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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
After an emergency meeting last Friday, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority sent dozens of its downtown outreach workers, known as system advocates, to four hotels where the majority of people temporarily sheltered by the Lived Experience Coalition have been staying, to assess what their needs are and where they can go now that funding for the LEC hotels has run out.
As PubliCola has reported, the LEC—an advocacy group made up of homeless and formerly homeless people who also appoint members to the KCRHA’s implementation board—received federal grants to move people from the streets into hotels across King County through a partnership with the nonprofit Building Changes, but ended up spending far more money than they had. Money from a philanthropic group called We Are In paid for the rooms, which recently totaled over 200, through April 7.
The KCRHA’s CEO, Marc Dones, has distanced the authority from the hotel debacle, saying they only “recently became aware” of the situation. However, KCRHA’s own system advocates used the LEC program this year to shelter dozens of people as part of an effort to end unsheltered homelessness downtown, which is partly financed by We Are In.
People living in least 55 of the LEC-funded hotel rooms are participants in the state-funded Recovery Navigator program, which provides resources for people with addiction, including co-occurring mental health disorders; that program is now responsible for those residents.
The KCHRA is reportedly trying to place other hotel residents in shelter through the United Way, Salvation Army, and other nonprofit agencies.
“KCRHA, with the support of King County, the City of Seattle, and We Are In, has moved into an active emergency response to address the financially unstable LEC motel shelter program,” a KCRHA spokeswoman told PubliCola Monday.
The challenges are significant: Hotel residents include people with significant physical and mental impairments, including a number of amputees, along with people staying in the hotels anonymously because they are fleeing domestic violence. People who can’t be placed in another shelter or housing will be “exited” to the streets, including several dozen the LEC said were planning to “self-resolve” by leaving without shelter or services.
“At this time, we have verified that there are a significant number of families with young children, seniors, and medically fragile individuals, and these groups are prioritized for placement in shelter and housing with appropriate care,” the KCRHA spokeswoman said.
“There Will Always Be a Crisis”
Dones was at the KCRHA’s emergency meeting on Friday, and did not attend a long-planned, all-day implementation board retreat at the same time. Portions of the retreat were audible at a publicly accessible Zoom link on Friday. During their discussion about an upcoming vote on the agency’s 2024 budget, board members expressed frustration that Dones didn’t show.
Dones has no formal contract or job description, board member Ross added, which will make it hard for the board to conduct a credible evaluation of their performance.
“[The hotel emergency] is one crisis, with up to 300 people, but there are thousands more out there,” board member Christopher Ross said. “There will always be a problem [or] a crisis. You should be able to have other people step up. And this crisis, by the way, has been going on for several weeks, so to miss the one day where you need to bond with your bosses—they are creating a hole by not being in this room.” Dones has no formal contract or job description, Ross added, which will make it hard for the board to conduct a credible evaluation of their performance.
Dones has suggested that the budget vote should be a pro forma matter, since the agency adopted a biennial budget last year, but the proposal includes an expansion of the agency to include 11 new staff positions (two of which are currently grant-funded). Board member Ben Maritz questioned the budget’s focus on adding administrative staff, including three human resources officers. “This budget ask doesn’t reflect our shared goal of getting as many more people inside as possible,” he said.
The budget also assumes that the KCRHA will be able to continue the Partnership for Zero project after private funding runs out. The agency plans to use $5.2 million in Medicaid funding through a program called Foundational Community Supports, which pays for “pre-tenancy services,” like case management, for Medicaid enrollees people with complex health problems that make it difficult to keep housing or hold a job.
Also during the retreat, the implementation board decided to have a special meeting Tuesday evening to go over the budget in more detail before approving it and passing it on to a separate governing committee made up largely of elected officials from around the region. That board, whose job is mostly limited to approving policies and strategies the implementation board recommends, is scheduled to meet this Thursday and pass the budget.
Update 11am April 15: This morning, the KCRHA reportedly sent its own outreach workers, known as system advocates, to the hotels where the Lived Experience Coalition has been paying for rooms through a federal emergency grant to figure out who is in the rooms and what their needs are. The KCRHA did not immediately respond to a request for more information about what the goal of this outreach is and whether funding has come through to pay for the rooms or provide other accommodations to the people living in them.
An unusually chaotic meeting of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority’s implementation board yesterday left unanswered questions about the fate of at least 165 people who remain in hotel rooms administered by the Lived Experience Coalition, which ran out of federal grant money to pay for the hotels earlier this year. As PubliCola reported exclusively on Monday, a public-private partnership called We Are In provided $1 million to pay for the hotel rooms through last Friday, but the KCRHA itself has said it can’t provide ongoing assistance for any hotel residents other than its own clients, who numbered about 30 (of as many as 250) as of last week.
In a conversation with PubliCola, Lived Experience Coalition director LaMont Green expressed confidence that no one at the hotels would end up back on the street. “A majority of the folks [who have left the hotels so far] have been accessing diversion, noncongregate shelter, shared housing, and some just regular permanent housing” using rapid rehousing subsidies, Green said.
However, it’s unclear whether the LEC will be able to continue moving people out successfully on their own; a majority of the people who have left so far are KCRHA’s own clients, and if the agency and local funders wash their hands of the situation, the LEC, an advocacy group that is made up largely of volunteers, will be on its own.
“The KCRHA recently became aware of an LEC program that has some financial difficulties . … We need to step away, frankly. I will again clarify for the public, the program is not operated by KCRHA, is not being funded by KCRHA, and has no formal connection to the KCRHA leadership level.”—KCRHA CEO Marc Dones
City officials, including the mayor’s office, did not respond to requests for comment earlier this week. However, on Tuesday, Deputy Mayor Tiffany Washington said in an email addressed to “funders and partners” that the “LEC seems fully capable of winding down the work without assistance from KCRHA. I propose that we release KCRHA leadership and staff to focus on other work and key initiatives like partnership for zero”—a reference to the Partnership for Zero effort, funded by We Are In, to eliminate homelessness in downtown Seattle.
Although the KCRHA’s own downtown outreach workers, known as system advocates, were directly responsible for placing dozens of KCRHA clients into the LEC hotels, agency CEO Marc Dones has maintained that the KCRHA knew little to nothing about the hotel program or its funding.
“The KCRHA recently became aware of an LEC program that has some financial difficulties and we are currently evaluating with the city, county, state, and private funders to determine how to fund the program and support residents of it,” Dones said during Wednesday’s implementation board meeting. “We need to step away, frankly,” Dones added. “I will again clarify for the public, the program is not operated by KCRHA, is not being funded by KCRHA, and has no formal connection to the KCRHA leadership level.”
The board meeting included other signs of the growing schism between the LEC—a coalition that advocates for people with lived experience, which the authority has described as “an independent organization that appoints representatives to the KCRHA Implementation Board and Governing Committee, and is a partner in our efforts to end homelessness”—and the KCRHA. Three positions on the board reserved for people with lived experience of homelessness remain unfilled, and a simmering debate over who should fill those roles bubbled to the surface as part of a separate discussion about bylaws, whose details the board is still debating after three years in existence.
Dones said the process for appointing the lived experience positions has been haphazard and “needs to be rethought,” and that the nominees should include “people who are not members of the LEC.” However, members of the advisory committee that appoints people to the board the nominations have tried to call a special meeting to make their nominations, and claim the KCRHA is blocking them from doing so by refusing to post a meeting notice on their website, as required by law. In short: It’s a mess.
With the clock running down on Wednesday, the board had just a few minutes to ask questions about a 2024 supplemental budget proposal they had received less than 24 hours before the meeting (and that still isn’t posted publicly on the KCRHA’s website).
With the clock running down on Wednesday—the KCRHA ordinarily caps its board meetings at two hours, but this one went long—the board had just a few minutes to ask questions about a 2024 supplemental budget proposal they had received less than 24 hours before the meeting (and that still isn’t posted publicly on the KCRHA’s website). Dones said it was “alarming” that the board wasn’t familiar with the proposal, and noted that the board already approved the agency’s biennial budget in 2023, suggesting that this was just a continuation of that budget.
During a brief discussion, board members argued that biennial budgets still deserve scrutiny, and often change from year to year; both the state of Washington and the city of Seattle, for example, operate on a biennial system but still go through a lengthy annual budget process. The KCRHA just proposed a revision of its new five-year plan that would refocus the agency on immediate shelter under a new mission statement—“To Bring Unsheltered People Inside as Quickly as Possible to Prevent Death and Further Harm”—that could, board member Ben Maritz argued, require the agency to change its spending strategy as soon as next year.
Additionally, the 2024 budget proposal includes requests for funding for nearly a dozen new KCRHA staffers, including three new HR staffers and a new “Housing Central Command Manager” for the “housing command center” that opened as part of Partnership for Zero last year. A memo on the budget that outlined the new positions is available on the KCRHA’s website.
The board decided to postpone approving the budget until its next meeting, which hasn’t been scheduled yet, and the meeting ended abruptly after several members dropped off the Zoom call, depriving the meeting of a quorum.
Up to 250 people experiencing homelessness who have been living in hotels around the region could be back on the streets in the next few days now that funding for the hotels, provided through a one-year federal grant to a group of homeless and formerly homeless advocates called the Lived Experience Coalition, has abruptly run out. The people at risk of eviction include both individuals and families, and most have no housing plan in place.
Ordinarily, the LEC is not a housing or shelter provider; its primary role is advocating for policy solutions to homelessness and ensuring that people who’ve experienced homelessness have a seat at the table when policy decisions are made.
Last year, though, the LEC received a series of federal grants, including a $1 million, one-year grant to rent hotel rooms from FEMA’s Emergency Food and Shelter Program and another $330,000 to program to connect hotel residents to employment. The LEC signed an agreement with the nonprofit Building Changes to serve as its fiscal sponsor—a pass-through agency that distributes funds for new or grassroots organizations.
Over the past year, but particularly between January and March of this year, the LEC moved hundreds of people into hotel rooms funded by the federal grant. By March, cash flow was dire. As of early April, the estimated gap between the funding the LEC had on hand and what it owes various hotels totals more than $700,000, and the shortfall is ballooning at a rate of about $1.1 million a month, according to several sources familiar with the situation.
The King County Regional Homelessness Authority, which has distanced itself from the hotel program, also used the LEC hotel rooms to move people off the streets of downtown Seattle as part of a public-private partnership aimed at ending unsheltered homelessness downtown, called Partnership for Zero.
“We’ve been notifying [the LEC] about the cash issues for a year,” Building Changes executive director Daniel Zavala said. “We shared [concerns] on several occasions throughout 2022, and really in December of this last year we were more formally flagging some of the cash flow issues.”
In emails and memos obtained by PubliCola, the LEC denied this, and said Building Changes failed to provide them with information about their cash flow when they requested it.
“For a very long time, we were operating blindly which caused us to spend $370,000 more than the grant we were awarded,” LEC director LaMont Green wrote in an email detailing LEC’s grievances with Building Changes. “We consistently asked for the financial reports but to no avail. Building Changes made us aware of this gross overspend less than 2 months before year end. … Additionally, when LEC received financial reporting it was often inaccurate.”
Zavala, from Building Changes, disputes this account. “We provided financial information on numerous occasions to the LEC over the last year,” Zavala said. “We’re here because the LEC mismanaged its finances.”
But the crisis isn’t just about a single organization falling into arrears.
The King County Regional Homelessness Authority, which oversees the region’s response to homelessness, also used the LEC hotel rooms to move people off the streets of downtown Seattle as part of a public-private partnership aimed at ending unsheltered homelessness downtown, called Partnership for Zero.
The organization that runs Partnership for Zero, another nonprofit called We Are In, initially floated the idea of using $1 million of the remaining program funds to get the LEC out of arrears—and keep the hundreds of people living in the hotels from falling back into unsheltered homelessness.
As of two weeks ago, according to emails, We Are In planned to use $1 million of the $10 million it pledged for Partnership for Zero to pay for the hotels. “We will be allocating $1M of the remaining partnership for zero funds at KCRHA to the outstanding LEC hotel invoices,” We Are In director Felicia Salcedo wrote to Zavala on March 30.
Taking these funds out of Partnership for Zero, Dones responded in the same email thread, would “cause the KCRHA to pause hiring as these funds were obligated to support staffing. My team estimates that this will reduce the overall housing capacity of the project by at least 1/3 if not more.”
On Monday, We Are In spokesman Erik Houser said the organization ended up using $1 million of its own funds, separate from the Partnership for Zero, to pay the LEC’s outstanding invoices for the hotels. That money ran out on Friday, and Houser said it’s now up to “other partners,” including government funders, to address the problem.
A spokeswoman for the KCRHA said Monday that “together with public and private partners, we have been working to identify possible solutions.”
Last week, a frenzy of finger-pointing almost overshadowed the imminent human crisis.
In one email exchange with LEC director Green’s requests for help coordinating shelter or housing for people living in the hotels, for example, KCRHA CEO Marc Dones wrote, “As I have stated repeatedly this is not a kcrha program and funding decisions are not being made by kcrha staff. … I am unclear how else to be of assistance.” It was a comment Dones would echo repeatedly throughout the week, and not without justification—the KCRHA was not involved in the original FEMA grant and played no part in the LEC’s partnership with Building Changes.
But the KCRHA was aware of the program. In fact, the agency’s own system advocates—outreach workers who connect people living unsheltered downtown to shelter and housing—were using the LEC hotel rooms to shelter people living downtown. Starting late last year, KCRHA staff utilized LEC-funded hotel rooms to shelter at least 90 people living in downtown Seattle, something PubliCola first reported back in February. According to an email Green sent to a group of agency and nonprofit partners last week, Green told Dones about the program in April 2022.
Green did not respond to a request for comment (in general, the LEC makes decisions and statements collectively) and the KCRHA declined to speak with PubliCola about the timeline. However, a KCRHA spokeswoman did confirm that of about 30 of the people KCRHA staffers moved into hotels through the LEC program were still in the hotels last week. The spokeswoman said all 30 were either moving into permanent housing or had housing plans in place.
Last week, with accusations flying between the LEC, Building Changes, and the KCRHA, Building Changes announced it was pulling its fiscal sponsorship from the LEC, which will be unable to receive or distribute funds until it obtains its own nonprofit status. The LEC sent a letter to Building Changes saying it would create “cruel and unusual duress” for Building Changes to drop its sponsorship without an exit strategy, but the decision appears final. “I can confirm that we have terminated our business relationship with the Lived Experience Coalition,” Zavala said.
Building Changes is also the fiscal sponsor for We Are In, which has pledged $10 million to the KCRHA for its Partnership for Zero work. That effort, which the KCRHA initially hoped to wrap up within a year, is behind schedule, in part, because landlords have been reluctant to rent to people with one-year subsidies without knowing what happens in “the 13th month,” according to an update from Dones in January.
As the program enters its second year, KCRHA is under pressure to show it’s making progress; We Are In is distributing its $10 million pledge in tranches, including an initial $4 million last year.
It’s unclear what, if any, funding is available to cover the hotel funding shortfall, which continues to grow every day the LEC’s clients remain in their rooms, which are distributed across several hotels in South and North King County, as well as one in Tacoma.
The implementation board includes three members (out of a current 13) who were appointed by the Lived Experience Coalition, including LEC co-founder and co-chair Okesha Brandon.
King County, which (along with the city of Seattle) is one of the KCRHA’s primary funders, says it does not have the money to pay for the LEC’s hotel bills. “We were recently made aware that the Lived Experience Coalition (LEC) is unable to maintain their temporary hoteling program, which had been used to shelter people experiencing homelessness,” a spokesman for King County Executive Dow Constantine said Friday.
“To determine how this situation occurred and ensure oversight and accountability, KCRHA is calling for a formal inquiry and audit of how the LEC program was managed and what will be done to prevent a similar situation in the future.”—King County Regional Homelessness Authority
“The hoteling program is independently run and managed by the LEC and is not a program within the KCRHA,” Constantine’s spokesman continued. “However, public and private partners are concerned about the impact on individuals currently sheltered in hotels and are working together to identify possible solutions.”
Spokespeople for Mayor Bruce Harrell and the city’s Human Services Department did not respond to requests for comments.
In a statement, the KCRHA said the agency was “recently made aware that the Lived Experience Coalition (LEC) is unable to maintain their temporary hoteling program, which had been used to shelter people experiencing homelessness.
“The LEC is an independent organization, and their hoteling program is not funded by KCRHA. However, we recognize that the closure of any shelter program has a significant impact on our communities and on the lives of the people given refuge in these hotels.”
The homelessness authority is “calling for a formal inquiry and audit of how the LEC program was managed and what will be done to prevent a similar situation in the future,” the statement concluded. Meanwhile, at press time, it was unclear what will happen to the people still staying in the LEC-funded hotels, and whether they’ll get to stay until they can move to other shelters or housing or be sent back out onto the street.
The KCRHA’s implementation board will meet on Wednesday, when Dones and the board are expected to discuss the hotel issue in public for the first time.
Advocates and city council members are putting pressure on Mayor Jenny Durkan and the city’s Human Services Department to move forward with three new tiny house villages—groups of small, shed-like shelters for people experiencing homelessness—this year, before the King County Regional Homelessness Authority (KCRHA) takes over the city’s homelessness-related contracts in 2022.
The short-term (and at this point, probably quixotic) goal is to convince Durkan and HSD’s short-staffed homelessness division to commit to moving forward with all three villages before the city’s homelessness contracts move to the KCRHA the end of the year. The long-term goal, which may be equally quixotic, is to demonstrate strong community support for tiny house villages in the face of strong opposition at the new authority, whose leader, Marc Dones, has no allegiance to what has become conventional wisdom at the city.
Earlier this year, the Seattle City Council adopted (and the mayor signed) legislation accepting $2 million in state COVID relief funding to stand up three new tiny house villages and setting aside an additional $400,000 to operate the villages once they open—the Seattle Rescue Plan. Since then, HSD has declined to issue a request for proposals to build the villages, arguing that the council doesn’t have a long-term plan to operate the villages after this year. The longer HSD waits, the more likely it is that the job of deciding whether to stand up additional tiny house villages will fall to the regional authority.
“I sure wouldn’t want to be the mayor who … wouldn’t stand up the housing that I had signed into law. I don’t think that’s a good legacy for this mayor, and I don’t think that’s what business owners and residents and services providers want to hear right now.”—City Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda
On Wednesday, village supporters arranged themselves next to a mock land-use sign for project “SLU-145” to make their case for a new village on a long-vacant parcel of City Light-owned land a block away. On hand: LIHI director Sharon Lee, City Councilmembers Andrew Lewis and Teresa Mosqueda, and several dozen residents of the nearby Mirabella retirement community, who have raised $143,000 for the effort.
“What we need is for those checks to be written now. That is in law. We cannot grind to a halt in the very moment that community needs us to be standing up shelters and services,” Mosqueda said. “By supporting the deployment, now, of the additional three tiny house villages funded and signed into law by the mayor through the Seattle Rescue Plan, we can support these immediate solutions and remain committed to building affordable housing and creating additional services.”
Lewis, who rolled out a plan to build 12 new tiny house villages called “It Takes A Village” earlier this year, told PubliCola he was frustrated that the city hasn’t added a single tiny house village all year during “the worst homelessness crisis that we’ve ever faced.”
“Tiny home villages may become our de-facto community response—warehousing and dehumanizing people into our own entrenched version of shanty towns, favelas, and slums.”—King County Lived Experience Coalition statement
“We have 295 tiny homes right now,” Lewis said. “And maybe we don’t need 2,000 tiny homes, but we certainly need more than 295. We’ve got over 4,000 people in the city who are experiencing homelessness right now. It’s just frustrating.”
Contacted after the press conference, Mosqueda added, “I sure wouldn’t want to be the mayor who saw growing homelessness during a deadly pandemic, and have my legacy be that I rejected funding, that I wouldn’t stand up the housing that I had signed into law. I don’t think that’s a good legacy for this mayor, and I don’t think that’s what business owners and residents and services providers want to hear right now.”
Tiny houses evolved out of ordinary tent encampments, as residents of both authorized and unauthorized tent cities set up semi-permanent structures, many of them no bigger than small garden sheds, to provide additional shelter from the elements. Over time, the encampments—now city-funded, standardized, and rebranded as “villages”—proliferated, spurred on by LIHI and supportive elected officials, including both council members and, at one point, Durkan herself.
Although tiny house villages are commonplace, they have detractors—including KCHRA director Dones, who has made no secret of their skepticism about the village model of shelter. Dones, a former consultant to King County who developed the model for the regional authority, has argued that people tend to stay in tiny house villages for too long compared to other shelter options, and has suggested that group homes and transitional housing may be more effective at moving people experiencing homelessness into permanent housing.Continue reading “With Future of Tiny Houses Up In the Air, Advocates Push for Action This Year”→