Tag: King County Regional Homelessness Authority

Reports: Homelessness Authority Must Improve Accounting, Monitoring, and Transparency

By Erica C. Barnett

Two recent reviews of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority’s financial and other internal policies—a monitoring report by the King County Department of Community and Human Services and a financial audit by the State Auditor’s Office—found that the agency made a number of financial errors in its first year of operations. Among other errors, the KCRHA overstated its revenues, failed to inform grant recipients of the federal requirements attached to funding, and spent grant dollars in ways that were inconsistent with their intended purpose.

“The Authority did not have effective internal controls in place to ensure accurate and reliable financial reporting,” the state audit found.

State auditors also discovered that the KCRHA failed to list many of the federal requirements when awarding grants to 11 homeless service providers, which could put those providers at risk of being out of compliance with federal rules and potentially “spending the funds for unallowable purposes.”

Additionally, accounting errors led the agency to end last year with a negative balance—or overspend—of $17 million. Bill Reichert, the agency’s interim chief financial officer, told PubliCola the agency didn’t bill its funders, which are Seattle and King County, on time for some expenses, resulting in a temporary negative balance—something the county’s monitoring report noted as well, saying the KCRHA had failed to meet the county’s deadlines to submit invoices, which led to late payments.

“This was a startup. There was a lot of learning going on, and standing up processes, and things didn’t get reconciled as soon as they should have,” Reichert said. “It’s not likely to occur again, because we’ve taken a number of steps to shore up training in our systems and processes.”

KCRHA interim CEO Helen Howell said the agency “is committed to a full assessment of KCRHA, and these audits and reviews are an important step to help us improve. We are clarifying what needs to change to get this agency fully on track.”

In a separate, emailed statement, Reichert said the authority “is working hard to ensure we understand the current state of the agency’s financial operations, identifying any gaps in oversight, process and practice so we can implement a set of targeted solutions.”

The county report also highlighted the KCRHA’s consistent late payments to homeless service providers, who reported having to “float” their budgets for 2022 by depleting reserves, a challenge for smaller organizations without significant cushions to fall back on when the homelessness authority failed to pay them on time.

“KCRHA was not able to execute contracts in a timely manner,” the report noted. The agency had only signed about half of its 2023 contracts by the end of April, the monitors found, “which place[d the] burden on contracting agencies to shoulder the financial burden of operations without incoming revenue.”

In a statement to PubliCola, KCRHA interim CEO Helen Howell said the agency “is committed to a full assessment of KCRHA, and these audits and reviews are an important step to help us improve. … We are clarifying what needs to change to get this agency fully on track.” The agency, Howell continued, is “making progress, and we will continue to push ourselves to be better.” Howell became interim CEO after former CEO Marc Dones resigned in May; the agency is currently looking for a permanent CEO.

As we reported when the agency was first staffing up, many experienced grants and contracts specialists at Seattle’s Homeless Strategy and Investment division sought agreements with the KCRHA to transfer their existing jobs to the new agency, but Dones wanted to hire their own team, and told HSI staff they would have to re-apply for their jobs—which most declined to do. As a result, there was a significant loss of institutional knowledge about how to administer homelessness contracts at the new agency, contributing to an already steep learning curve for the new authority.

In its response to the state audit, the authority wrote that it “has already taken significant steps to implement many of the necessary components in our contracting year for 2023. We have been actively involved in recruiting experienced personnel and providing on-job trainings to strengthen our contract and grant management and compliance monitoring.”

The county’s report also raised concerns about the KCRHA’s governing structure, monitoring practices, transparency, and communication with the nonprofit agencies that it pays to provide outreach, shelter, and other services.

The KCRHA’s Continuum of Care board, which came under fire earlier this year after a board member shouted down a colleague’s objections to the proposed appointment of a repeat sex offender, often lacked a quorum and didn’t get enough information from KCRHA to make decisions or recommendations about complex decisions, like the agency’s annual federal funding requests, the report found.

As PubliCola reported, the KCRHA ran a bit of a coup on the CoC board earlier this year, recruiting new members to the stakeholder group that oversees the CoC and holding an unusual “convening” to adopt a new charter and a new slate of members for the board. (Ordinarily, CoC “convenings” are day-long events that include panels and discussion sessions; this year’s meeting was focused on these two votes.) The agency is supposed to hold two major meetings a year, but has failed to do so, according to the report.

The report also raises concerns about the KCRHA’s compliance with the state Open Public Meetings Act, noting that information about meetings often isn’t available in a timely or transparent fashion, and says the agency doesn’t have a consistent way of communicating with service providers or stakeholders about important decisions, like changes to Coordinated Entry—the system for accessing services, shelter, and housing. The KCRHA got rid of a committee that met quarterly, in public, to discuss Coordinated Entry, and “[a]s a result, subsequent changes to CE processes were made with little notice to, or input from, providers and other stakeholders.”

Although the report praises KCRHA for its “innovative” data collection strategies, including an annual count of the region’s homeless population that was based on state data and a separate qualitative survey of people experiencing homelessness, the monitors note that it remains “[u]nclear how KCRHA uses data/metrics to monitor evaluate program performance (other than for funding decisions) and to evaluate system performance.”

Last week, the KCRHA posted a response on its website to the state and county reports; a federal audit will also be released later this month.

Former KCRHA Leader Now Sees “Significant Issues” With Medicaid Funding for Homelessness; Lived Experience Coalition Weighs In on Report on Hotel Program It Ran

1. The city of Seattle has amended its $60,000 contract with former King County Homelessness Authority CEO Marc Dones, who was supposed to spend the latter half of this year coming up with ways to maximize the use of Medicaid funding for homelessness programs.

The latest iteration of the contract directs Dones to come up with “recommendations with respect to the local federal unsheltered initiative “All Inside” … [including] considerations for the local initiative’s statement of work, actionable workplan and performance plan,” in addition to the work Dones has already done on Medicaid. In an email on August 7 titled “Landscape to Date,” Dones concluded that there were several “significant” but “solvable” challenges to billing Medicaid for homeless services.

All Inside is a Biden Administration program that provides technical assistance to cities, including Seattle; it does not include additional funding for housing or services.

The pivot is particularly striking given Dones’ previous advocacy for using Medicaid Foundational Community Supports funds to pay for Partnership for Zero—a privately funded effort to end unsheltered homelessness downtown that folded, after housing 230 people, this month. Dones was so bullish on the program that they predicted it would pay for at least 85 percent of Partnership for Zero’s services by next year, brushing aside concerns from homeless service providers and elected officials that the program is complex, highly restrictive, and expensive to administer.

Providers raised every one of the issues Dones identified as part of their contract with the city when the KCRHA tied the future of Partnership for Zero to Medicaid funding earlier this year, but were largely ignored. 

In their latest update, Dones identified “four significant issues” with using Medicaid to fund homeless services. First, Dones wrote, agencies often have to spend a lot of time and staff resources documenting and administering programs in order to get reimbursed. Second, Dones wrote, agencies have to spend a lot of time “chasing” clients to collect billable hours, creating a “significant gap in what is called the ‘billable units of service’ and requir[ing] agencies to fund activities that are related to enrolled clients with no path to reimbursement.”

The third issue Dones identified is that FCS is not a reliable source of funds for behavioral health services. And the fourth was that Medicaid reimburses agencies slowly and often rejects claims for minor or technical reasons, making it hard for providers without large cash reserves to use it as a reliable source of funding.

Providers raised every one of these issues when the KCRHA tied the future of Partnership for Zero to Medicaid funding earlier this year, but were largely ignored.

Dones has completed approximately half of their 240-hour contract, according to a schedule of “deliverables” included in the contract document. So far, Dones has produced a timeline and scope of work, a 600-word email describing the “landscape to date,” a 450-word email containing a “Draft Assessment” of All Inside, and a list of five stakeholders to talk to about various topics, including the “intersection of public transit and homelessness,” “intersection of organized crime and encampments,” and “pro social public space activation to prevent encampments.”

2. The final version of a report documenting what went wrong with a hotel program run by the Lived Experience Coalition reaches substantially the same conclusions as an early draft PubliCola covered back in August, but does include a number of notes contributed by the LEC, which has blamed budget missteps that led to the collapse of the program primarily on its then-fiscal sponsor, Building Changes, and the KCRHA.

As we reported last month, the report, by independent consultant Courtney Noble, concluded that the LEC was in over its head when it accepted $1 million in federal funding to run the hotel-based shelter program, which was the advocacy group’s first such contract. Noble also reported that other factors, including a lack of transparency from Building Changes and a hostile relationship with the KCRHA and Dones, contributed to the program’s failure.

In footnotes to the report, the LEC said the audit itself should go through a racial equity analysis “due to the fact that the audit was conducted by a single individual of a particular racial background and socioeconomic class” who may have unconscious bias. Additionally, the LEC objected to the consultant’s suggestion that conflict between “personalities”—at a minimum, Dones, LEC director LaMont Green, and Building Changes director Daniel Zavala—contributed to the collapse of the hotel program.  

The final report now emphasizes systemic issues and removes references to the LEC’s initial proposal, which included hot meals, mass shelter, and supplies in addition to the hotel rooms that were the core of the LEC’s final contract. It also softens suggestions that the Lived Experience Coalition should participate in the regional Homelessness Management Information, a central clearinghouse for information about people who interact with the homelessness system, in order to access federal Emergency Food and Shelter Program funds in the future.

The LEC has said that gathering the kind of data required to participate in HMIS would re-traumatize their clients; additionally, according to the final report, they “believed that KCRHA leadership was retributive, and wanted to punish them for stepping out of their advocacy lane to run the hoteling program. LEC maintained that they were still not a direct service provider, and believed that participating in HMIS would strengthen KCRHA’s argument that they were.”

In footnotes to the report, the LEC said the audit itself should go through a racial equity analysis “due to the fact that the audit was conducted by a single individual of a particular racial background and socioeconomic class” who may have unconscious bias. Additionally, the LEC objected to the consultant’s suggestion that conflict between “personalities”—at a minimum, Dones, LEC director LaMont Green, and Building Changes director Daniel Zavala—contributed to the collapse of the hotel program.

It has historically an issue when poor white, black, brown, and indigenous people come together to speak truth and organize to urgently improve failing systems resulting in the dehumanization, pain, suffering, and early death of our unhoused neighbors that the systems do not want to be accountable and then turn to tactics such as defunding, gaslighting, and mischaracterizing their work,” the LEC wrote.

Finally, the LEC said it’s inaccurate to call the hotel program a failure. “The program did not fail, it served over 400 people during a time period when we saw record deaths among those experiencing homelessness,” the group’s final footnote says.

Partnership for Zero, the Homelessness Authority’s Marquee Plan to End Homelessness Downtown, Will End After Housing 230 People

Regional Homelessness Authority CEO Marc Dones speaks at a press conference about the new public-private "Partnership for Zero" Thursday

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.

“The dissolution of this program is beyond disappointing — it is life-changing for all of the employees who’ve dedicated their careers to making a difference, and it is disruptive and unsettling to our neighbors in the unhoused community,” said Karen Estevenin, executive director of Professional and Technical Employees 17 (PROTEC17), which represents the systems advocates. “This unfortunate decision underscores the importance of fully funding and supporting direct service public programs that do not rely on continually fluctuating donors and donations.”

“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.

Former KCRHA CEO Marc Dones and Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell

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.”

Another Heated Debate Over Role of Lived Experience Coalition, Business-Backed Campaigns Form for Council Elections

1. A Wednesday meeting of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority’s implementation board erupted into a dispute over the role of the Lived Experience Coalition within the agency’s ombuds office, after implementation board members Ben Maritz, an affordable housing developer, and Sara Rankin, the LEC’s designated board representative, questioned the agency’s decision to end an agreement in which the LEC itself helped run the oversight office.

PubliCola reported on the KCRHA’s decision to terminate an agreement that gave the LEC—a group of homeless and formerly homeless advocates who also ran a hotel-based shelter program that ran out of money earlier this year—unusual power over the ombuds office, which is part of the KCRHA. The ombuds office, whose responsibilities were described in the original interlocal agreement that set up the KCRHA in 2019, responds to and investigates questions and complaints from service providers, clients, and KCRHA employees.

Maritz asked chief ombudsperson Katara Jordan why the KCRHA was icing out the LEC, given the importance of including the perspectives of people with lived experience in the ombuds office. “Setting aside the personalities in the organizations, do we not want people with lived experience to have some direct oversight in this organization, specifically on individual cases, which our organization could easily misinterpret or get things wrong on?” Maritz asked.

“Now, do you honestly believe that a joint office with the LEC, an organization that has no oversight and has caused irreparable harm to people with lived experience in this community, would actually provide independence, accountability, or neutrality, for the ombuds office? I just feel like every time I come before this board, we have to litigate this issue.”—KCRHA chief ombudsperson Katara Jordan

Jordan—who already responded to the same questions back in June—said it was “offensive” to suggest that the office didn’t care about people with lived experience, and called the ongoing focus on including the LEC in agency operations, as opposed to people with lived experience more broadly, a kind of insidious “tokenization.” Rankin made her question or comment thriough an internal messaging system that was not visible on the video or Webex livestream.

“Now, do you honestly believe that a joint office with the LEC, an organization that has no oversight and has caused irreparable harm to people with lived experience in this community, would actually provide independence, accountability, or neutrality, for the ombuds office?” Jordan asked. “I just feel like every time I come before this board, we have to litigate this issue.”

“My team has thought really hard about how we’re going to continue to engage people with lived experience,” Jordan continued. “So please, whether it’s you, Sara Rankin, or you, Benjamin, please do not in any way, shape, or form imply that we don’t care about people with lived experience.”

After board members Juanita Spotted Elk and John Chelminiak tried to lower the tension in the virtual room—” it’s just time to put this discussion aside and continue with the operation of an excellent ombuds office,” Chelminiak said—Rankin, who is white, chided Jordan, who is Black, for turning the conversation into a “volatile” one.

“If we can’t have discussions about independence and accountability on the implementation board about the KCHRA and the different parts of the KCHRA, without it exploding into into ad hominem attacks, I think it’s problematic,” Rankin said. “I think the tenor of this conversation became very unfortunate. … I also don’t think it’s appropriate for any of us to resort to personal attacks, or emotional attacks, on any group or individual or to question the intentions or the commitment of anyone.”

2. After helping to push council candidates Rob Saka (District 1, West Seattle) and Maritza Rivera (District 4, northeast Seattle) through the primary, business and real estate interests appear to be readying similar campaigns in every other council district. Since the primary, when “Elliott Bay Neighbors” and “University Neighbors” spent a combined $130,000 on efforts that included nearly identical mailers broadly assailing the City Council, four more similarly named groups with the same mailing address and treasurer have popped up in other districts, including Greenwood (District 5), Ballard (District 6), and downtown (District 7).

So far, only the Downtown Neighbors committee has explicitly identified the candidate it’s supporting: Bob Kettle, running against incumbent Andrew Lewis. The business-backed candidates in the other races are Cathy Moore in District 5 (running against Christiana ObeySumner for the open seat) and Pete Hanning in District 6 (challenging incumbent Dan Strauss).

Notably, the only part of the city for which there is no obvious “Neighbors” campaign so far is Southeast Seattle, where Chinatown/International District activist Tanya Woo is challenging incumbent Tammy Morales. There is also a “Seattle Neighbors” committee that does not specify a council district but shares a donor, private equity firm co-founder T.J. McGill, with the original two “Neighbors’ groups.

The top donors to Elliott Bay and Downtown Neighbors include Costco co-founder Jim Sinegal, real estate developer and 2020 Trump supporter George Petrie, Dunn Lumber, and a number of other local real-estate and business interests.

Unlike candidates, independent expenditure campaigns can spend unlimited money to influence the outcome of Seattle’s local elections.

The Five-Year Plan for Homelessness Was Based Largely on 180 Interviews. Experts Say They Were Deeply Flawed.

Source: KCRHA Five-Year Plan

By Erica C. Barnett

In 2022, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority did away with the longstanding, but flawed, practice of physically counting people experiencing homelessness on a single night. By replacing the physical “point in time” count with a statistical model based on Department of Commerce Data, combined with interviews with people recruited through the broad-ranging social networks that exist among unsheltered people, the KCRHA hoped to produce a more accurate picture of homelessness in King County.

The interviews, which contributed to the KCRHA’s estimate of more than 53,000 people experiencing homelessness in King County, also served a second, arguably more impactful, purpose: They formed the basis for an overarching plan that will guide the authority’s use of public dollars for the next five years. The Five-Year Plan, which includes recommendations for specific temporary housing types (and initially came with a $12 billion price tag), was based largely on 180 of these interviews, which researchers used to “identify specific temporary and permanent housing models directly from the voices of people living unsheltered, interpreted in partnership with people with lived experience,” according to the final five-year plan.

PubliCola has obtained the transcripts of more than 80 of these interviews, which took place in the early spring of 2022, through a records request. The interviews range from terse questions and answer sessions to lengthy, discursive conversations in which interviewers abandon the Q&A format to offer opinions, give advice, and tell people they can help them access services—something qualitative researchers are generally cautioned not to do. We also consulted two experts on qualitative research to learn more about how interviews like the ones KCRHA oversaw can best be used, and to learn some best practices for the kind of evaluation the KCRHA was attempting to do.

Additionally, PubliCola talked to an experienced data analyst at the KCRHA, who explained how the project worked. Initially, the interviews (which former KCRHA CEO Marc Dones called “oral histories”) were the sole focus of the research project, which the KCRHA titled “Understanding Unsheltered Homelessness.” Later on, after the Department of Housing and Urban Development rejected the KCRHA’s request to skip the point-in-time count altogether, Dones decided to “combine efforts between doing the Point in Time Count and this qualitative data collection,” Owen Kajfasz, the KCRHA’s acting chief community officer, said. “So we really merged two projects into one data collection.”

Some of the earliest interviews, which took place in South King County, didn’t include the proper consent forms or had transcripts that couldn’t be traced back to interview subjects. And overall, the interviews ended up oversampling straight white men, and undersampling women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ people, forcing researchers to go back and add some incomplete interviews to the pool to correct the imbalance.

To conduct the interviews, KCRHA recruited members of the Lived Experience Coalition, a group that advocates for the inclusion of people with personal experience being homeless in policy and decision-making processes. (KCRHA staff also conducted some of the interviews.) Most interviewers received a two-part training led by Dones, who served as the “primary investigator,” or lead researcher, on the project. Those who couldn’t make the training or came on board later were instructed to read the training documents, which included a list of 31 questions, before starting work.

LEC members also held all three seats on the advisory board that oversaw the project, and later made up a majority of the team that “coded” the interviews in order to translate them into a set of recommendations for the five-year plan. As we’ve reported, the KCRHA has recently tried to distance itself from the LEC, but at the time—early 2022—the group was deeply integrated into the agency’s operations.

Although the researchers conducted more than 500 interviews, they ended up using just 180 transcripts. Some of the earliest interviews, which took place in South King County, didn’t include the proper consent forms or had transcripts that couldn’t be traced back to interview subjects. Overall, the interviews ended up oversampling straight white men, and undersampling women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ people, forcing researchers to go back and add some incomplete interviews to the pool to correct the imbalance—overrepresenting marginalized groups because they are the least served by the current shelter and service system..

“This wasn’t a perfect process,” Kajfasz acknowledged. “We did have more of those [interviews] that we couldn’t use than I was anticipating.”

Once the interviews were complete, a group of LEC members and KCRHA staff, aided by technical assistance from a Washington, D.C.-based firm called the Cloudburst Group, read transcripts of the interviews and “coded” them to correspond with different shelter and housing types, using the codes “to identify specific temporary and permanent housing models directly from the voices of people living unsheltered, interpreted in partnership with people with lived experience,” according to the Five-Year Plan. Although the final plan no longer includes specific dollar figure or specific numeric recommendations (eliminating, for example, a chart that suggested building no new tiny house villages ), it still represents a proposal that would, if implemented, reverse many longstanding policies and invest heavily in new approaches, like many more permanent parking spaces for people living in RVs and cars across the city.

The interview transcripts show many interviewers engaged in patient, compassionate attempts to elicit clear responses from people who were often discursive, rambling, and hard to follow. Interviewers from the Lived Experience Coalition used their own experiences to guide conversations and make their interview subjects comfortable—a key reason for including people with lived experience in data collection.

In one such conversation, the interviewer expresses concern and empathy when the person they’re talking to describes a series of traumatic situations, while still keeping the overall conversation on track. “I’m sorry you experienced that in such a tragic way. Thank you for just being vulnerable and open and sharing that because it’ll give me a glimpse of who you are and what you’ve been through,” the interviewer says, then moves on to the next question.

Researchers who use qualitative methods say it’s important to allow the conversation to flow and to use the questions as a guide rather than reading them word by word.

“In a qualitative interview, so much depends on the amount of trust and empathy that the interviewer can show,” said New York University School of Social Work professor Dr. Deborah Padgett, an expert on qualitative research who has written several books on the subject. “If you’re there in a trusting way, and you’re there as a researcher as opposed to a case worker or outreach worker or more official person, it gives you some legitimacy.”

Dr. Tyler Kincaid, a research assistant professor at Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of New Mexico who has led qualitative research about people experiencing homelessness, said qualitative interviews can’t be scripted to the extent that an ordinary survey can. “There’s an art to making the participant comfortable enough to respond, to keep the conversation going,” Kincaid said, and going “off script” is just  part of the process. “If you have, say, 10 semi-structured questions, hopefully there’s followup questions and side questions and things within those ten standard questions on a piece of paper to help to bring out more information,” Kincaid said.

But the transcripts also revealed troubling practices. In the transcripts, interviewers often cut people off, talk at length about themselves, or offer unsolicited advice. Several times, interviewers suggest they or someone else at the interview site can directly connect people with services, such as housing vouchers or a workaround for King County’s hated 211 system, or jump in with answers before the person has had time to respond.

The experts we spoke to said it’s important for researchers not to involve themselves in people’s lives or promise things they can’t deliver. Kajfasz said researchers were told that the point of the research was data collection, not problem-solving, but “folks with lived experience, when they know they have a solution for somebody, they offer it.” Some interview locations had housing navigators or other services on site, Kajfasz added.

In one transcript, an interviewer offers their opinion about the man’s substance use, saying that with drugs, “when you wake up in the morning, you hate yourself.” “I don’t ever hate myself,” the man retorts. After a tangent about the concerns police have raised about encampment fires, the second interviewer tells the man he should join the military. “You can still do it. You’re young enough. You understand?”

In many cases, interviewers suggested answers to their own questions before people had a chance to speak. In one representative transcript, an interviewer repeatedly appears to cut their subject, a Native American man, off—suggesting, for example, that the reason the man is homeless is because he “prefer[s] to be in the woods” and doesn’t “want to be acclimated in society.” Although the man says “yeah” in response to both those statements, he objects when the interviewer continues, “You don’t want an apartment.” “Well, I do eventually,” he says.

Later in the transcript, a second interviewer offers their opinion about the man’s substance use, calling it “impressive” that “it’s just Everclear now” and adding, “you’ll wean yourself off that soon enough,” prompting the man to say he isn’t so sure. With drugs, the second interviewer continues, “when you wake up in the morning, you hate yourself.” “I don’t ever hate myself,” the man retorts. After a tangent about the concerns police have raised about encampment fires, the second interviewer tells the man he should join the military. “You can still do it. You’re young enough. You understand?”

In another transcript, the interviewer suggests that their subject, a Latino man who appears to struggle with English, find work as a day laborer—a stereotypical job for Spanish-speaking immigrants. None of the interviews PubliCola reviewed were conducted in a language other than English; Kajfasz said the KCRHA offered “language services,” but that “the majority of folks, even if English was not their first language, were choosing English.”

Padgett says that while good qualitative research requires an interviewer to be patient, “take a lot of time,” and build trust and empathy, interviewers should never weigh in with their own opinions or advice.  “If you’re giving opinions about what they’re saying, you’re taking up valuable space in the conversation—and they may not want that level of pity,” Padgett said. “When I’m training people, the idea is to be empathic. In the moment, you might say, ‘I’m really sorry that happened to you,’ but [you shouldn’t] go down the rabbit hole of ‘tell me more about your trauma.'”

In an interview that appeared to cross this line, an interviewer jumped in when the man he was interviewing, whose race is not identified in the transcript, said he was probably homeless because he’d been in the foster care and prison systems. “Now you know that’s not true,” the interviewer said. The conversation continued:

Interviewer: You can’t tell me that, because you’re here for a reason. You got kids. We went through the pandemic. You got sick two times, you just said. Hell to the no, ain’t nobody in their life ever in my face will ever say that. Not while I’m standing there. I’m sorry. That just hurt. That just touched me.

Subject: No, I, I—

Interviewer: Don’t ever say that shit again to me.

Subject: My apologies. I will not say that again.

Speaker 2: To anybody, because I want you to know, that’s something that’s instilled in you and that you’re going to instill every person that come through your life, especially your children. Because my kids, they already know like I’m their ride or die. They tell people, you don’t know my mama when they tell them, oh you know how your mom- No. You don’t know my mom. So, it’s a different generation. When we got to teach that generation, there is something to live for. You’re not here for nothing. You what I’m saying? I don’t know where we went off of. Let’s see. Where did you go to school?

Padgett, who looked over the interview questions before we spoke, said the questions themselves were “pretty good, but it’s qualitative, so what’s good on paper only comes out as good if the interviewer does it well so there’s a lot more onus put on the interviewer” to keep things on track. The KCRHA did not provide its training materials, but Padgett said she usually has trainees do mock interviews, then supervises them and provides feedback on their methods throughout a project so they can adjust and improve.

In addition to asking leading questions and interrupting, a number of transcripts include interviewers skipping past questions, making assumptions about people’s gender identity or sexual orientation, and speaking excessively about themselves. In one transcript, an interviewer provides a detailed roster of their own family members’ birthdays; in another, the interviewer tries to recruit the person they’re interviewing to join the Lived Experience Coalition and the KCRHA’s Vehicle Residency Policy Group.

“It’s not about the interviewer,” Padgett said. “You should think of yourself as wearing a hat that says ‘researcher’ on it, and if you take that hat off and become a comrade of lived experience, then you’re losing what qualitative [research] does best, which is having some distance but also empathy. It’s a juggling act.”

“You really don’t want to make some sort of big, generalized governmental or programmatic decisions just based off qualitative research.” —Dr. Tyler Kincaid, University of New Mexico

Once the interviews were complete, another team of researchers, which included several members of the LEC, translated them into housing types, using specific keywords and concepts that people brought up during their conversations to create a roster of shelter types that might be appropriate. People who are using drugs but want to get sober might end up in a box titled “recovery housing,” while those with medical problems might end up in another box labeled “medical respite.” Many of the 180 interviews were with people living in their vehicles or RVs, who often ended up in separate boxes for safe parking and RV safe lots.

“It wasn’t directly, ‘hey, I need medical respite,’ so these people get medical respite, or ‘hey, I need RV parking,’ so this person gets RV parking. It was looking at all of these types of challenges folks are facing,” Kajfasz said. “And for some of those, we’re having to take pieces of information across the interview.” People who were employed but couldn’t afford rent, for example, suggested a need for more housing with supported employment services, while people struggling to stay sober suggested a need for sober housing.

At a glance, some of these solutions can seem overly determinative—some people who want to quit drinking or using other drugs might do better living independently than moving into group recovery housing, for example. Others, like RV parking lots, are widely viewed as short-term solutions, not permanent homes. Although these may seem like minor issues—shouldn’t people trying to avoid drugs and alcohol jump at an opportunity for a room in sober living, even if they would prefer a private apartment?—they translate into real policy choices, and ultimately into real money.

The initial version of the Five-Year Plan called for nearly 4,000 medical respite beds ($2.7 billion over five years); 2,570 units of recovery housing ($1.8 billion); and nearly 5,000 permanent parking spots for passenger vehicles and RVs ($192 million). The specific numbers and dollar figures may have been excised from the final plan, but the mix of shelter, or “temporary housing,” types—based on an “analysis of PIT interviews and input of the Lived Experience Commission advisory group,” according to an internal memo—remains the same, so it seems important to get it right.

“You really don’t want to make some sort of big, generalized governmental or programmatic decisions just based off qualitative research,” Kincaid, from the University of New Mexico, said. For example, he said, it would “so difficult to [use] any sort of qualitative research” as the basis for investing in one type of shelter over another, unless people consistently identified a specific type of shelter they wanted.

Padgett, from NYU, said she believes strongly that “well-done, rigorous qualitative research can play a strong and scientifically valid role, but it’s all in how you handle the information so that you’re not coming to conclusions with no basis in the data.”

In a memo from September 2022, consultants from the Cloudburst Group summarized some of the lessons the LEC and KCRHA learned from the Understanding Unsheltered Homelessness project. Among their conclusions: If the KCRHA does another series of interviews in the future, researchers need to identify the intent of the project before starting interviews, and trainers should emphasize the need to ask questions consistently, “as well as allowing participants to speak and not be interrupted.”

The way the researchers recruited participants—by identifying an initial “wave” of subjects who recruited new people through their social networks—was flawed and contributed to an interview pool that was disproportionately made up of straight, white men.

Finally, the memo noted, it was hard to interpret some interviews because they included multiple people (interviewers as well as people who approached and started talking during interviews; in the future, the memo says, the protocol for interviews “should establish that these are individual interviews.”

Kajfasz said that without Dones’ “significant expertise” in the area of qualitative research, the KCRHA isn’t planning to do an interview project of similar size and scope any time in the near future. Nor will in-person interviews form the basis for the next point-in-time count, which the KCRHA must conduct next year. The KCRHA is “currently conferring with HUD about what the next PIT count” will involve, Kajfasz said, but it probably will never look like last year’s count again. “Never do I ever want to do the point-in-time count and large-scale qualitative interviewing together,” Kajfasz said.

Unreleased Report Highlights Funding Challenges for Program Aimed at Ending Homelessness Downtown

Tent removal in progress on a recent morning at Third and James in downtown Seattle.

By Erica C. Barnett

A report commissioned by the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, but never publicly released, highlights some of the challenges the regional agency will face as it attempts to use federal Medicaid funding to pay for Partnership for Zero, a marquee program that aims to eliminate homelessness in downtown Seattle by connecting people directly with housing.

The report, from the nonprofit Corporation for Supportive Housing, also lays out a potential road map for navigating the Medicaid reimbursement process, which is so byzantine that many King County providers have avoided using the program.

Currently, homeless service providers can seek funding through a Medicaid-based program called Foundational Community Supports, which provides benefits and services for people experiencing homelessness who are eligible for Medicaid and have chronic health conditions. The program, which has been around since 2018, treats homelessness as a health care issue and housing as a form of health care—a meaningful step that many advocates have applauded.

“FCS is a really unique revenue source, because it’s not a short-term grant or contract—it really is based on a person’s health and will stay with them as long as they need these services,” said Debbie Thiele, CSH’s western managing director. “It’s been a major breakthrough to have the health care system seeing supportive housing services as a part of health.”

But establishing clients’ eligibility for the program and securing payment for ongoing services has been a daunting and sometimes money-losing challenge for service providers, who often have to hire specialized administrative staff and train case managers to meticulously document encounters with clients. In conversations with PubliCola earlier this year, providers explained how challenging it can be to translate notes by front-line case managers into billable Medicaid hours; a case worker who isn’t fully trained and dogged in their efforts to enroll clients and “constantly generate [billable] service contacts” can cost an agency significantly more than they bring in, one provider said.

Back in April, Dones said the KCRHA was about to start billing some services to Medicaid in a series of experimental “dry runs” that will “give us ample time to correct anything that is going wrong” before transitioning Partnership for Zero into a mostly Medicaid-funded program next year. Those dry runs haven’t happened, and the reasons for the delay remain somewhat opaque.

“Once providers are up and running with Medicaid FCS, it is projected to cover gaps with increase revenue, but to get to that point, providers report their start-up costs to be far more than they can afford, in some cases in the hundreds of thousands of dollars,” the report says.

Thiele says one solution would be funding to help organizations, particularly smaller and BIPOC-led groups, set up the billing and other infrastructure they need. “If you want the nonprofit sector, which is reliant on grants and contracts and doing this incredibly challenging work in community, to make a major internal change to the way they operate, then they need investment in order to do that,” Thiele said. “With staff turnover being what it is right now, it’s a big risk for nonprofits to do new things,” she added.

The CSH report breaks down some of the primary issues that prevent homeless service providers from getting the most out of Medicaid funds, including administrative hurdles that force staff to work extra hours manually inputting data and doing duplicative work; denials and disenrollments for reasons that can feel capricious, such as minor technical errors; and difficulty knowing what services FCS will consider “supplemental” or new, as opposed to “supplanting” funding for services that already exists.

Many of the issues that exist at nonprofits are also relevant for KCRHA, which will have to train its system advocates—case managers with personal experience of homelessness who navigate Partnership for Zero clients into services and housing—to do all the things nonprofit service providers have identified as major challenges.

Earlier this year, KCRHA’s then-CEO Marc Dones told the agency’s implementation board that securing funds through FCS should be relatively simple, and expressed confidence that Partnership for Zero, which has fallen significantly behind schedule, would be at least 85 percent Medicaid-funded by next year. In fact, Dones called the agency’s 85 percent prediction “conservative,” adding that “if we are able to exceed that, then we will close the budget gap just on Medicaid reimbursement.” KCRHA baked this optimism into its 2024 budget, which assumes that Medicaid, through FCS, will provide about $5 million for Partnership for Zero, with KCRHA making up an estimated $900,000 gap.

Dones resigned earlier this year. The city of Seattle is currently paying them $250 an hour to come up with recommendations for using Medicaid funds “to maximize the region’s resources available to address homelessness”—a portfolio that seems quite similar to the the work CSH is doing for KCRHA.

Back in April, Dones said the KCRHA was about to start billing some services to Medicaid in a series of experimental “dry runs” that will “give us ample time to correct anything that is going wrong” before transitioning Partnership for Zero into a mostly Medicaid-funded program next year. Those dry runs haven’t happened, and the reasons for the delay remain somewhat opaque.

According to Thiele, CSH was supposed to move into Phase 2 of their “engagement” with KCRHA as soon as they finished the initial report earlier this year: The “dry run, and convenings across King County.” But, she said, “we’ve been waiting on our contract with them for some time. … They did recently give us a small contract to get started, but we were seeing this as probably a good 18 months of process work” before Medicaid billing can start in earnest. “It’s in motion, but I just can’t tell how far we’ll get with it.”

KCRHA spokeswoman Anne Martens said the agency is “on track for a ‘dry run’ this fall. … My guess is that there will be some kinks to work out, and we’ll have to adjust and evaluate as we go.” Later, Martens clarified that the “dry run… is still expected to happen before the end of the year. So we’re still in the process of setting up the system, policies, tech configurations, and trainings required to test how Medicaid billing would work in practice.”

Partnership for Zero is funded by corporate and philanthropic donors through the nonprofit We Are In, which is also paying for the contract between the KCRHA and Corporation for Supportive Housing.

Had Partnership for Zero achieved its original targets, every person living unsheltered in downtown Seattle would now be housed, and the KCRHA would be working to rapidly house each new person who arrived in the downtown area as part of the final, “hold steady” phase of the project. After this phase, KCRHA planned to expand the Partnership for Zero effort into other parts of Seattle and other regions of King County.

Since launching, the downtown effort has encountered many challenges, including a reluctance among private landlords to rent to people in the program. One issue that arose early on, according to a January 2023 memo from Dones to We Are In director Felicia Salcedo, is that landlords wanted assurances that formerly homeless tenants would be able to pay fair market rent after the first 12 months, when their Partnership for Zero rent subsidy runs out.

In February, We Are In announced another million dollars in funding for the program, but the future of the overall program remains unclear. We Are In declined to comment for this story.

Report: Plenty of Blame to Go Around for Ill-Fated Hotel Shelter Program

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.

An Outreach Worker’s Offer to Homeless Shelter Residents Sounded Too Good To Be True. Turns Out, It Was

A KCRHA outreach worker offered residents of LIHI’s Interbay tiny house village immediate housing, on the condition that they exit the shelter and head to Belltown the next day.

By Erica C. Barnett

An outreach worker from the King County Regional Homelessness Authority—one of dozens of “systems advocates” working to shelter or house people experiencing homelessness in downtown Seattle—showed up at the Low Income Housing Institute’s Interbay tiny house village last month with an unusual offer: Get up tomorrow morning and come down to a street corner in Belltown, and the KCRHA can get you in housing right away, no waiting required.

The only catch, according to multiple people familiar with the offer, was that they would have to “exit” the tiny house program, giving up their shelter in exchange for the keys to a new apartment. The reason for this, the system advocate reportedly told the village residents, is that the housing was only available to people who were living on the streets, not those in shelter.

The KCRHA’s systems advocates are part of a public-private partnership between the KCRHA and corporate and philanthropic funders called Partnership for Zero, whose goal is to eliminate visible homelessness in downtown Seattle by sheltering or housing everyone living unsheltered between SoDo and South Lake Union. Partnership for Zero resources are supposed to go exclusively to people living unsheltered downtown.

Four people took the systems advocate up on his offer, LIHI director Sharon Lee confirmed.

“People actually got up early, showered, and got ready. They were highly motivated to go downtown,” Lee said. Later that day, “they came back really disappointed. They felt like they were bring tricked.” LIHI did not exit anyone from the tiny houses. If they had, they would have had to change the former residents’ status in the official Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) used by government agencies and nonprofits around the county, and made the beds they had occupied available to other homeless people seeking shelter.

KCRHA spokeswoman Anne Martens confirmed that the system advocate (whom PubliCola is not naming) told the tiny house village residents to come downtown.  “System Advocate leadership was alerted to the issue of some people from Interbay being mistakenly invited into downtown, and immediately intervened” to stop it, she said.

“My understanding is that the [System Advocate] Team has ensured that people enrolled at the Interbay village would remain enrolled there,” Martens continued. Martens said “disciplinary action has been taken” against the employee.

“I think people got really unsettled and felt like they were tricked [by] someone who offered to give them housing and didn’t deliver.”—LIHI director Sharon Lee

Lee, from LIHI, said the Interbay village residents who went down to Belltown expecting to be housed weren’t just inconvenienced; the experience added to their disillusionment with the homelessness and housing system. “I think people got really unsettled and felt like they were tricked [by] someone who offered to give them housing and didn’t deliver,” Lee said. LIHI did not make any of the people who went downtown at the urging of KCRHA’s systems advocate available for an interview.

The systems advocacy program, originally designed as a “peer navigation” program in which people with lived experience of homelessness would guide unsheltered people through every step of the housing process, has changed substantially since its inception. The original, “longitudinal” style of case management is gone, replaced by a more conventional model in which system advocates specialize in individual parts of the housing process for each client.

map of Partnership for Zero's five new downtown "zones"
A map of the KCRHA’s new Partnership for Zero downtown “zones”

Additionally, the downtown area is now divided into five “zones” spanning the area from South Lake Union to the Chinatown-International District, and will be working with people in one zone at a time instead of addressing all of downtown simultaneously. This may have contributed to the system advocate’s impression that people needed to go to a specific area—in this case, Belltown—to access housing. According to Martens, the agency made the change “to address a more diffuse and more mobile unhoused population than the large concentrated encampments that Partnership for Zero has previously resolved.”

Under Mayor Bruce Harrell, the city has conducted many encampment sweeps in the area Partnership for Zero covers; anecdotal evidence suggests that as a result, unsheltered people are more mobile and often sleep out in the open, rather than in groups of tents.

When Partnership for Zero was first announced in February 2022, KCRHA and We Are In, the philanthropic group in charge of meting out the private funding, predicted moving the last stragglers out of downtown by as early as February of this year. Once this “draw down,” period was complete, the agency would begin a “hold steady” phase in which the system advocates could quickly divert new people arriving in downtown Seattle to shelter or housing.

This optimistic schedule did not pan out. Currently, according to Martens, the system advocates have 103 people on their outreach caseload, “which is the maximum that they can carry,” and have housed 212 people as of Friday.

No Solutions for Unsheltered Burien Residents After Another Contentious Council Meeting

By Erica C. Barnett

Burien officials continue to insist that they are doing everything in their power to shelter several dozen homeless people the city has been sweeping from place to place since March, even as they have antagonized potential partners, including the King County Regional Homelessness Authority and King County, and proposed a total ban on sleeping in public.

At a meeting of the Burien City Council Monday night, City Manager Adolfo Bailon doubled down on this no-fault narrative, laying out a version of events in which the city of Burien considered, and is still considering, every possible option for temporarily or permanently housing the city’s homeless residents,.

“We had these options that initially seemed like they were great options, and they just kept falling away,” Bailon said.

The truth is more complicated. In April, the KCRHA told Bailon it was willing to amend the bidding process for a new city of Seattle-funded tiny house village to specify that it would be located on a Seattle City Light property in Burien, with half the units reserved for Burien’s unsheltered residents. The catch, it seems, is that Burien would have to foot half the bill for its reserved shelter beds.

Bailon said he saw no reason to tell the council about the KCRHA’s proposal or city officials’ ongoing conversations with the KCRHA, any more than he would share mass emails from marketing companies marketing “the latest, greatest” new software

According to the homelessness authority, the city never responded to the KCRHA’s offer, and the deal never happened.

On Monday, Bailon said he saw no reason to tell the council about the KCRHA’s proposal or city officials’ ongoing conversations with the KCRHA, any more than he would share mass emails from marketing companies marketing “the latest, greatest” new software, as both were “unsolicited offers … superfluous to the general operations of government.”

Bailon said the offer “was not at all what we had been talking about with the City of Seattle,” adding that he had needed to “take a break from the particular issue for a few hours” before forwarding the proposal to city of Seattle officials.

In a followup email to PubliCola, a spokesperson for the city of Burien said the KCRHA’s offer “included factual errors that misrepresented the nature of the conversation commenced by the City of Seattle” about the City Light site. “The offer letter was shared by the City of Burien with appropriate personnel from the City of Seattle; they confirmed that the City of Seattle was not consulted and did not contribute to the creation of the offer, and subsequently expressed similar concern over the information and characterization presented by KCRHA. The City of Seattle and City of Burien decided jointly to move forward without providing any additional comment to KCRHA.”

PubliCola has reached back out to the city of Burien as well as City Light for more details about their decision not to move forward with a shelter on the City Light-owned property.

After the City Light plan fell through, King County proposed a land swap that would have provided Burien with $1 million, a free place for the unhoused people to stay, and enough Pallet shelters to accommodate up to 70 people, but the city council voted down the offer on a 4-3 vote last month, in the same meeting where they asked the city attorney to draft a camping ban.

Two other nonviable proposals appear to be officially off the table: A former Econo Lodge hotel owned by a company called REBLX, which has been “eliminated from consideration,” according to a council update posted July 27,  and a contaminated site owned by the Port of Seattle next to SeaTac Airport that the Port has said is uninhabitable.

Although Bailon implied Monday that the REBLX site may still be an option, KCRHA chief of staff Anne Burkland told both Bailon and Councilmember Kevin Schilling in a July 31 letter that REBLX “was clear that the use of its building would require rental of the entire hotel at significant cost, as well as identifying and contracting with a service provider for day-to-day site management and service connection.” As Bailon has repeatedly made clear, Burien does not have the money to fund a shelter on its own, much less rent and staff a 116-room hotel.

The Port had already informed Bailon that it would be impossible to locate a shelter on the site, and the reasons why, well in advance of the July 17 council meeting when Bailon first presented the site as a viable option that appeared to have “no contaminants” on site.

As for the Port location: On July 27, the Port’s aviation environment and sustainability director Sarah Cox sent a detailed memo to the council and Bailon explaining why the location is “not an option for any type of residential or housing use,” including shelter. “[A]mong other concerns,” the memo noted, the site “is not compatible with Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) safety requirements, existing soil and groundwater contamination and associated Department of Ecology site requirements, and high airport noise levels.” For example, the site is at the end of the airport’s third runway, in a Runway Protection Area that has to remain unoccupied “to protect people on the ground,” Cox wrote.

Cox noted that the Port had already informed Bailon that it would be impossible to locate a shelter on the site, and the reasons why, well in advance of the July 17 council meeting when Bailon first presented the site as a viable option that appeared to have “no contaminants” on site. On Monday, Mayor Sofia Aragon defended keeping the site on the table, saying the additional study helped the council “get information to say, how possible is it to remediate that site? And so we’re hearing a lot more on the negative side at this time, but that wouldn’t have happened unless it was put out there as a question.”

King County’s $1 million offer is still outstanding, but without a location, the money is theoretical. The county has made clear it will not release the money until the city has identified a site in Burien, or found a location in another city that agrees to host a shelter for Burien’s homeless residents. The next Burien City Council meeting is scheduled for August 21.

“I Regret Falling Into the Trap”: Former Homelessness Board Member Reflects on Controversy Over Sex Offender that Led to Her Ouster

King County Regional Homelessness Authority logo

By Erica C. Barnett

Last week, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority gathered the members of its Continuum of Care (CoC) membership to vote on new members and a new charter for the Continuum of Care Board, a volunteer committee that, among other duties, oversees the KCRHA’s annual application for tens of millions of dollars in federal funding.

The online-only “convening,” whose public portion lasted less than 30 minutes, came on the heels of an explosive meeting earlier this year at which one of the CoC Board’s co-chairs, Shanéé Colston, yelled at another member, Kristina Sawyckyj, who objected to the appointment of a sex offender to the board. Sawyckyj, who said the nominee had also touched her inappropriately, went silent and left the meeting after Colston and another board member told her that her comments were out of order.

“We have no right to out anyone in this space,” Colston said. “I’m telling you that you cannot talk like that in this meeting. I will not have that here! If anyone wants to talk like that you will be muted and removed from this meeting.”

“This is about equity. And everyone—everyone— deserves housing. I don’t care if they’re a sex offender!” Colston continued. “This is an inclusive space, and we are equitable to all.” Another board member, Kristi Hamilton, defended the nominee and told Sawyckyj she should go to the police if she had a crime to report but that it wasn’t appropriate for her to raise those concerns in a public board meeting.

Colston told PubliCola she received death threats from around the world after the story about her comments went viral. She said she regrets “falling into the trap, and… that I was not prepared and I responded in reaction to [Sawyckyj’s comments] and not in thought.”

PubliCola reported on the meeting in May. Over the next few weeks, our story was picked up (and distorted) by right-wing media worldwide, spreading from local FOX affiliates to the New York Post to the Daily Mail. A Change.org petition, which falsely stated that the board approved the sex offender’s nomination—in reality, he withdrew his application—called for Colston’s removal “from all leadership positions” at the authority.  Many of the articles about the incident used racist language to portray Colston as a stereotypical angry Black woman lashing out at a meek white colleague (described by the Daily Mail as a “wheelchair-bound mother”) on behalf of a “child rapist.”

Colston told PubliCola she received death threats from around the world after the story about her comments went viral. She said she regrets “falling into the trap, and… that I was not prepared and I responded in reaction to [Sawyckyj’s comments] and not in thought.”

At the height of the uproar, KCHRA chief program officer Peter Lynn sent Colston a letter demanding she resign, which she refused to do. Last week’s election accomplished the same result by prematurely terminating Colston’s three-year term.

According to Colston, she and other board members were not aware that Crowfoot was a sex offender “until it was announced (by Sawyckyj) that day,” and said that the committee that reviewed board applications before bringing them to the full board rejected several applicants because of their past behavior—including drinking on the job and using housing vouchers “to manipulate women,” according to Colston.

“I asked for her to be muted on her mic as it’s not the responsibility of a victim to have to be vulnerable and publicly announce their trauma to the world,” Colston said, “and it was breaking the rules” of the board. “I don’t agree he or others should have a seat of power on this CoC Board,” she continued, “but the voices of their experience with being homeless have to be heard, listened to, and some form of plan implemented to end homelessness [for them] as well.

“I don’t agree [the sex offender] or others should have a seat of power on this CoC Board, but the voices of their experience with being homeless have to be heard, listened to, and some form of plan implemented to end homelessness [for them] as well.

When she said that everyone, including sex offenders, deserve to be housed, Colston said she was identifying a well-known problem—sex offenders, as well as convicted arsonists, are systematically denied access to shelter and affordable housing, forcing many into unsheltered homelessness.

“When I stated that I was glad that he was there, it means that arsonists and sex offenders are a very vulnerable population” Colston said. “If KCRHA is really centering the Theory of Change and listening to those with lived experience to end homelessness for all, as radical as it may be, those populations of vulnerable individuals are included in housing all people.”

During Friday’s meeting, interim KCRHA CEO Helen Howell read a statement apologizing for “any distress or discomfort caused by the incident” at the CoC Board meeting, “and we want to assure you that we take this matter seriously [and] are actively working to prevent such incidents from occurring in the future.”

In addition to replacing Colston and electing eight new board members, Continuum of Care members voted Friday to adopt a new charter for the board that relegates “lived experience” to just one of many qualifications for board seats and significantly reduces the board’s authority.