair of the Raising Wages for Changing Lives campaign.

Jen Muzia is Executive Director of the Ballard Food Bank and Co-Chair of the Seattle Human Services Coalition.

Amarinthia Torres is Co-Director of the Coalition Ending Gender Based Violence and Co-Chair of the Seattle Human Services Coalition.

Homelessness Authority Distances Itself from Lived Experience Coalition, Won’t Re-Bid Entire System This Year as Planned

1. The King County Regional Homelessness Authority appears to be distancing itself from the Lived Experience Coalition—a statewide group of advocates who have direct experience with homelessness—in the wake of former CEO Marc Dones’ resignation, which became effective last week.

Last week, some members of the KCRHA’s implementation board raised questions about a new charter for the agency’s ombuds office—a semi-autonomous office that responds to questions and complaints from people who receive homelessness services, service providers, and KCRHA staff—that ices out the LEC, which previously played a key role in running the office and selecting its staff.

The agency’s chief ombudsperson, Katara Jordan, told the board that the KCRHA had terminated its year-old memorandum of agreement with the LEC’s fiscal sponsor, Building Changes (which functioned as a pass-through agency for the LEC’s money.) That agreement established a “joint ombuds office” for the agency, with half its staff employed by the LEC and half by the homelessness authority. The agreement gave the LEC the power to directly appoint the KCRHA’s chief ombudsperson and choose two of that person’s four paid staffers.

“For various reasons, the structure did not work,” Jordan said.

Under former KCRHA CEO Marc Dones, the LEC became the primary voice for people experiencing homelessness in the region, with the authority to appoint members to the KCRHA’s governing and implementation boards, co-develop the agency’s mission and founding documents, issue politically charged statements on the KCRHA’s website, and receive government contracts to run hotel-based shelters.

In recent months, however, the KCRHA and Dones began distancing themselves from the LEC, a situation that came to a head this spring when the LEC ran out of money to pay for the shelters it was operating around King County. The crisis led to a frenzy of finger-pointing and badly damaged the relationship between the KCRHA and the LEC.

The LEC remains an official partner in the public-private Partnership for Zero, which is behind schedule on its plan to eliminate unsheltered homelessness in downtown Seattle.

“The KCRHA ombuds is not beholden to what a particular organization demands, or wants, and may not always be in complete alignment with a particular organization, especially if it is not in the best interest of the public good, or people we serve experiencing homelessness.” —KCRHA Chief Ombudsperson Katara Jordan

During last week’s meeting, several board members questioned the agency’s decision to formally break ties with the group. “Why are we pushing the LEC out?” board member Ben Maritz asked. Jordan responded that while the voice of people with lived experience of homelessness is important, the LEC is not the only group in the region that represents that perspective.

“There needs to be boundaries and an understanding that the KCRHA ombuds is not beholden to what a particular organization demands, or wants, and may not always be in complete alignment with a particular organization, especially if it is not in the best interest of the public good, or people we serve experiencing homelessness,” Jordan said.

Recently, the KCRHA advertised for two vacant ombudsperson positions. Compared to the old job description for this role, the new posting eliminates multiple references to the Lived Experience Coalition and include more specific job qualifications related to past work experience, rather than life experience and unusual qualifications like “comfortable with ambiguity.”

2. In an email to human-service providers earlier this month, interim KCRHA director Helen Howell said the agency no longer plans to re-procure all of the contracts that make up the region’s nonprofit homelessness system this year, and now plans to start that process—a huge undertaking—in 2024.

As director, Dones frequently emphasized the need to swiftly revamp the entire homelessness system using new metrics and goals. However, after the agency fell months behind on paying its existing contractors for the second year, human-service providers demanded that the KCRHA focus on basics like getting checks out the door before recreating the entire system from scratch.

“Based on feedback we received from contracted providers and other stakeholders, KCRHA has decided to postpone the majority of the System Re-Procurement process until 2024,” Howell wrote. “We want to ensure that KCRHA has the organizational capacity necessary to achieve a successful equity-based re-procurement of homelessness services contracts.”

In a presentation on the decision to hold off on redesigning the system, the KCRHA noted that it has had trouble finding people to fill its finance and contracting positions because “staff in these fields are in incredibly high demand,” making it “difficult to recruit qualified staff for these positions.” According to the presentation, the KCRHA has four vacant grants and finance positions.

At the risk of rehashing ancient (well, two-year-old) history: When the KCRHA was first taking over grants and contracts work from the city of Seattle’s Human Services Department, the union that represented the people doing these jobs sought a succession agreement that would have given them the right to keep doing their existing jobs—managing the exact same grants and contracts— at the KCRHA. However, Dones objected to this idea, saying they wanted to hire an entirely new team, and that anyone at the city who wanted to keep doing their current work would need to apply for open positions.

With the Departure of Founding CEO Dones, What Comes Next for the Region’s Homelessness Agency?

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. Continue reading “With the Departure of Founding CEO Dones, What Comes Next for the Region’s Homelessness Agency?”

Homeless Service Providers, Many Unpaid Since Last Year, Demand Reforms

The Low-Income Housing Institute, which runs tiny house villages around the region, is one of more than a dozen agencies to sign the letter asking for reforms to KCRHA’s contracting process.

By Erica C. Barnett

More than a dozen homeless service providers have written a letter to the King County Regional Homelessness Authority’s implementation board, as well as agency CEO Marc Dones, asking for action after the agency has failed, for a second year, to sign contracts and pay agencies on time.

The letter, which is signed by the leaders of Solid Ground, YouthCare, the Multiservice Center, and other housing and shelter providers, says the KCRHA needs to undertake “major reforms and changes in procedure … to ensure that our critical human services infrastructure doesn’t break under pressure, and that service agencies can be adequately supported to make progress on our shared goals of ending homelessness in our community.”

Providers also showed up at the KCRHA’s implementation board meeting Wednesday to make it clear that their concerns have not been addressed.

In response to the letter, KCRHA spokeswoman Anne Martens said, “we appreciate the thoughtful recommendations from providers and are reviewing how to best integrate their feedback.”

The KCRHA oversees more than 300 contracts totaling more than $110 million. As of May 9, the authority had signed just over 150 of those contracts and paid invoices worth a total of around $15 million, according to Martens. The Seattle Times wrote last week about the contract delays.

In internal emails, the KCRHA has attributed the contract delays, in part, to providers requesting changes to their new, non-negotiable “boilerplate” contracts, as well as a complex new software system called Fluxx that has “bugs”—for example, it doesn’t notify providers when it’s their turn to look at a document they’re working on with KCRHA staff, and deletes users’ work if they have to go back and make a change. Martens said providers can set up notifications through Fluxx, but said the KCRHA is “actively working on stabilizing Fluxx to improve provider experience, and will also be evaluating other potential systems.”

The providers are asking the implementation board to delay plans to rebid and re-procure all homeless service provider contracts, planned for 2024, for at least a year “so that the KCRHA can demonstrate that it can manage its existing workload and normalize invoice and payment practices and timelines.”

The new form contracts reportedly include a reduction in the amount the KCRHA will pay for agency operations, or overhead (from 15 to 10 percent of the overall contract budget) and changes to contract requirements that could impact agencies’ ability to secure funding from other sources to do work that is partly funded by the KCRHA. Update: After publication, Martens contacted us to say this information, which came from a homeless service provider, was incorrect and that the new contracts do not limit indirect costs to 10 percent.

PubliCola has asked KCRHA for a copy of its new boilerplate contract language.

For more than four months, service providers big and small have been using up their reserves, even going into debt, to keep programs going; the Low-Income Housing Institute, for example, has “floated” more than $3 million, while YouthCare, a smaller agency, used up most of its existing $1 million line of credit to pay staffers and keep programs going. The Downtown Emergency Service Center and Compass Housing, which decided last year it would no longer contract with KCRHA to provide emergency shelter during freezing weather, also experienced payment delays.

“Operating reserves exist for emergencies, like responding to the Covid-19 pandemic; they are not there to cushion what should be a straightforward administrative function from KCRHA,” the letter says. “For some small organizations it could result in layoffs, or worse, put them out of business.”

Late payments to service providers are not strictly a KCRHA phenomenon. Before the KCRHA took over the region’s homelessness system, service providers that contracted with the city’s Human Services Department often operated without contracts for months as well; in May 2021, for example, outreach providers that had already gone unpaid for months declined to sign contracts that included new requirements that were incompatible with their organizational missions.

In their letter, the providers ask the implementation board to delay plans to rebid and re-procure all homeless service provider contracts, planned for 2024, for at least a year “so that the KCRHA can demonstrate that it can manage its existing workload and normalize invoice and payment practices and timelines.” In April, the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness called the KCRHA’s timeline for re-procuring its contracts plan “high risk, and said it “should only be initiated once core functions for contracting are solidly in place at KCRHA.”

The letter also requests immediate actions to make sure that providers will get paid in future years, regardless of whether KCRHA has finalized their contracts. For example, they write, “KCRHA should automatically extend all contracts through the first quarter of each year,” replacing these first-quarter contracts with the final contract once it’s signed. In addition, they write, the authority should pay 75 percent of invoices up front, instead of waiting until they’ve gone through a detailed review that one provider said can amount to a type of audit.

For delays that require providers to take on debt to stay in operation, the letter continues, the “KCRHA should compensate providers for these financial losses that are tied to administrative delays.”

In the long run, the providers say, the KCRHA should take on the responsibility for proactively contacting providers to let them know about delays, update the implementation board regularly about contract execution and delays, allow providers to consolidate contracts that are similar or duplicative, such as contracts for the same type of shelter in different locations, and include cost of living pay increases in all contracts,

State Legislature Funds Social Services, Will Revisit Drug Policy After Failing to Act

Photo by Joe Mabel, CC BY-SA 4.0

By Andrew Engelson

With Democrats unable to pass a new drug possession law required by the Blake state supreme court ruling before the 2022 session ended, Gov. Jay Inslee, who revcently announced he won’t run for a fourth term, called a special session of the legislature, which will begin on May 16 and could last up to 30 days. In a statement, Inslee said he was “optimistic about reaching an agreement that can pass both chamber[s]. Cities and counties are eager to see a statewide policy that balances accountability and treatment, and I believe we can produce a bipartisan bill that does just that.”

Inslee’s emphasis on “bipartisan” seems to indicate he’lll be pushing for the more punitive version of the bill, which would make drug possession a gross misdemeanor, punishable by up to 364 days in jail. That bill failed to pass after 11 House Democrats voted against it and no Republicans voted for it. The House version set the penalty for possession at a simple misdemeanor, punishable by up to 90 days in jail, and offered more options for diversion to services or treatment instead of jail.

The state’s long-neglected Aged, Blind, and Disabled (ABD) cash grant program got multiple boosts, including passage of HB 1260, which ends the pay-back requirement for an assistance program that benefits some of the state’s poorest residents.

On his website, Sen. Mark Mullet (D-5, Issaquah), who favors a more punitive approach of the bill that includes coercive treatment, said he hoped legislators could resolve their differences in a one-day special session. 

However, for the bill to pass the House without progressive support, some Republicans will need to get on board. In a letter to Inslee last week, House Republicans said any new bill would need to make possession a gross misdemeanor, allow local governments to outlaw drug paraphernalia such as needles and smoking supplies, and require advance public notice whenever a new opioid treatment facility opened.

If progressive Democrats are going to pass a less punitive version of the bill without those Republican votes, they can only afford to lose four centrist Democrats.  

In the meantime, the legislature passed its two-year budget, with $9 billion in capital funding, a $13.5 billion transportation plan, and a $69.3 billion operating budget. Behavioral health services got a substantial boost of $603 million to $1.2 billion, and $140 million in opioid settlement funds will pay for services for people with substance use disorders. 

In the operating budget, the state’s long-neglected Aged, Blind, and Disabled (ABD) cash grant program got multiple boosts, including passage of HB 1260, which ends the pay-back requirement for an assistance program that benefits some of the state’s poorest residents. The budget boosts funding for the ABD program by 8 percent, and includes $50 million to eliminate the requirement that people who received ABD while waiting to qualify for federal disability benefits pay the state back for the benefits they received.

The operating budget also includes a $26.5 million boost for the Housing and Essential Needs (HEN) rental and basic-needs assistance program and a $45 million increase intended to improve wages for human services workers. House Bill 1474, introduced by Rep. Jamila Taylor, (D-30, Federal Way) creates a fund to provide assistance to first-time homebuyers adversely affected by a history of racist covenants and redlining. The $150 million fund will be financed by a $100 increase in the document recording fee, which is added to real estate transactions and which currently also funds much of the state’s operating budget for grants to nonprofits that run low-income housing, homeless services, and emergency shelters.

The state’s capital budget included $520 million for affordable housing, including $400 million for the Housing Trust Fund (a substantial increase over the $175 million allocated to the fund in the 2021-22 budget), $40 million to purchase land for affordable housing, and $14.5 million specifically for shelter and housing for youth.

The biennial budget, as well as HB 1260 and HB 1474, are still awaiting the governor’s signature.

After Ambiguous Election, Council Will Decide Whether to Expand Human Services Levy

Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus

By Erica C. Barnett

The nine-member King County Council is expected to vote this afternoon to place the Veterans, Seniors, and Human Services Levy renewal on the August ballot, although the size of the levy was still up for debate going into Tuesday’s meeting.

The two options on the table are a flat renewal at 10 cents per $1,000 of property value—the plan King County Executive Dow Constantine sent the council for approval back in February. A levy renewal at that level would raise about $565 million over six years, but—due to inflation and increased construction costs—would produce only about half as much housing as the expiring levy and require 45 percent cut to housing-related services. The other option on the table is to increase the levy to 12 cents per $1,000, which would raise about $678 million over the same period. The higher levy would cost the owner of a median ($838,000) home about $17 more per year.

The levy pays for housing, domestic violence prevention, senior centers, and supportive services for low-income and homeless veterans, seniors, and other King County residents. Over the last six years, it has raised around $350 million. Placing a levy on the ballot requires a six-vote supermajority, which means that in order to pass a higher, 12-cent tax, at least six of the county council’s seven Democrats will need to be on board.

In a special meeting last Friday, the county’s 12-member Regional Policy Committee, which makes recommendations to the county council, failed to reach agreement on the appropriate size for the levy, with five members voting for the lower rate and four holding out for the 12-cent option. (Because county council members on the RPC get two votes each, a 5-4 vote in favor of the smaller levy option resulted in a 6-6 vote).

Originally, the RPC was supposed to make a recommendation at its regularly scheduled meeting last Monday. Instead of voting then, the RPC decided to hold off on a recommendation until after Tuesday’s election on another countywide property tax levy—the King County Crisis Centers Levy, which will build five mental health crisis centers across the county, restore some residential mental health care beds, and increase behavioral health workers’ pay.

“Sadly, there is a bond measure for the Kent School District that failed by almost the same percentage, if not more, than [the crisis centers levy passed by] I think that is a pretty good indicator that there are individuals in our communities that have tax fatigue and are not looking for adding any new taxes.”—Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus

That levy is currently passing with nearly 57 percent of the vote. However, both County Councilmember Claudia Balducci, who represents Bellevue, and Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus noted last week that the levy was failing in parts of rural and suburban King County—suggesting a lack of appetite for higher property taxes outside Seattle.

“Sadly, there is a bond measure for the Kent School District that failed by almost the same percentage, if not more, than [the crisis centers levy passed by],” Backus said. “I think that is a pretty good indicator that there are individuals in our communities that have tax fatigue and are not looking for adding any new taxes.”

“I have to say that I hear very clearly the message that Mayor Backus is sending,” Balducci said. “We need to look at what our voters are telling us.”

Last week, around the same time that the RPC was meeting, King County Executive Dow Constantine posted a “community survey” asking voters to pick which services to cut in light of a $100 million projected 2025-2026 shortfall Constantine said was “due to the state’s arbitrary one percent limit on property tax collection.” Constantine’s announcement noted pointedly that services for domestic violence and sexual assault survivors, gun violence prevention, programs for BIPOC youth, and public health clinics were all among the options on the chopping block.

In the legislative session that just concluded, lawmakers proposed, but did not pass, a bill that would have raised the cap to 3 percent. The bill never got a hearing. A fiscal analysis by legislative staff found that it would increase local tax revenues statewide by about $480 million during the 2025-2026 biennium. According to an analysis of the legislation by Constantine’s staff, however, a 3 percent cap would have increased property taxes for the median King County homeowner by $7.96 a year, an amount that would not make up for the $100 million biennial shortfall Constantine blamed on the legislature.

Alison Eisinger, the executive director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, said it was absurd for Constantine to blame the legislature for the county’s budget shortfall, especially when he chose to leave money on the table by proposing a flat renewal of the levy.

“Are people supposed to think that government can actually be part of the solution if, on the one hand, government is saying we have a $100 million shortfall and we’re going to have to cut critical services, and on the other hand, they’re debating something that would cost the average homeowner pennies?” Eisinger said. “This is about elected officials not having the courage of their convictions and taking the necessary votes to let the public decide whether or not we are going to house veterans and seniors and support our communities.”

The services identified in the county’s survey are funded with the general fund, not the veterans’ levy, and the county can’t legally use levy dollars to supplant items that would ordinarily be paid for by the general fund; Eisinger’s comments were about the contrast between Constantine’s complaint about the county’s taxing authority and his support for the smallest version of the levy under consideration.

The last time the veterans, seniors, and human services levy was on the ballot, in November 2017, it passed with 69 percent of the vote.

Will Voter Approval of Crisis Centers Spur a More Ambitious Vets and Human Services Levy?

Revenue breakdown for a levy at 10 cents per $1,000; via King County

By Erica C. Barnett

The King County Regional Policy Committee—a group of regional leaders that makes policy recommendations to the King County Council—voted narrowly on Monday to put off a decision about the size of the Veterans, Seniors, and Human Services Levy proposal, which will be on the ballot in August, until after Tuesday’s vote on a countywide behavioral health-care levy.

The crisis centers levy, which is currently winning by a 10-point margin, will create five new behavioral health crisis centers and fund new residential mental health care beds. A wide margin of victory for the crisis centers levy could provide a gauge of voters’ appetite for new taxes to fund human services; the last time the veterans’ levy was renewed, in 2017, it passed with 69 percent of the vote. The levy pays for housing, domestic violence prevention, senior centers, and supportive services for low-income and homeless veterans, seniors, and other King County residents.

The debate for the RPC and the county council itself comes down to how large the levy should be. Some committee members representing the suburban Sound Cities Association, including Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus, supported renewing the levy at the current rate of 10 cents per $1,000 of property value, which Backus called a “true renewal,” rather than raising it to 12 cents, as the county council’s budget committee recommended last week.

Others, including King County Councilmember Claudia Balducci, who represents Bellevue, said a higher rate would help offset inflation, which has eroded the impact of the levy. “A straight rollover—even though, because of the way property tax calculations work, it would generate more dollars—… would not keep pace with the needs, and in fact we would be falling behind,” Balducci said.

Last week, after what Balducci called a “robust discussion,” the county council’s budget committee recommended boosting the initial levy in light of analysis showing that thanks to inflation, a flat renewal at the 10-cent level will significantly reduce the amount of housing the levy will build, and force outright cuts to housing operations and rental assistance.

Renewing the levy at the original, 10-cent initial level would cost the owner of a median (in 2024), $838,000 home just under $84 a year—an increase of about $17 a year from the current levy, whose rate has declined over time as property values have skyrocketed. (By law, the amount of funding the levy produces can only increase by 3.5 percent a year, so property value growth higher than that rate results in a reduction to the “effective rate” of the tax, which is currently just over 8 percent.) At that rate, the levy will raise about $564 million over six years.

A 12-cent rate, for comparison, would cost the same homeowner about $100 a year and raise around $678 million a year.

In previous levy discussions, opponents of a larger levy have suggested the higher levy could overburden homeowners who are struggling to make ends meet. In an RPC meeting earlier this month, Backus said, “I fear tax fatigue, and I want to make sure that both of these levies pass. I would love to see them go higher. But I just don’t think right now is the time when so many people are struggling.”

The RPC will hold a special meeting on Friday afternoon to vote on the levy, and the county council is scheduled to vote on a final ballot measure at its meeting Monday.

In Last-Minute Bailout, State Provides $6 Million to Pay for Hotel Shelters That Ran Out of Money Last Month

By Erica C. Barnett

In the final days of the state legislative session, Seattle lawmakers quietly bailed out a hotel-based homeless shelter program that ran out of money in early April, using $6 million in “underspend” from a program that addresses encampments in state-owned rights-of-way to keep the hotels open while the King County Homelessness Authority tries to find places for hotel residents to go.

The KCRHA has until the end of June to spend the money, which can only be used to “maintain the operations of, and transition people out of, as appropriate, a hotel housing more than 100 people experiencing homelessness that is at imminent risk of closure due to a lack of funding,” according to language state Rep. Nicole Macri (D-43, Seattle) and Sen. Joe Nguyen (D-34, Seattle) inserted into this year’s supplemental budget.

“Generally speaking, a request of that amount coming this late would not have had the sympathy that it did. At that point, I was like, ‘I don’t want 300-plus families to be unsheltered.'”

—State Sen. Joe Nguyen[/perfectpullquote]

“[KCRHA CEO] Marc Dones reached out, saying they had discovered this crisis several weeks [earlier], saying they had been trying to figure out how to transition people” out of the hotels, Macri said. At the time, the KCRHA estimated there were more than 300 people living in rooms at six hotels, a number that has since dwindled. “They said this is an urgent need—it’s an immediate need right now.”

“Generally speaking, a request of that amount coming this late would not have had the sympathy that it did,” Nguyen said. “At that point… I was like, ‘I don’t want 300-plus families to be unsheltered.'”

Because it was so late in the session, Macri said, it wasn’t possible to just move the underspent dollars from one year’s budget to the next. A change like that would require legislation to reallocate the funds, which are earmarked for the highway encampment program. Instead, the state Department of Commerce provided supplemental budget language that allowed the KCRHA to use the leftover money, which would otherwise have gone back to the state’s general fund, to pay for the hotels.

As PubliCola reported exclusively earlier this month, the Lived Experience Coalition received a total of $1.3 million in federal grants through the United Way of King County, but the money ran out earlier this year, forcing a scramble to save the program.

The LEC, formed in 2018, is a group of people who have direct experience with homelessness or systems that homeless people frequently encounter, such as the mental health care system. Until last year, they had never been in charge of a shelter or housing program. The LEC has blamed the hotel crisis on its fiscal sponsor, a nonprofit called Building Changes, which denies responsibility for financial errors.

We Are In, the funder for Partnership for Zero, stepped up to pay for the hotels through the first week of April. (According to a spokesman, the two We Are In board members who are affiliated with the LEC recused themselves from the vote.) The KCRHA is planning an investigation into what happened with the hotels, which will be paid for by the Campion Advocacy Fund, one of We Are In’s funders. Later this month, the authority reportedly plans to discuss the hotels during a joint meeting of the agency’s governing and implementation boards.

Meanwhile, Dones has said the regional authority only recently became aware of the hotel funding crisis and had nothing to do with the LEC’s contract to run the hotels. However, the KCRHA’s own downtown outreach workers, known as systems advocates, placed dozens of people in the hotels this year as part of the Partnership for Zero, a public-private partnership aimed at ending unsheltered homelessness downtown.

It’s unclear why the KCRHA asked for so much spending authority. “I really left it to the executive branch to vet it and to determine, ‘is this a reasonable thing to do?'” State Rep. Nicole Macri said. “I didn’t get a clear accounting.”

At its peak, the hotel shelter program was spending more than $1 million a month to pay for about 250 hotel rooms, including rooms in two last-chance hotels for people who had been kicked out of other locations due to behavioral issues. If the KCRHA uses up the entire $6 million between April and the end of June, it will have spent $2 million a month.

It’s unclear why the KCRHA asked for so much spending authority. “I really left it to the executive branch to vet it and to determine, ‘is this a reasonable thing to do?'” Macri said. “I didn’t get a clear accounting. … It seems like a lot.” A Commerce Department staffer did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.

When PubliCola inquired about the hotels this week, a KCRHA spokeswoman said “our team is continuing to match people to resources” and that it would be a day or two before they could provide details about plans to wind down the hotels and how much it will cost. “We’re still finalizing some of the locations and ensuring that everyone is taken care of,” the spokeswoman said Tuesday.

In a joint statement sent to PubliCola after this story was published, the offices of Gov. Jay Inslee, King County Executive Dow Constantine, and Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell said, “This hotel voucher program was launched and operated independently from any city, regional, or state effort. When our teams were alerted to the situation, we worked with partners in the public and private sectors to identify potential solutions and coordinate with the King County Regional Homelessness Authority (KCRHA).”

“Without continued funding, hundreds of individuals that include families with children and seniors with significant health issues would likely return to living outside. Because of the vulnerability of this population, the Legislature approved the governor’s request for $6 million to further support this transition effort.”

Sharon Lee, the director of the Low-Income Housing Institute, said the KCRHA asked LIHI for access to some of its tiny houses, including units that are ordinarily reserved for referrals from the city’s HOPE Team, which offers shelter to people living in encampments. Many of those living at the hotels will need shelter that can accommodate special needs, including women and families fleeing domestic violence and well as people with debilitating mental and physical health issues.

In addition to her work as a legislator, Macri works as a deputy director at the Downtown Emergency Service Center, which provides shelter, health care, and housing. She said Dones initially asked for six months to move people out of the hotels, but that she suggested a quicker time frame “because of the high cost.” However, she noted that it can be challenging to find shelter and other resources for people with high needs, especially in a city with so few available shelter beds.

In 2021, DESC had to relocate 130 people from an emergency COVID shelter at Seattle Center to other locations when that shelter shut down. “Of course, DESC does operate other shelters, so we were able to slowly refer people to beds at DESC and other providers,” but even that took three months, Macri said. To make it work, “we had to redeploy staff [and] stop taking referrals”—a tradeoff that meant people living unsheltered were unable to access those shelter beds.

The right-of-way cleanup program, originally proposed by Gov. Jay Inslee to reduce the number of encampments on property owned by the Washington State Department of Transportation, funds JustCARE, a program headed up by the Public Defender Association that shifted its focus last year to provide case management and shelter exclusively for people living on state-owned rights-of-way. According to the Department of Commerce, the program was fully or partly responsible for sheltering or housing more than 300 people in King County. The The reallocation,  reduces the KCRHA’s 2022-2023 budget for right-of-way work from $45 million to $39 million.