Tag: Marc Dones

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.

City Can Continue “Obstruction” Sweeps for Now; Ex-KCRHA Director Turns In First Work on City Contract

1. Last Friday, a state appeals court issued a ruling staying any enforcement of a King County Superior Court decision finding Seattle’s rules on “obstruction” encampment removals unconstitutional. The city defines an “obstruction” as any encampment, tent, person, or property that is located in virtually any public space, including remote areas of public parks. The stay comes in response to an appeal filed by City Attorney Ann Davison’s office on Friday, and allows the city to continue its practice of no-notice sweeps, which have ramped up dramatically under the Harrell Administration. Attorneys for the plaintiffs in the case have until August 11 to respond to the city’s appeal.

As we reported last month, two formerly homeless people, Bobby Kitcheon and Candace Ream, sued the city, with the help of the ACLU of Washington, after the city subjected them to repeated sweeps. According to the lawsuit, both Kitcheon and Ream lost all their possessions, including irreplaceable family mementos as well as IDs, insulin and other medications, and food, each time the city arrived to remove their tents from a new location.

In his order, Superior Court Judge David Keenan found that the city’s rule violates people’s privacy and constitutes “cruel punishment” under the state constitution because the city’s definition of “obstruction”—which includes any tent or person sleeping in any area of a public park, for example—”allows the City to move unhoused people who are not actual obstructions, without offering unhoused people shelter.” Under a Ninth Circuit ruling called Martin v. Boise, cities are not allowed to remove homeless people from a location without offering them shelter except in certain circumstances, including when a tent or person is blocking others from using a public space, such as a sidewalk.

The city’s appeal of the superior court ruling rests on the argument that the city’s rule allowing no-notice removals of encampments when they are “obstructions” can’t be “facially” invalid—that is, unenforceable on its face— because the rules can be applied constitutionally; in other words, because there are cases where a tent is actually obstructing the public use of a space, such as a sidewalk, the city is claiming the law can’t be invalid in its entirety.

The city attorney’s office, using outside attorneys, is also arguing that because the two plaintiffs are now housed and were never subject to civil or criminal charges, they lack standing to challenge the city. It’s worth noting that as a matter of practice, the city does not fine or charge people for sleeping in public; instead, it conducts sweeps.

Additionally, according to the city’s appeal, “even if respondents had standing, Mr. Kitcheon and Ms. Ream were not involuntarily homeless because they were repeatedly offered shelter by the City and voluntarily left City-funded shelter.” As we have reported many times, people often decline shelter or leave the shelter beds the city assigns them because the beds are not appropriate for their circumstances; in Kitcheon’s case, according to the lawsuit, the only shelters that were generally available were single-gender and would have forced him and his wife to separate.

Davison’s office also argued that people have no right to privacy inside their tents when those tents are located on public property. PubliCola is not a lawyer, but this does raise an obvious question about how far the city’s right to invade people’s personal space extends.

Over the weekend, for example, housed people camped out along Lake Washington during Seafair; would Davison claim a right to send workers to barge into those tents and seize everything inside them, since they are, according to the city’s own rules, obstructing the use of public space? Or does the city’s “heightened interest in protecting the health and safety of the community (both housed and unhoused) and accessible use of public property and rights of way” only apply when the people camped out in public space have nowhere else to go?

Page two of the four-page document representing 10 hours, or $2,500, of Dones’ $60,000 contract with the city.

2. PubliCola has received the second of 10 “deliverables” provided by former KCRHA director Marc Dones as part of their ongoing, $60,000 contract with the city of Seattle, which involves researching how Medicaid funding might be used to pay for homeless services.

The document, which—according to Dones’ contract—represents 10 hours’ worth of work, is a spare timeline and 375-word summary of the work Dones is supposed to do, including “framework development,” interviews with stakeholders, and “iterating the framework report” with Harrell’s office. The city is paying Dones through December.

As we’ve reported, Dones left the KCRHA at a time when many agency staffers and government officials with oversight authority over the agency had begun to express a lack of confidence in their leadership. The contract is worth three months’ salary for Dones—the minimum they would have been likely to receive in severance if they had been fired instead of leaving voluntarily.

Former KCRHA Director’s New $250-an-Hour Contract Focuses On Medicaid Funding for Homelessness

Regional Homelessness Authority CEO Marc Dones speaks at a press conference about the new public-private "Partnership for Zero" Thursday
Former KCRHA director Marc Dones at the “Partnership for Zero” announcement last year

By Erica C. Barnett

The Seattle Human Services Department released the details of former King County Regional Homelessness Authority director Marc Dones’ $250-an-hour contract with the city on Friday. PubliCola reported on the contract, which is widely viewed as a payment in lieu of severance (for which Dones, who resigned, was ineligible), in June. Real Change was first to report on the contract details on Friday. Dones’ contract began on June 20, the first business day after their final day at KCRHA.

Under the contract, Dones (through their company, Gray Sky Consulting) will receive $60,000—the equivalent of three months’ salary—for performing 240 hours of work, including 30 hours determining the scope the work to be performed and creating a timeline for deliverables.

City consulting contracts don’t generally require an exact accounting of hours—see, for example, former deputy mayor Tim Ceis’ own $250-an-hour contract to “build community consensus” on Mayor Bruce Harrell’s preferred light rail station locations—so it’s impossible to say how much actual time Dones will spend delivering on this contract. Coming up with or list of “stakeholders,” for example, is supposed to take the former KCRHA director five hours, and writing a final report accounts for another 60.

The contract says Dones will do a “landscape assessment” of existing programs and come up with recommendations for using Medicaid funds “to maximize the region’s resources available to address homelessness.” As we’ve been reporting since February 2022, Dones planned to use a Medicaid-funded state program called Foundational Community Supports to pay for the downtown Partnership for Zero, an ambitious (and unrealized) plan to eliminate visible homelessness in downtown Seattle by as early as last year. The KCRHA’s adopted 2024 budget assumes$5.2 million from Medicaid reimbursement, an estimate Dones called “conservative.”

Providers who have used Medicaid funding to pay for programs addressing homelessness cautioned that Medicaid reimbursement is almost more trouble than it’s worth, because the use of the federal program is severely limited and documenting units of care, known as “encounters,” has proven extremely difficult. It’s unclear what additional research Dones is expected to provide beyond the work KCRHA did to justify the assumptions about Medicaid reimbursement that informed its 2024 budget.

The contract also includes 30 hours of research on the integration of existing “labor, public health, and violence prevention” programs, including violence prevention research with a “specific focus on the overlap between gang violence and encampments.”

Burien Leaders Face Crisis of Confidence on Homelessness, More on Former KCRHA Director’s Next Steps

1. The Burien City Council is still seeing fallout from its 4-3 decision to oust Burien Planning Commissioner Charles Schaefer two weeks ago, ostensibly because he directed unsheltered people to a piece of city-owned land prior to the May sweep of an encampment outside Burien City Hall earlier this year.

Schaefer said he was acting as a private individual, and not in his capacity as a volunteer member of the planning board, when he, along with Councilmember Cydney Moore, informed people who had been living at an encampment next to City Hall that it would be legal for them to set up tents on a nearby piece of city-owned property that some condo owners have been using as a dog relief area.

The vote to oust Schaefer sparked a wave of resignations by other volunteer commission members, including the entire Planning Commission.

The city later rented out the land to a local animal shelter run by the head of the Burien business group Discovery Burien for a future dog park, displacing encampment residents again. Many moved their tents to a small strip of city-owned land along SW 152nd St., the “Main Street” of Burien. Within weeks, large boulders had popped up along the strip, along with campaign signs for Alex Andrade, a city council candidate running on a public safety and accountability platform who’s endorsed by three members of the Burien council’s four-person anti-encampment majority.

The Burien Human Services Commission’s letter was a toned-down version of the initial draft, which accused city leaders of “choosing … to invest time and energy on show trials that do nothing to provide access to housing and other support for our neighbors.”

“We’re running out of space and Burien does not have any piece of public property that’s not parks that’s remotely habitable,” Moore told PubliCola this week. “Over the last several months, at almost every council meeting since the first sweep happened, I have asked at the start of meetings if we could amend our agenda to have a discussion about where these people can go.” But every time, Moore said, her request has been deemed out of order—a claim that is not supported by the city’s council rules, which allow proposals to “alter the current agenda” near the beginning of each meeting.

Although council members, including Deputy Mayor Kevin Schilling, have claimed that encampment residents are simply refusing to accept shelter and housing, the city’s own Human Services Commission noted in a letter to the council last week that this claim “is simply not true.” The letter also decries a recent decision by the council and city manager Adolfo Bailon to reject an offer from King County to provide $1 million and 35 Pallet shelters, which can house two people each, along with a land swap that would open up a city-owned site for the shelter.

It was a toned-down version of the commission’s initial draft, which accused city leaders of “choosing … to invest time and energy on show trials that do nothing to provide access to housing and other support for our neighbors.”

Meanwhile, Bailon, who was hired by the city council, is undergoing a performance review by an outside consultant. It’s unclear whether the council plans to publicly discuss the details of that review, which is reportedly less than flattering. In Burien, which has a population of just over 50,000, the council hires (and can fire) the city manager, who manages the daily operations of the city.

2. Former King County Regional Homelessness Authority CEO Marc Dones, whose last official day at the authority was June 16, is negotiating a contract from the city of Seattle, through the Human Services Department  for work “related to using Medicaid funding for homelessness services,” an HSD spokesman confirmed.

As we reported earlier this month, the contract will serve as a kind of payment in lieu of severance. It’s unclear what work product Dones will be expected to produce, and the city did not reveal the size of the potential contract; PubliCola has filed a public disclosure request for this information.

As CEO of the homelessness authority, Dones was a vocal proponent for using a Medicaid program called Foundational Community Supports, which provides pre-tenancy services for chronically homeless people, to fund the KCHRA’s Partnership for Zero effort to eliminate visible homelessness downtown.

Neither Dones nor the city provided further details about this contract, which they said would be finalized this week, except that, according to Dones, “broadly[,] it’s pulling together the policy framework to integrate the systems.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this item said that Dones was going to work for the Schultz Family Foundation; Dones followed up to say that they are not taking a position there. 

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

By Erica C. Barnett

On Friday, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority will convene an unusual meeting to determine the future of a previously obscure body, the Continuum of Care Board, that made headlines earlier this year when its co-chair, Shanéé Colston, shouted down another board member who objected to the appointment of a registered sex offender to the board. That board member, who also described her own traumatic experience with the nominee, left the meeting after Colston and another board member told her she had no right to object.

The meeting includes a vote on a new charter for the organization as a whole, followed by a vote for new board members, including a replacement for Colston, who has not completed her three-year term.

In a statement on Wednesday, interim KCRHA CEO Helen Howell—said she hoped that “with new leadership in place, the CoC Board can refocus its energies on the upcoming application for over $50 million in federal funding to reduce and prevent homelessness across King County.”

The KCHRA’s leaders, Howell continued, “encourage the voting membership to consider the importance of electing a Board that will lead with empathy, build consensus, and focus first and foremost on our shared goal of bringing more people inside.” The statement was co-signed by the three chairs of the KCRHA’s governing board, Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell, King County Executive Dow Constantine, and Renton City Councilmember representative Ed Prince.

For the past few weeks, the KCRHA has been encouraging people and organizations with a stake in the region’s homelessness system to sign up as members of the stakeholder group that oversees the region’s Continuum of Care (CoC), the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s term for an agency, like the KCRHA, that oversees and coordinates homelessness services in an area.

On Friday, this stakeholder group—now, thanks in part to the KCRHA’s recruitment efforts, about 150 strong—is scheduled to vote on a new charter for the Continuum of Care as a whole, as well as new members of the CoC board. The new charter, if it’s adopted, will empower the entire CoC membership, rather than the board itself, to determine who sits on the board—a significant change that would make board members uniquely accountable to a large group of unelected stakeholders.

After the charter vote, the CoC is scheduled to vote on 13 candidates for board seats, including five current members and eight new nominees. Colston is not running for reelection to the board. KCRHA spokesman Anne Martens said members of the board itself, including two co-chairs, requested the change. “This process is a best practice to keep the board accountable to the community,” Martens said.

The KCRHA—whose first director, Marc Dones, recently resigned—is in a period of retrenchment. Under Dones, the KCRHA committed to empower people with direct experience of homelessness as key decision makers at the authority—sometimes at the expense of more conventional qualifications, like work experience and technical expertise. Now, after a chaotic first two years, the agency is starting to walk some of those commitments back.

The Continuum of Care board has a complex mix of responsibilities: It reviews and approves the KCRHA’s applications for federal funding, oversees performance metrics for homeless service providers, and creates a prioritization tool to judge funding applications, among other duties.

After PubliCola broke the story, right-wing media grabbed it and took it in a predictable direction, demonizing Colston—a volunteer board member with extensive personal experience of homelessness—as an out-of-control “official” for the KCRHA and demanding her resignation.

However, the board is probably now best known for the meeting in which Colston shouted down another board member who objected to the appointment of a man who has been convicted of multiple sex offenses involving teenage girls and who, according to the board member, had also touched her inappropriately. After the incident, KCRHA chief program officer Peter Lynn asked Colston to resign, saying her actions had created a “hostile environment for KCRHA staff and committee members.” The board has not held a public meeting since May.

Although the nominee, Raven Crowfoot (also known as Thomas Whitaker), later withdrew his application, the fallout from the incident was immense. After PubliCola broke the story, right-wing media grabbed it and took it in a predictable direction, demonizing Colston—a volunteer board member with extensive personal experience of homelessness—as an out-of-control “official” at the KCRHA and demanding her resignation. Colston, who did not respond to a request for comment, did not step down. But she is not running for reelection to the board, which means that if the vote goes forward on Friday, she will be replaced before the end of her term.

According Martens, new CoC board members (and current members who choose to attend) “will receive an in-depth onboarding,” including “training on the Open Public Meetings Act, CoC roles and responsibilities, trauma-informed practices, LGBTQIA2S+ equity, professional development for people with lived experience, and board roles and responsibilities among other items.”

The proposed new charter also removes all references to the Lived Experience Coalition, an advocacy group that was empowered, under Dones, to directly appoint members to the agency’s implementation board and weigh in on agency policies and priorities. The new charter even deletes a reference to the LEC’s role in creating the agency’s theory of change, instead crediting the community and the National Innovation Service, the firm where Dones developed the framework for the KCRHA as a consultant.

As we reported last week, the KCRHA recently terminated an agreement that gave the LEC the authority to staff the KCRHA’s ombudsperson office, and has been systematically removing references to the organization from job descriptions, the KCRHA’s Five-Year Plan, and other agency documents. The KCRHA has been distancing itself from the LEC for a while, but a major breaking point came when the LEC and its fiscal agent, Building Changes, ran out of money to operate several hotel-based shelters it was operating with federal funds earlier this year.

It’s unclear who, specifically, drafted the new version of the charter, which is dated “June 2023.” Martens said it was developed “with input from current Board members and KCRHA staff, with guidance from HUD [Technical Assistance] and KCRHA counsel.” An earlier, much different version of the charter, which had been on the KCRHA’s website since at least the beginning of May, was posted ” in error before counsel had a chance to review,” according to Martens.

The KCRHA’s “Meet the Continuum of Care Board” web page no longer displays the names of the board (available here); instead, it reads, “CoC Board Members are being voted on at the June 23rd, 2023 CoC Member Convening. Results of the vote will be posted here June 26th, 2023.” A list of candidates is available on the KCRHA’s website.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drug Criminalization Bill Could Hang on One Vote; Dones May Get Consultant Contract After Leaving Homelessness Agency

1. As of last week, the Seattle City Council seemed likely to vote at least 5-4 in favor of legislation, proposed by City Attorney Ann Davison and sponsored by Councilmembers Sara Nelson and Alex Pedersen, to criminalize simple drug possession and public use at the city level. The state legislature, responding to a state supreme court decision overturning the state’s previous felony law, made drug use and possession a gross misdemeanor earlier this year; the local proposal would incorporate parts of that law into the city’s municipal code.

However, after Davison abruptly withdrew the city from Seattle’s community court—a therapeutic court that accepts people accused of most misdemeanors without requiring them to plead guilty of a crime—council members who were leaning toward a “yes” vote have reportedly been reconsidering their positions. If Councilmembers Teresa Mosqueda, Tammy Morales, Kshama Sawant, and Lisa Herbold all vote “no,” all it will take is one more council member—either Andrew Lewis or Dan Strauss, both up for reelection this year—to doom the bill.

Lewis declined to comment on Monday, and Strauss did not respond to a text message last week. However, Strauss proposed an amendment on Monday that would add a “whereas” clause the bill pointing out that the state law mentions diversion, treatment, and services as alternatives to booking and prosecution, suggesting that he may believe the new law meaningfully encourages these alternatives.

If Strauss supports the bill, the decision would come down to Lewis. Although Lewis told the Seattle Times he supports prosecuting people for public drug use, that was before Davison withdrew the city from community court. In light of that decision, Lewis may want to avoid handing more authority to a separately elected official who has demonstrated she will act unilaterally to penalize low-level crimes. During Monday’s council briefing, Lewis criticized Davison’s decision, saying it was “concerning that the decision to pull out and disrupt that program has been made without a well-thought–out plan on what replaces it.”

The criminalization bill skipped past the usual committee hearing, so tomorrow’s 2 pm full council meeting will be the first time the council discusses the legislation publicly, and the first and last opportunity for the public to address the council directly before the vote.

2. Former King County Regional Homelessness Authority CEO Marc Dones, who announced their resignation last month, will reportedly receive a public contract to work on an unspecified project for the agency for up to three months after their last day on June 16. Sources close to Dones and the agency were tight-lipped about the details, but the deal is said to be a kind of payment in lieu of severance because Dones decided to resign rather than forcing the agency to fire them, which was starting to look more and more likely in the weeks leading up to Dones’ resignation.

Dones has been a divisive figure, winning praise for their big-picture vision and efforts to include people with direct experience in decisions that impact them directly, along with criticism for neglecting ground-level details, like building relationships with existing service providers and paying contractors on time.

It’s unclear exactly where the money for Dones’ potential contract would come from, and whether it would require them to be physically present at KCRHA headquarters at the same time that an interim director, Helen Howell, is working to establish a new course for the agency. A representative for King County declined to comment on the details of the potential contract, and a representative for Harrell did not respond to an email, a phone call, or a text message seeking comment.

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

By Erica C. Barnett

When the King County Regional Homelessness Authority’s founding CEO, Marc Dones, announced they were stepping down earlier this month (news PubliCola broke on Twitter from vacation), reactions among homeless service providers, advocates, and agency insiders ranged from sighs of relief to deep concern over what’s next for the beleaguered agency.

Over the past two years, since Dones was hired in March 2021, the KCRHA has struggled to find its footing through a series of pivots, funding battles with Seattle and King County, and internal and public debates over its mission.

Did Seattle and King County create a regional homelessness agency to solve homelessness as quickly as possible, or is the KCRHA merely a clearinghouse for homeless service contracts previously administered by Seattle and King County, its two primary funders? Should the KCRHA set regional policies and spending priorities and expect its member cities to fall in line, or should cities have freedom to establish their own strategies based on their own local politics and context? Is “housing first” a nonnegotiable goal, or is shelter, even basic shelter with mats on the floor, a critical part of the region’s approach to homelessness?

One thing is clear: With Dones out, there is a power vacuum at KCRHA that will be difficult to fill, in a very practical sense: Despite the usual talk of a “thorough national search,” it’s unlikely the agency will be overwhelmed with qualified applicants. Dones, readers may recall, was the second pick for the position, and ascended to the job after the KCRHA board’s first choice, Regina Cannon, turned it down in 2020. The position now comes pre-loaded with two years of baggage and more urgency than ever; a new CEO will need not just a big-picture vision for the region, but a plan to show swift progress on homelessness and get the authority back on track.

Prior to taking the CEO position, Dones was a homelessness consultant whose firm, the National Innovation Service, created the framework for the KCRHA. As the architect of the regional plan, Dones frequently fought efforts to alter it, battling with local leaders over funding priorities, questioning the expertise of longtime service providers, and expending scarce political capital on ambitious plans that didn’t always pan out—like an early proposal to make big investments in safe parking lots for the thousands of people living in their vehicles across King County.

Under Dones’ leadership, the KCRHA established a clear picture of the homelessness problem in King County, but the agency also fell behind schedule on many of its initial goals.

Dones’ supporters praised them as a visionary who emphasized the disproportionate impact of homelessness on people of color,  particularly Black King County residents, foregrounded and empowered people with direct, “lived” experience of homelessness, and never shied away from telling the unvarnished truth about what it would take to truly end homelessness in the region. Critics said Dones elevated lived experience over practical expertise, engaged in unnecessary battles with potential allies like Mayor Bruce Harrell and homeless service providers, and focused on the 10,000-foot view while neglecting ground-level basics, like opening severe weather shelters and paying homeless services providers on time.

Under Dones’ leadership, the KCRHA established a clear picture of the homelessness problem in King County—tens of thousands of people are living unsheltered, in vehicles, and in emergency housing such as hotels and congregate shelters—and housing or even sheltering them all is a problem with a price tag of billions of dollars a year.

But the agency also fell behind schedule on many of its initial goals, including relatively short-term commitments like the plan, announced with great fanfare in February 2022, to end unsheltered homelessness in downtown Seattle in “as little as 12 months” through a public-private partnership with the corporate-backed nonprofit agency We Are In. Although efforts to respond to homelessness continue downtown—including escalated sweeps by the city of Seattle, combined with more thoughtful one-off projects like the Third Avenue Project—unsheltered homelessness remains a pervasive issue in the area.

The plan, known as Partnership for Zero, was for the KCRHA to use private donations to hire dozens of outreach workers with “lived experience,” who would serve as a single point of contact for people living unsheltered downtown, navigating them “longitudinally” and directly from street homelessness into permanent housing, much of it provided by private landlords motivated by a desire to help solve the homelessness crisis. The coordinating body for this partnership is a “housing command center” that meets daily to discuss clients’ individual cases, with the goal of moving them into permanent housing that works for them.

From inception, there were a number of issues with this approach, chief among them the fact that Seattle—unlike, say, New Orleans and Houston, two cities that have successfully moved people directly from the streets to housing—does not have an abundance of vacant apartments, much less housing low-income people can afford. (The Partnership for Zero plan assumes that, in many cases, people will begin paying full rent after a year or so of subsidy).

The plan also assumes that Medicaid will become the primary funding source for the partnership, an assumption many providers have called premature, given the difficulties existing agencies face securing Medicaid reimbursement even for services that are traditionally covered by the federal program.

By setting up a in-house outreach program that duplicated work the agency’s own nonprofit outreach contractors have been providing for years, the KCRHA also created an unequal system in which government employees receive substantially higher pay, and access to more housing resources, than existing outreach providers. This two-track system has understandably irked some nonprofit outreach agencies, who have protested that setting up a parallel system puts them at a disadvantage when it comes to helping clients and retaining qualified staff, who can earn far more money doing the same job for the KCRHA.

The agency’s initial five-year plan—widely, if somewhat unfairly, criticized for being a “$12 billion plan to end homelessness”—included a number of unforced errors, beyond its eye-popping price tag.

More importantly, the partnership hasn’t produced the results it promised, putting about 200 people so far on a “path” toward housing, according to the KCRHA—one reason agency leaders could sunset the program in the post-Dones era.

One criticism of the KCRHA, under Dones’ leadership, is that Dones’ big-picture proposals have sometimes been at odds with political and practical realities. For example, the agency’s initial five-year plan—widely, if somewhat unfairly, criticized for being a “$12 billion plan to end homelessness”—included a number of unforced errors, beyond its eye-popping price tag.

Under the agreement that established the KCRHA, the five-year plan was supposed to set out practical goals for the first five years of agency operations, with the goal of reducing homelessness among specific population groups. Instead, the initial version of the plan laid out what it would cost, in theory, to eliminate unsheltered homelessness in five years. (The plan does not deal directly with housing, which is the responsibility of other agencies, like the city of Seattle’s Office of Housing.) The plan proposed spending billions of dollars a year on shelter, along with thousands of new “safe parking” spaces for people living in their vehicles—an utterly impractical proposal, given the region’s inability to site even one permanent safe lot in more than a decade of efforts to do so.

The initial five-year plan also called for reducing funding for tiny house villages, singling out this shelter type (along with the region’s tiny house village provider, the Low Income Housing Institute) as undesirable despite the fact that the city of Seattle, the KCRHA’s chief funder, prefers to fund tiny houses over almost every other form of shelter. Defending the proposal to cut funding for tiny houses while investing billions in other forms of shelter and parking lots for people to live in their cars, Dones said it was “just math,” pointing to a survey the agency conducted of about 180 homeless people that was used to determine the mix of services in the plan.

The proposal antagonized other existing shelter providers, too, by asserting that almost one in four shelter beds are vacant (and, by implication, useless). And it set off alarms among suburban city leaders because it called for the complete elimination of funding for congregate shelters—the only form of shelter that exists in many cities outside Seattle.

Ultimately, the agency adopted a rewritten plan that omitted most of the prescriptive language from the initial proposal, along with language criticizing the purported failures of the existing shelter system. While the original proposal included seven goals and dozens of sub-strategies, the plan adopted by the agency’s boards earlier this month focuses on “one goal”: Reducing unsheltered homelessness and preventing homeless people from dying. More than 30 pages lighter than the original proposal, the new five-year plan meets the bare minimum requirements of the KCRHA’s charter while allowing plenty of room for future leaders to pick their own priorities. Continue reading “With the Departure of Founding CEO Dones, What Comes Next for the Region’s Homelessness Agency?”

Oversight Board Questions Price Tag, Exclusion of Tiny Houses from Homeless Agency’s Five-Year Plan

The five-year plan includes no new spending on tiny house villages.

By Erica C. Barnett

Members of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority’s governing board, including Mayor Bruce Harrell and City Council homelessness committee chair Andrew Lewis, expressed concerns over the scale and scope of the agency’s draft Five-Year Plan to address homelessness, which calls for 18,000 new shelter beds and parking spots for people living in their vehicles—and an annual price tag in the billions. Currently, the city of Seattle and King County are the authority’s only funders.

We dug into the details of the draft plan on Tuesday.

Harrell, who declined to fund any of the KCRHA’s requests for new programs in last year’s city budget, said he didn’t “see a route to achieve” the full five-year plan, which includes $8.4 billion in capital costs and between $1.7 and $3.4 billion in annual operations and maintenance costs. “That’s almost another city [budget],” he said. Instead, Harrell said, the authority should figure out what it can do with incremental increases of 5 or 10 percent a year and come back with a plan that focuses on responding to the immediate need for emergency shelter. “Maybe it’s there and maybe I’m just not seeing it, but I just want a little more meat there.”

In response to concerns from elected officials, KCRHA CEO Marc Dones the reason the plan zeroes out tiny houses is that “the modeling calls for fewer modular shelters than we currently have—it’s just math.”

Lewis echoed Harrell’s comments, saying he’d like to see a “price tag that is more within existing norms that can be nimble, responsive, and bring the kind of response we’re hearing from the public that they want to see … like hotel/motel acquisition, tiny homes, and pallet shelters that can be scaled with urgency and scaled more achievably within existing resources to mitigate those most significant encampments that are rightly causing significant community consternation.”

While the city declined to fund the KCRHA’s budget requests last year, they did pay for new emergency shelters and tiny houses, a type of shelter Dones has singled out for criticism for years. The agency’s five-year plan includes additional funding for every existing shelter type except tiny house villages, which are featured in a chart showing “$0” across the board.

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In response to questions from Seattle Councilmember Lisa Herbold, who noted that the five-year plan actually shows a 55-bed reduction in tiny house village spots, Dones said the reason the plan zeroes out tiny houses is that “the modeling calls for fewer modular shelters than we currently have—it’s just math.” As we reported last week, the KCRHA determined how much of each type of shelter the region needs based largely on interviews with 180 people experiencing homelessness about their needs; they did not ask any questions about specific shelter types. Dones said even though the plan shows an overall reduction in tiny houses, “we would not look to pull funding out of the existing THV stock or what has been funded in order to make the numbers and the math” match up with actual shelters on the ground.

The governing board isn’t scheduled to meet again until April, when they’re supposed to vote to approve the five-year plan. King County Councilmember Claudia Balducci and Herbold both questioned this timeline, saying they’d like an opportunity to review the final version and discuss it again publicly before voting to approve it. The authority is up against an 18-month deadline to approve the plan, which was originally supposed to be out last fall. The board— whose job is to sign off on the plan as approved by a separate implementation board, not to amend it—agreed to tentatively add one additional meeting in May to take a final vote on the plan.

One Year In, Homelessness Authority Director Marc Dones Says Despite Challenges, Agency is “Seeing Success”

By Erica C. Barnett

The new King County Regional Homelessness Authority, which administers contracts and sets policy for the region’s homelessness response system, has seen its share of hiccups in the two and a half years since the city and county voted to create the agency in December 2019. In addition to the pandemic, the agency has faced budget battles, hiring challenges, and open clashes with homeless service providers over the appropriate response to unsheltered homelessness.

A partnership with businesses that aims to eliminate all tents from downtown Seattle by providing intensive case management from people who have been homeless themselves sparked controversy, as did the authority’s request—the second in two years—for significantly more city funding than Seattle leaders said they could provide.

Recently, the agency’s CEO, Marc Dones, stood side by side with Mayor Bruce Harrell at an event celebrating the closure of an encampment at Woodland Park, which Dones distinguished from a traditional encampment sweep because most of the people living there received extensive outreach and shelter referrals. As a matter of official policy, KCRHA opposes sweeps—a position that puts the agency in constant tension with the city, which has dramatically accelerated encampment removals since Harrell became mayor.

I sat down with Dones in their bare-bones office in Pioneer Square last week to discuss some of the controversies they’ve encountered in their first year on the job, the authority’s relationship with the city, and where they believe the region is making progress on homelessness.

We started out by discussing the emergency housing vouchers provided by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development as part of its COVID relief efforts last year. HUD set up a complex, multi-layer process for delivering these vouchers to people who need them; as a result, many nonprofit service providers across the country have struggled to get the vouchers in their clients’ hands and ultimately get their clients into housing.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

PubliCola: To start us off, can you talk a little bit about where the region has made progress on homelessness in the year since you took over at the agency?

Marc Dones: I would say we have made really significant progress on engaging, for lack of a better term, non-standard providers, and I think our emergency housing voucher work is the best example of that. Our emergency housing voucher program is trending above national [rates], in terms of lease-up, by almost half. I think we’re at 60 percent, and the country’s at something like 33.

I’m using ‘provider’ really broadly here, because a lot of these folks who are linked to the EHV program were not funded by the system at all. They’re folks who do more mutual aid-style work, where they are supporting people who are experiencing homelessness, often through relational work, and case management activities. How we have been able to connect people with the vouchers as a resource, and then support them through lease-up and then into housing, has really hinged on this idea that if we went to where people have their relationships, and use that as the primary vehicle, we would see success. And I think that we are seeing success.

I [also] think of our severe weather response, because we tapped into who’s supporting people outside, and how can we get the money to better support people who are outside, instead of hyper-focusing on this idea that we have to open up 10 more severe weather shelters downtown that people probably aren’t going to use, because they don’t provide parking, or you can’t store your stuff, or it’s only overnight. [So we focused on], how do we get stuff to people that it’s going to meaningfully interrupt potential harm, like just straight-up supplies.

Some of the other stuff that I’m particularly proud of—controversial in some spaces though it is—is our ability to engage philanthropy and business and to be able to begin to migrate towards being on the same page as some of those folks who have historically been positioned as external to the narrative, and then securing their buy-in in to put a significant chunk of change into the system for single adults. Which, not for nothing, it’s always families [who get support through philanthropy]. And so being able to work with the team of folks to get that much buy-in around single adults felt like a really big deal for me.

“If timelines shift because we learn more about the people that we’re supposed to be serving, and we learn that we don’t have the thing that they need, or we learn that we will, but it’s going to be online in a month, those are the realities of doing this kind of work inside the scarcity that we operate in. And I think we should do a better job of communicating that to the public.”

PC: In implementing the public-private Partnership for Zero, how is the authority ensuring that KCRHA is not prioritizing people in one geographic area for beds in the whole system or for units in the whole system?

MD: I get this question from everybody. And I keep having to say, well, no, that kind of will happen to some degree, because we don’t have enough stuff. Full stop. And so part of what the authority is looking to do is create geographic areas of focus, where we drive a ton of good outcomes for people who need us.

Downtown was selected because it has the highest concentration of unsheltered homelessness in the county, particularly for chronically homeless folks. And my expectation is that the vast majority of the folks that we are going to be engaging with—because of how prioritization currently works in terms of having a severe and persistent disability, being eligible for permanent supportive housing, etc.—are folks who we know would rise to the top of lists if they were engaged anyway.

But I think that what we have said is, until such a time as we have enough resources to activate countywide, we are going to have to make choices about where is our specific focus, and then we’re going to have to drive real hard and then shift, and drive real hard and then shift. And I will not defend it as the best way to do this work.  But I will defend it as what is possible for us inside the resource scarcity that we have.

PC: Do you think that you’re on track for “functional zero” [no permanent downtown homeless population] on the timeline you rolled out back in March?

MD: So far so good. I think we’re on track. [That said,] I do want this to feel less opaque to the general public. And I want timeline shifts to not be government failure, particularly when we’re doing complex, human-centered work. And it might take longer as we learn more about who those folks are. I think that if timelines shift because we learn more about the people that we’re supposed to be serving, and we learn that we don’t have the thing that they need, or we learn that we will, but it’s going to be online in a month, those are the realities of doing this kind of work inside the scarcity that we operate in. And I think we should do a better job of communicating that to the public so that when those shifts happen, they should have enough insight into what we do, so that their reaction isn’t ‘The government is out here playing with the timelines.’ We have to get that level of trust. And I know we don’t have it, but we have to get it.

PC: There has been a dramatic increase in encampment sweeps during the new administration. What the KCRHA’s role leading up to and during encampment removals?

MD: Our role is relatively limited. We play a role, but that role is outreach. Currently, we are in receipt of the removal calendar between 30 and 60 days in advance. And that is in part because the mayor’s office has done, I think, some good policy work to help prioritize which encampments are prioritized and why, so that it begins to skew away from what we’ve traditionally seen, if we’re just being totally, brutally honest, which is someone who’s elected or someone who is in a wealthy neighborhood is able to generate enough outcry about someone who’s experiencing homelessness.

PC: How do does the uptick in obstruction removals [encampment removals with less than 72 hours’ notice] affect the KCRHA’s ability to be trusted, and outreach workers that are contracted with your agency to be trusted?

MD: My responses are limited because we’re just not in that stuff. And where we have aligned with the mayor’s office is around what we are able to provide, in terms of engagement and support. On the obstructions, there is currently no authority role there. We have been very clear that a displacement-based strategy is not how we want to work. And recognizing that sometimes where an encampment is, for many reasons, including for the people who live there, doesn’t work. We want to work on timelines that make sense to get people inside.

PC: And did the mayor’s office ask the authority to participate in those removals or have any role?

MD: It was a conversation. And I think what I have pushed for is, give us time to engage people so that we can do right by them with what the system can currently offer. And [Deputy Mayor] Tiffany [Washington] was super open to that. And then it became, okay, on what cycle? And that’s how we’ve gotten to this 30-to-60-day, maybe even beyond, structure that gives us the capacity to engage people. So I do really want to say there was real collaborative work there.

“You can’t sunset [the HOPE Team], and nothing is in its place. And until we fully architect and deploy the thing that is more elegant, and can span the whole county, we can’t just be, like, ‘go away.'”

PC: What do you think of the fact that the HOPE Team has remained at the city as a kind of vestigial outreach team, while almost every other function of the city’s homelessness apparatus has moved over to the authority? Do they still serve a purpose?

MD: Currently, I would say yes. And I would say that part of it has to do with what we understand to be the case about when outreach teams don’t want to engage [during a sweep]. They have said very clearly that, after [removal signs are posted], our efficacy drops, and for reasons that are at this point nationally recognized as true. So I think that the [HOPE team] remains an important today feature. I don’t know if it’s going to make sense next year. I’m really trying to get it become vestigial over the next three-ish years, as we turn this around.

PC: Should the HOPE Team continue to have exclusive access to hundreds of shelter beds that aren’t available to service providers?

MD: When we talk about the set-aside beds, I don’t think that there’s actually an argument about whether or not the set-aside beds are the best way to manage bed availability. But in order to fully step away from set-asides, we need a better way to manage real-time bed availability across the whole system. And we’re working on that here—it is a hot topic around these halls. But we’re not quite there yet. And so there’s some stuff that I think we can talk about in the community as not ideal, and acknowledge that there will be a moment where we can say, ‘Okay, now we can turn that off.’

But I think it’s also really important to be really clear that you can’t sunset one thing, and nothing is in its place. And until we fully architect and deploy the thing that is more elegant, and can span the whole county, we can’t just be, like, go away, because then there’s chaos in that space, which is harmful. Again, we do still need to meet some of those functions to help people.

PC: It’s almost summer. Can you preview the authority’s plan for getting people inside during hot weather and smoke? Continue reading “One Year In, Homelessness Authority Director Marc Dones Says Despite Challenges, Agency is “Seeing Success””