Tag: Marc Dones

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””

Homelessness Authority Plans to Use COVID Relief Dollars to Make Up $2 Million Earmarked for Tiny Houses

Image via LIHI.

By Erica C. Barnett

Officials at the King County Regional Homelessness Authority say the agency will pay for three contracts at the center of a recent funding controversy using $2 million in unspent Emergency Solutions Grant (ESG-CV) COVID relief dollars from the city of Seattle. The city’s Human Services Department, which oversaw the money until the KCRHA took over the region’s homelessness system this year, has not yet responded to questions sent Friday morning about the specific source of the funding.

One potential source is leftover funding former mayor Jenny Durkan’s administration planned to spend on rapid rehousing at the two shelter-based hotels the city opened (and closed) last year. The mayor’s office claimed the hotels would serve as short-term stops for people to move rapidly from unsheltered homelessness to market-rate apartments using short-term rent subsidies; in reality, most people stayed at the hotels long-term, leaving most of the rapid rehousing dollars unspent when the hotels closed earlier this year.

The city council passed legislation allocating the $2 million, which last year’s state budget earmarked for “tiny home villages,” to two LIHI tiny house villages last year. However, then-mayor Jenny Durkan never spent the money, transferring authority of the state funds to the KCRHA at the beginning of this year. The KCRHA, in turn, created a new, open bidding process for the money, ultimately rejecting both of LIHI’s proposals in favor of three different projects, including one from the Chief Seattle Club that involved (but was not led by) LIHI.

In response, State Rep. Frank Chopp (D-43) said the state dollars were never the KCRHA’s to give, and earmarked the money for LIHI in this year’s state budget, leaving the agency with $2 million in unfunded commitments.

“Neither I, or the agency, has an ax to grind with tiny houses as a shelter type. If I really wanted to get rid of them, I would have just defunded them on day 3. They’d be gone. We wouldn’t be having this conversation. The question was, should we rapidly open 10 to 15 tiny house villages, and I said the data does not support expansion of that scale.”—KCRHA director Marc Dones

During a meeting of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority’s implementation board on Wednesday, KCRHA director Marc Dones—a vocal critic of the city council’s plans to expand tiny house villages around the city—sounded frustrated as they addressed the controversy.

“Neither I, or the agency, has an ax to grind with tiny houses as a shelter type,” Dones said. “If I really wanted to get rid of them, I would have just defunded them on day 3. They’d be gone. We wouldn’t be having this conversation. What I have said repeatedly [is that] radical expansion, which was what was being put forward to me last year—the question was, should we rapidly open 10 to 15 tiny house villages, and I said the data does not support expansion of that scale.”

“There is, and I cannot stress this enough, zero credible or factual assertion in any statement made by anyone that this agency, or I specifically, am trying to unwind all of the tiny houses tomorrow, and, frankly, that we have not made new investments into tiny shelter types,” Dones said, pointing to existing contracts with LIHI that transferred to the authority from the city of Seattle and to two of the projects the RHA attempted to fund through the bidding process—the Chief Seattle Club/LIHI village and an expansion of Catholic Community Services’ existing Pallet shelter project.

Dones noted that LIHI did not file a formal grievance over the authority’s decision not to fund its proposed tiny house villages in South Seattle and South Lake Union (which, thanks to Chopp, were both ultimately funded by the state). “We are done,” they said. Lee, from LIHI, said she chose not to file a grievance because she didn’t believe LIHI would get a fair shake from the same panel that rejected its applications, which included both Dones and his executive assistant.

Dr. Simha Reddy, a member of the implementation board, said he and other board members met with Dones last week to figure out what happened with the $2 million, and came to the conclusion that the agency legitimately believed it had the authority to distribute the $2 million in state funding through its own grant process. “Fundamentally, an error happened. I don’t think there’s a particular villain here,” Reddy said. “Stepping back, this looks like this is a situation where good people trying their hardest could have come to different conclusions.”

Tiny-House Funding Debate Reveals Fractures Over Future of Homelessness System

Low Income Housing Institute director Sharon Lee
Low-Income Housing Institute director Sharon Lee at an event promoting a proposed tiny-house village in South Lake Union last year.

By Erica C. Barnett

Last week, the Seattle Times published a story about state Rep. Frank Chopp’s (D-43) decision to allocate $2 million in state funding to the Low-Income Housing Institute to build tiny house villages. Both Chopp and LIHI’s director, Sharon Lee, took issue with the piece, which suggested that Chopp (who co-founded LIHI 31 years ago, but has no financial interest in the nonprofit) had improperly used his power to take the money away from three other projects that the King County Regional Homelessness Authority had chosen through a competitive bidding process.

The story of the $2 million is both more complicated and simpler than the Times’ coverage suggested. More complicated, because the state allocated the funds for tiny house villages almost a year ago; the money was never spent because of decisions made by Mayor Jenny Durkan, whose administration gave a series of excuses for not releasing the funds before her term ended last year. And simpler, because the money is ultimately controlled by the state, which can do what they want with it—including funding LIHI directly without going through any bidding process.

Chopp says he first agreed to find $2 million to fund tiny house villages after City Councilmember Andrew Lewis, a longtime advocate for tiny house villages, asked Chopp to help fund his “It Takes A Village” strategy—a plan to build 12 tiny house villages across the city. The 2021 state capital budget, adopted last April, dedicated the $2 million explicitly to “tiny homes (Seattle).” Last June, the council adopted—and Durkan signed—the Seattle Rescue Plan, which, among other things, allocated another $400,000 in operations funds to supplement the $2 million from the state (on top of $2.8 million from the 2021 budget that had gone unspent) to build new tiny house villages. The Durkan Administration, however, never spent the money.

“They never had the money. It was not theirs to begin with.”—State Rep. Frank Chopp (D-43)

At the time, Durkan’s staff gave several reasons for declining to take action on the funding, including the fact that the city hadn’t allocated long-term funding to keep the villages for years in the future (as council members pointed out at the time, the city only budgets in one-year increments); a lack of staffing as the city’s Homelessness Strategy and Investment division emptied out in the runup to the KCRHA taking over; and a desire to let the KCRHA’s new director, Marc Dones, implement their own shelter strategy.

Dones has made no secret of their desire to overhaul the region’s shelter system. On several occasions, Dones expressed skepticism about the tiny-house village model, suggesting that group houses or a more direct route from the street to permanent housing might be a better option. This created a sense of urgency for tiny-house proponents to get the new villages up and running by the end of 2021, before the authority took over, as well as a mistrust between LIHI and the new authority that persists to this day.

Advocates for tiny house villages were still asking the city to spend the $2 million as late as September, but gained no traction. “We were all frustrated that that money sat there for a whole year, and we kept asking the mayor’s’ office and [the Human Services Department, why aren’t you putting out a [request for proposals?]” LIHI director Sharon Lee recalled.

According to Chopp, as 2021 wound down, he called Lewis and the interim director of the city’s Office of Intergovernmental Relations, Robin Koskey, and said “‘Time’s up. A year ago, you promised it was all ready to go, and you promised the money would be spent by the first quarter of this year,'” which ended on March 31. At that point, Chopp said, he decided to take action by writing a local community project request—a way of earmarking capital funds for specific projects—to fund the three LIHI villages. Chopp said he told Nigel Herbig, the KCRHA’s intergovernmental relations director, “Nigel, you don’t have the money” in the third week of January.

The Times reported that Chopp withdrew money that the KCRHA had in hand, a contention Chopp called “ridiculous. They never had the money,” he said. “It was not theirs to begin with.”

A KCRHA spokeswoman, Anne Martens, did not respond to detailed questions about Chopp’s conversation with Herbig, subsequent conversations between Chopp and the KCRHA, or why the authority moved forward to seek bids for the $2 million even after being told the money was going to LIHI. “[A]s you know, the RFP as awarded does fund tiny house villages,” Martens said in an email—a reference to a 25-unit project the Chief Seattle Club proposed in partnership with LIHI and a separate expansion of Catholic Community Services’ existing Pallet Shelter on 15th Ave. W.

Despite Chopp’s action to earmark the $2 million for LIHI, the agency still applied for funding through the KCRHA’s process; as we reported, the authority rejected both of their applications to build and operate their own tiny house villages, saying that their proposal to build a village on City Light-owned property in South Lake Union, which Lewis supported, would require people to live in “inhumane living conditions.”

Martens said she would have to look into our question about what specific conditions were “inhumane” when we asked about this last Tuesday, and had not followed up by press time. In a previous conversation, Martens said the awards prioritized “equity” and “lived experience.” The authority, Martens said, used “competitive bidding in order to be more equitable… and that is reflective of our commitment to centering lived experience.”

Asked why she applied for KCRHA funding if she knew Chopp had already earmarked the $2 million for LIHI, Lee said she “assumed that KCRHA had chosen to backfill (add) the $2 million from other sources,” such as leftover rapid rehousing funds from the Durkan Administration’s unsuccessful effort to cycle unsheltered quickly through hotels into permanent, often market-rate, apartments.  “Why would the RHA take this information and then proceed to award the funds if they were told that the funds were not available?” Lee said. “Why wouldn’t they make another plan or find additional funding?”

“We’re using every single dollar that we can right now to address the crisis of homelessness and housing and the shadow pandemic—all of those dollars are accounted for. We cannot continue to layer on additional funding.”—City Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda

KCRHA has not said how they plan to pay for the projects that won funding through its bidding process. One possibility, Martens said, is to go to the city of Seattle, which provides about 70 percent of the authority’s funding, for the money. “We are talking to the City about this whole snafu to figure out what the next steps are,” she said.

Barring a dramatic turnaround in its budget forecast, the city seems unlikely to provide the authority with additional money this year. “We’re using every single dollar that we can right now to address the crisis of homelessness and housing and the shadow pandemic—all of those dollars are accounted for,” city council budget chair Teresa Mosqueda said. “Marc and the RHA are receiving 68 percent of their funding from the city of Seattle. We cannot continue to layer on additional funding.”

Mosqueda called Chopp’s action to allocate the $2 million to LIHI “appropriate,” adding, “We have to be good partners with the state legislature when they trying to help with the most pressing issue in our city. You either use funding or you lose funding, and I’m glad that the  funding is being deployed so that people can continue to get access to tiny house villages, regardless of whether through RHA or directly from the state legislature.” Continue reading “Tiny-House Funding Debate Reveals Fractures Over Future of Homelessness System”

County’s COVID Response System Was Ill-Prepared for Major Homeless Shelter Outbreak

Image via City of Seattle.

By Erica C. Barnett

On the morning of January 3, hours before an emergency winter weather shelter at Seattle City Hall was scheduled to close, King County Regional Homelessness Authority director Marc Dones and interim Seattle Human Services Department director Tanya Kim showed up to City Hall with an urgent mission: To move as many of the shelter’s COVID-positive guests into private spaces where they could isolate until they were no longer sick.

The task was daunting. King County’s Department of Community and Health Services operates just 179 isolation and quarantine beds, spread between two hotels in Auburn and Kent, and those are reserved for people with the highest risk of complications from COVID.

“I was concerned about community spread,” Dones recalled. “If these are folks who are experiencing unsheltered homelessness, and they come in for the weather, [we don’t want then to] go back to an encampment or meet up with a friend” after being exposed to COVID.

Over the course of a long morning and afternoon, many of the infected shelter guests did make it to hotels, including 16 rooms leased by the Low Income Housing Institute, where LIHI director Sharon Lee said they were able to stay and recuperate for at least 10 days. A smaller number moved to rooms at one of the county’s official isolation and quarantine sites, which admitted a total of 74 people (from anywhere in the county, not just shelters) between Christmas and New Year’s Day. And an unknown number of infected people went back out on the street.

“The optimal strategy is [for shelter guests] to isolate and quarantine in a safe and separate facility from others, but that’s just not possible right now.”—King County Public Health Officer Dr. Jeff Duchin

Moving as many people as possible into hotels was “a hail Mary at,like, 7am,” Dones said—one that neither the city nor the county planned for in advance. “Access Transit picked up some folks over the course of the day. The HOPE Team staff were were able, once they got vans, to get people to where they needed to be. And Tanya and I were the on-site staff, keeping folks fed, getting them badged in [to City Hall] to go to the bathroom, all the things.”

By all accounts, the joint effort by HSD, shelter providers, King County, and the regional authority prevented many of those infected at City Hall from going directly back onto the street—a positive outcome for both individual and public health. But the fact that this outcome required a heroic, last-minute effort illustrates the fragility of King County’s system for responding to COVID outbreaks among the region’s homeless population.

Seattle hadn’t planned to open an emergency shelter at City Hall; in all its pre-winter weather planning, the city assumed it would need just two shelters—one run by Compass Housing in Pioneer Square, the other run by the Salvation Army at Seattle Center—to handle the demand. This assumption was based on experience; historically, people living unsheltered have preferred to wait out subfreezing temperatures in their tents rather than risk losing all their possessions to sleep on a cot in a crowded shelter that they are forced to leave at 7am. Nonetheless, after days of temperatures in the teens and 20s, the two shelters were maxed out, and the city contracted with the Urban League to open a third location.

CDC guidelines for congregate (mass) homeless shelters call for maintaining at least six feet between shelter guests at all times, including while guests are asleep, although King County Public Health guidelines acknowledge this may not be possible during emergencies. At peak, between 60 and 70 people were sleeping on cots in the lobby of City Hall. During the day, shelter guests moved to the Bertha Knight Landes Room, an enclosed meeting room with an official pre-pandemic capacity of 200.

It’s unclear exactly how many people were infected during the outbreak, but reports from people who were physically present or who tried to help infected people isolate after the shelter closed on January 3 suggest the number was at least in the dozens, including five of the six Urban League staffers who worked at the site. (The Urban League did not respond to a request for comment.) King County Public Health confirmed the five staff infections but would only confirm one case among shelter guests. This may be because people who stay in homeless shelters, unlike staffers, are not routinely tested for COVID exposure, so their infections do not always show up on official tallies.

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Current King County COVID guidelines call for anyone staying in a shelter who develops COVID symptoms to “shelter in place” by moving to another area of the shelter or, if possible, into a designated room for COVID-positive shelter guests. The county recently reduced the isolation period for COVID-infected shelter guests and staff from 10 days to five, and eliminated the quarantine period completely for fully vaccinated people. These new guidelines are in keeping with a recent (and controversial) CDC update, but are out of sync with King County Public Health’s official guidelines for people in congregate settings, including homeless shelters, which call for 10 days of isolation for people with COVID and two weeks of quarantine for those exposed to a COVID-positive person.

The highly transmissible omicron COVID variant has dramatically increased the demand for the county’s limited supply of official isolation and quarantine beds, which include on-site, 24-hour medical staff, behavioral health care providers, and other services.

“This omicron surge is overwhelming the number of  available spots we have in [isolation and quarantine] facilities,” King County’s public health officer, Dr. Jeff Duchin, said. “We’re working to actively acquire more spaces in those facilities, but I don’t believe we’re going to ever be able to keep up with the number of cases that occur. … The optimal strategy is isolate and quarantine in a safe and separate facility from others, but that’s just not possible right now.” Continue reading “County’s COVID Response System Was Ill-Prepared for Major Homeless Shelter Outbreak”

A “New Approach to Encampment Removals” Is Limited by a Lack of Places for People to Go

By Erica C. Barnett

Last week, sanitation crews and Parks Department employees showed up to remove the remains of a large, persistent encampment at the Ballard Commons park. From the outside, the removal looked exactly like every other encampment sweep: Tents, furniture, and household detritus disappeared into the back of garbage trucks as workers wandered around directing anyone still on site to leave. Hours later, crews installed a tall chain-link fence, identical to the ones that have become ubiquitous at former encampment sites around the city. Huge red “PARK CLOSED” signs emphasized the point: This park, once disputed territory, has been claimed. It will remain closed for at least six months for renovations, remediation, and, as District 6 City Councilmember Dan Strauss put it last week, “to allow the space to breathe.”

But the removal of the encampment at the Commons actually was different, because—for once, and contrary to what the city’s Human Services Department has always claimed is standard practice—nearly everyone at the encampment ended up moving to a shelter or housing, thanks to months of work by outreach providers and a hands-off approach from the city. At a press conference outside the Ballard branch library last week, Strauss heralded the results of the city’s “new way of doing encampment removals.” 

While a humane approach like the one the city took at the Ballard Commons should serve as the baseline for how the city responds to encampments in the future, its success won’t be easy to replicate. That’s because there simply aren’t enough shelter beds, permanent housing units, or housing subsidies to accommodate all the residents of even one additional large encampment, much less the hundreds of encampments in which thousands of unsheltered people live across the city.

Before explaining why it would be premature, and potentially harmful, to praise the city for abandoning its “old” approach to encampments, it’s important to understand how the approach to this encampment really was different, and why it’s simplistic (and unhelpful) to refer to the removal of the encampment, and the closure of the park, as just another “sweep.”

Ordinarily, when the city decides to remove an encampment, the Human Services Department sends out an advance team, known as the HOPE Team, to offer shelter beds and services to the people living there and to let them know the encampment is about to be swept. The HOPE Team has exclusive access to some shelter beds, which makes it possible for the city to credibly claim it has “offered shelter” to everyone living at an encampment prior to a sweep. However, even the HOPE team is limited to whatever beds happen to be available, which tend to be in shelters with higher turnover and fewer amenities, like the Navigation Center in the International District. Mobility challenges, behavioral health conditions, and the desire to stay with a street community are some common reasons people “refuse” offers of shelter or leave shelter after “accepting” an offer. If someone needs a wheelchair ramp or a space they can share with their partner and those amenities are not available at the shelters that have open beds, the sweep will still go on.

Processed with VSCO with n1 preset

At the Commons, in contrast, city outreach partners, including REACH and Catholic Community Services, spent months getting to know the 85 or so people living in the encampment, learning about their specific needs, and connecting them to resources that worked for them. More than 20 percent of the people living at the Commons had “significant medical issues” that many conventional shelters are not equipped to address, including Stage 4 cancer, emphysema, paralysis, and seizure disorders, REACH director Chloe Gale said last week. Eighty percent had serious behavioral health conditions, including addiction. One had been the victim of gender-based violence and did not feel safe going to shelter alone.

Eventually, outreach workers were able to find placements for nearly everyone living at the Commons, working with people on a one-on-one basis and building trust over months. The approach is time-consuming, costly, and resource-intensive—and it only works if there is sufficient shelter and housing available.

At last week’s press conference, Councilmember Strauss said that by “using a human-centered approach” the city is “giving [outreach providers] time for them to get get people inside, we’re finding and creating adequate shelter and housing. And [that approach] results in people getting inside rather than displaced.” On Monday, Strauss said during a council meeting that he had “begun working to bring a similar outcome to Lower Woodland Park,” where residents have been complaining about a large RV and tent encampment for months.

The problem—and a likely point of future friction for the city—is that the single biggest factor enabling this “human-centered approach” was the opening of dozens of new spots in tiny house villages and a Downtown Emergency Service Center-run hotel in North Seattle, which will provide permanent housing for dozens of people with severe and persistent behavioral health challenges. Those new resources, more than any outreach strategy or “new approach” by the city, enabled people to move, not from one park to another, but to places they actually wanted to go. Now that those shelter and housing slots are occupied, the city will revert to the status quo, at least until more shelter and housing becomes available.

The issue preventing the city from taking a person-by-person approach to encampments is only partly that Seattle fails to consider the individual needs of people living unsheltered; it’s also that the city has never taken seriously the need to fund and build shelter and housing that serves those needs on the level that will be necessary to make a visible dent in homelessness. This is changing, slowly—as Strauss noted last week, 2021 was the first year in which the city met its goal of spending $200 million a year on affordable housing—but the process of moving people inside will inevitably be slow and partial, especially if the city does not do significantly more to fund both shelter and housing.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, according to data provided by the Human Services Department, the city has only added about 500 new shelter beds, and even that number is misleading, because it includes nearly 200 rooms in two temporary hotel-based shelters that will close down next month, sending providers scrambling to find placements for hundreds of people in the middle of winter. 

Strauss acknowledged last week that the reason the city could declare the Ballard Commons a success story was that so many tiny house village units became available at once. “The reason that we were able to remove the encampment about our comments now over the last two and a half months is because the shelter availability has come online,” Strauss said.

A few hours later, at a meeting of the Ballard District Council, King County Regional Homelessness Authority director Marc Dones tried to inject a dose of realism into a conversation with homeowners who expressed frustration that they continue to see unhoused people in the area, including “one of the biggest car camping problems in the city.”

For example, one district council member asked, would the homelessness authority provide a person or team of people, along the lines of the Seattle Police Department’s community service officers, for Ballard residents to call when they see “someone repetitively harassing a business” or sleeping in their car?

 

Instead of offering meaningless reassurances, Dones responded that the job of the KCRHA is not to respond to individual neighborhood concerns about specific homeless people—nor would creating a special homeless-monitoring force for a neighborhood help anyway, in the absence of resources to help the people whose behavioral health conditions manifest as public nuisances. “For a lot of folks who have intense behavioral health needs, we don’t have any place for them to go. … It’s my job to not bullshit you on that,” Dones said.

What’s more, they added, sometimes the authority will outright reject community ideas that are bad. “The broad constituency here wants to solve this problem in a healthy and really compassionate way,” Dones said. “And that’s one of those places where if we’re telling people the honest truth about what can and can’t be done with what we have, it’s gonna go a lot further.”

Telling the truth about what works and what doesn’t seems like a simple thing. But it’s so contrary to the Seattle way of doing things that it’s almost shocking to hear an authority figure tell a traditional homeowners’ group that they can’t have what they want, and, moreover, that what they want won’t solve the problem they’ve identified.

Telling people what they want to hear is an ingrained political strategy, particularly when it comes to homelessness. When she first came into office, one-term Mayor Jenny Durkan promised she would build 1,000 new “tiny house” shelters in her first year in office. By the end of her term, only about 200 had opened. Her successor, mayor-elect Bruce Harrell, has similarly promised to add 2,000 new “emergency, supportive shelter” beds, using “existing local dollars” to fund this massive expansion. If this effort, modeled directly on the failed “Compassion Seattle” charter initiative, succeeds, it will almost certainly result in the kind of relatively low-cost “enhanced” shelter many people living in encampments reject, for reasons that outreach workers (and perhaps, now, come council members) understand well.

The question for Seattle isn’t, or shouldn’t be, “How will we add as many shelter beds as cheaply as we can so we can remove homeless people from public view?” It is, and should be: “How can we shelter and house unsheltered people in a way that prevents them from returning to homelessness while creating realistic expectations for housed residents who are frustrated with encampments in parks?” As the Ballard Commons example illustrates, it takes more than “X” number of shelter beds to get people to move inside. It takes time, effort, money, and a willingness to view unsheltered people as fully human.

With Future of Tiny Houses Up In the Air, Advocates Push for Action This Year

Low Income Housing Institute director Sharon Lee
Low Income Housing Institute director Sharon Lee

By Erica C. Barnett

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”

As Seattle’s Homeless System Goes Regional, The Future of Tiny House Villages Is Uncertain

Via LIHI.

By Erica C. Barnett

This post has been updated. 

Seattle’s ongoing expansion of “tiny house villages” could stall out as the new regional homelessness authority takes over responsibility for King County’s homelessness system. The RHA’s director, Marc Dones, told PubliCola this week that the “proliferation” of tiny houses needs to end, and that short-term approaches like shelter and sanctioned encampments should be replaced by new investments in housing construction and acquisition, along the lines of King County’s “Health Through Housing” program.

Earlier this year, the city council voted to fund six new tiny house villages using a combination of city funds (for operations) and COVID relief dollars from the state (for capital costs). But so far, the Human Services Department has not published a request for proposals (RFP) for those villages—the first step for approved funding to get out the door. Low-Income Housing Institute (LIHI) director Sharon Lee says HSD seems to be slow-walking the application process until the regional authority takes over all the city’s homelessness contracts at the end of the year.

“They say it’s up to the regional authority whether there are new tiny house villages at the end of the year, which makes no sense to us” because the state funding is already earmarked for this purpose, Lee told PubliCola.

UPDATE: HSD said on Friday that it will not put out a request for proposals to build the new tiny house villages until they get more guidance from the new regional authority at a meeting of the RHA’s implementation board in September. HSD spokeswoman Lily Rehrmann said that since the money the state provided is “one-time capital dollars… While the one-time funding is important, providers need to know that on-going operations are committed in order to invest the time and resources into responding to an RFP that, as a general rule, requires the provider to propose a program model, staffing structure and budget.”

Specifically, Rehrmann said, providers need to be able to demonstrate where three years’ worth of funding for operations would come from; since the state funding is only for capital costs, Rehrmann said, that would be impossible. “HSD will continue to work closely with the KCRHA on the successful transition of the homelessness program investments in 2022 and on the stand up of the new shelter that has received full funding (for both stand up and ongoing operations and services) in 2021,” she said.”

This “full funding” stipulation has been an ongoing source of contention between HSD and the city council, and not just on tiny house villages: Council members, including budget committee chair Teresa Mosqueda, have argued that the council only budgets on an annual basis, so it’s impossible to guarantee ongoing funds for any project; that doesn’t prevent the city from funding all sorts of things that require some capital investment.

Beneath the debate over timing and jurisdiction is a larger question: Should the region continue building new tiny house villages, which provide long-term shelter to several hundred people, or focus on other, more permanent investments? RHA director Marc Dones says the answer to this perennial shelter-vs.-housing debate is obvious: The region needs more housing more than it needs more shelter.

“I am not saying no one can benefit from the use of a tiny house as shelter. What I am saying is that I don’t see the evidence, either in community or in the data, to talk about moving to that scale.” —King County Regional Homelessness Authority CEO Marc Dones

“The focus that we need to have is on housing, and I simply cannot stress that enough,” they said. “Shelter is not permanent, and we are locked into a proliferation of shelter options rather than a proliferation of housing options and we must course correct on that. Tiny homes, as a subset of a broader shelter strategy, make sense, but they’re not an end point and we shouldn’t proliferate them as they are.”

“I am not saying no one can benefit from the use of a tiny house as shelter,” Dones continued. “What I am saying is that I don’t see the evidence, either in community or in the data, to talk about moving to that scale.”

Instead, Dones wants to focus on permanent housing and “bridge housing”—temporary group housing for people who need supportive services in the short term as they transition to either a private-market apartment or permanent supportive housing. “People have had a lot of conversations in the last couple of months about a right to shelter, and I think that is not consistent with our community values. We need to have a right to housing.”

City council member Andrew Lewis says he agrees with Dones that permanent housing should be the region’s ultimate goal. But he disagrees that housing should be the only, or even paramount, priority right now. Pointing to the proliferation of unauthorized encampments across the city, Lewis, who represents downtown Seattle, Queen Anne, and Magnolia, said, “I’m not going to go to my constituents and say, ‘Look, deal with that encampment on your street—or, heck, I’m not going to go to my unhoused constituents and say, ‘Eventually we’re going to build housing somewhere, but until then have fun living in your tent.’ We need to be able to offer people something better while we are building the thing they really need, which is some kind of permanent housing.”

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While people living unsheltered often balk at the idea of moving into a congregate shelter, including less-crowded “enhanced” shelters like the Downtown Emergency Service Center-run Navigation Center, they often will accept placements in tiny house villages, which offer more privacy and security than other types of shelter. Lee, from LIHI, said it’s “misguided to be attacking tiny houses when tiny houses are the preferred option for people who are camping out or sleeping out. We go to any encampment, and every place we go, people say, ‘We want a tiny house.'” 

But the things that make tiny house villages desirable may also contribute to the fact that people stay in tiny houses longer than any other type of shelter. Although the villages have a fairly strong track record for moving people into housing (between 27 and 65 percent of tiny house residents eventually move into housing, according to King County’s most recent performance data, compared to a 15 percent average across all types of emergency shelter), people tend to live in them for months or even years—far longer than the regional goal of 90 days. Continue reading “As Seattle’s Homeless System Goes Regional, The Future of Tiny House Villages Is Uncertain”

Contentious Hearing Exposes Fault Lines in City and County Approaches to Homelessness

By Erica C. Barnett

A Wednesday city council briefing on the city’s 2021 response to homelessness exposed deep gaps between the city council’s expectations and what the executive branch says it can and will deliver, and revealed stark differences between the city’s approach to unsheltered homelessness so far and what the new leader of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority has in mind for the future.

At the meeting (a briefing at the city council’s homelessness committee), city and county leaders updated council members on how the city is spending homelessness dollars this year and what the regional authority’s plans are for 2022 and beyond.

The big news at Wednesday’s meeting, which included presentations from the Human Services Department and King County Regional Homelessness Authority director Marc Dones, was that HSD’s homelessness division has finally signed off on funding 89 additional hotel-based shelter beds through JustCare, a Public Defender Association-led program that provides intensive case management and support for people living in encampments in Pioneer Square and the International District. Mayor Jenny Durkan has repeatedly said JustCare is too expensive compared to other shelter options, so the announcement was a significant step forward for the program.

The other piece of news, which we reported earlier this week, was that more people have “enrolled” in rapid rehousing programs at two city-funded hotels than council members had expected—about 120, between the Chief Seattle Club-operated King’s Inn and the Low Income Housing Institute-run Executive Pacific. But that update comes with a significant asterisk. “Enrolling” in rapid rehousing simply means, at a minimum, that a person has filled out forms to participate in a rapid rehousing program, not that they actually have a plan to move into an apartment using a rapid rehousing subsidy.

How and whether to expand the scope and basic purpose of rapid rehousing was one of many contentious issues on the table Wednesday. By HUD definition, and under existing King County guidelines, rapid rehousing is a form of short-term assistance (up to 12 months) that diminishes over time until the recipient is able to pay full rent on their own. Members of the Lived Experience Coalition, a group of community advisors with direct experience with homelessness, have pushed the city and the regional authority to authorize longer-term use of rapid rehousing subsidies—up to 24 months—to enable people who may need permanent supportive housing to get off the street while new housing gets built.

This acknowledgement that the hotel-based shelter program has not been successful at moving people quickly from unsheltered homelessness into market-rate apartments was one of the first public signals from the executive branch that their original plan is not working as promised.

“Rapid rehousing is not seen as an adequate intervention for folks that are experiencing chronic homelessness, but rapid rehousing is an effective intervention,” Lamont Green, a member of the Lived Experience Coalition, said during public comment. “It’s a great option as bridge housing. … There’s just not enough permanent supportive housing and there’s not enough affordable housing.”

The city has funding to expand rapid rehousing this year thanks to federal COVID assistance, but neither the city nor the county authority has a plan yet to extend rapid rehousing past this year or to double the length of assistance.

Tess Colby, a longtime homelessness advisor to the mayor who recently took over as head of HSD’s homelessness division, said, “We share, and support wholeheartedly, the authority’s priority to use the vouchers to help people move from the streets to housing, and to help shelters, villages, improve their exits to permanent housing by making vouchers available to longer term stayers.” This acknowledgement that the hotel-based shelter program has not been successful at moving people quickly from unsheltered homelessness into market-rate apartments was one of the first public signals from the executive branch that their original plan is not working as promised.

“This is the first time I’ve heard publicly, because we have been pushing this point, that there needs to be a course correction on the rapid rehousing so it can be more than a year, and that you have to allow people who have zero income to [participate],” LIHI director Sharon Lee told PubliCola. “We’ve been hammering on that for a year—the city of Seattle has $9 million [in grants] for rapid rehousing and it’s hardly being used. This is the first time that we’re having this breakthrough—that they’re to respond to the real needs” of chronically homeless people.

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Dones and Colby also broached a concept called “Moving On” that, they said, could open up more permanent supportive housing beds, for people using rapid rehousing subsidies as a form of “bridge housing” and others who need more supportive services than the private or subsidized housing markets can provide. The idea is that people who decide they no longer need or want permanent supportive housing can move on to other types of housing with less intensive supports, freeing up their units for new permanent supportive housing residents.

In Seattle, Councilmember Lisa Herbold pointed out, permanent supportive housing is often praised specifically for its permanence—97 percent of people in permanent supportive housing stay there, making it one of the region’s most successful bulwarks against homelessness. However, other cities such as Los Angeles have integrated “Moving On” strategies into their response to homelessness.

“I’m happy to explore that a little bit more,” homelessness committee chair Andrew Lewis told PubliCola, but “I wouldn’t want a program that is creating an expectation that you would have to move on from your permanent supportive placement.” In any case, Lewis said, the idea that Seattle could free up permanent housing slots by moving people out seems several steps in the future. “I feel like we need a much shorter-term tactical plan to deal with the issue at hand, which is rampant chronic homelessness that is not being addressed. I don’t feel like we have this permanent supportive housing bottleneck and we need to address it.”

The real “bottleneck,” Lewis said, is the lack of shelter for people living in encampments around the city. But the solution for this problem, too, is up for debate. Council members, including Lewis and council budget committee chair Teresa Mosqueda, have strongly supported tiny house villages as an alternative to traditional encampments where people can stabilize and move on to more permanent housing options. Continue reading “Contentious Hearing Exposes Fault Lines in City and County Approaches to Homelessness”

Regional Homelessness Director Marc Dones: “The Driver of Homelessness Is Economic.”

By Erica C. Barnett

In March, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority appointed Marc Dones, a peripatetic homelessness policy consultant, to lead the agency charged with creating a unified, regional approach to homelessness. The authority was already seven months behind schedule when Dones was appointed, and their short-term task will be hiring dozens of staff and migrating hundreds of contracts with homeless service providers from Seattle’s Human Services Department to the RHA—a mundane but massive task.

In the long term, the agency is supposed to adopt a truly regional approach to homelessness, bridging the gaps that have long existed between different parts of the county—urban, suburban, wealthy, working-class, exurban, and rural. This policy framework could have profound impacts on how cities prioritize spending, their response to encampments, and whether they focus on quick “fixes” like shelter or longer-term solutions like housing subsidies (and what kind.) I

Dones, who’s lived in Ohio, New Jersey, Boston, New York, and Michigan, is new to Seattle, but not to the regional authority, whose basic outlines they shaped as a consultant to King County in 2019. Dones has said their first priority is hiring up staff for the authority and moving all of HSD’s contracts to the new agency by the end of this year—an ambitious timeline, to say the least. PubliCola sat down with Dones last week to talk about their approach to homelessness, the magnitude of the problem in King County, and whether a “regional” approach can work in a region where there’s so much disagreement about the basics, like what causes homelessness and how to fix it.

PubliCola: This region has shifted its approach to homelessness many times in the last 10 years. We got away from the idea that people need to transition slowly from unsheltered to housed, but replaced it with the equally extreme idea that almost everyone just needs a short-term subsidy to get them on their feet until they can pay for a market-rate apartment on their own. Now we’re somewhere in the middle, acknowledging that not all unhoused people have the same needs but still using the same menu of options. Do you think the region’s current understanding of the causes and cures for homelessness is correct, or are we still falling short?

Marc Dones: I think we’re getting there. There’s still a lot of discourse around substance use and behavioral health that is not statistically correct. The driver of homelessness is economic, and when you when you do population segmentation, only between 15 and 20 percent of people experiencing homelessness have severe behavioral health or substance use issues. The vast majority of folks experiencing homelessness can’t, full stop, cannot afford to get into housing. We have a segment that does have health concerns, but from my perspective, we need to be centered on the economics first and foremost, and thinking about how do we essentially create housing options for folks in the zero to 30 percent space.

“The vast majority of folks experiencing homelessness can’t, full stop, cannot afford to get into housing.”

I think that where we are now, I hope, is recognizing that it’s a menu, not just “do the one thing.” People need options, and not every person needs the same stuff. And so we need to be personalizing how we are doing our work at sort of all levels, both through program design and the regional plan. If Spotify can create these bespoke playlists based on a couple things I toss into it every couple months, then we as system administrators can also seek to get to the same level of personalization and curation. Not through algorithms, but through human-centered design and dignity-centered work.

Government actors often talk about the need for better data and by-name lists of all people experiencing homelessness and the services they’re accessing i the system. Can you give a concrete example of how better data or an improved by-name list would improve the life of an unhoused person?

When I talk about the by-name list that I want us to have, it’s not just a list of names. I want us to know who’s out there, where they are, what are their needs, and what’s our plan. So I am really thinking about a database where we are really able to say on a granular and person by person level, here’s what this person needs. And I think that that the data itself does not necessarily improve the delivery of the service. I think that what the data is really going to help us do is appropriately identify and advocate for the right amount of funding. That, for me, is where I see data improving our capacity.

I’ll also say that the ability to gather that data is not just about asking people more questions. We really are trying to take an approach that is relational in its focus. And so we’re really trying to think about how we develop and deploy a peer navigation workforce that provides supports for folks for from the lens of, “Hey, I’ve experienced homelessness.”

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We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different: We’re funded entirely by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

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Peer navigation has has really been efficacious in the behavioral health space and in the recovery space, and in the violence space. We haven’t really leaned into it in in the homelessness and housing space. And I don’t know why. But I think that the Lived Experience Coalition and other folks who have experienced homelessness have indicated a hunger to be able to do that kind of work. And we haven’t really acknowledged that or provided pathways for them to do it. And so we’re really keen on listening to that request and activating it. We really want to want to step away from invasive, repetitive ways of getting that information, and situate all of it inside relational architecture and trust.

What will that look like in practice, in terms of contracting and the way that money gets spent and the way that people get hired? What kind of changes can we expect to see in the homeless service system?

The first big shift will be that, moving into 2022, the authority will be the contract issuer. The city contracts will sunset and the county contracts will be migrated to us as well. And the authority will issue 2022 contracts. From that point on, we will also be the policy lead and helping to navigate the difficulties that arise. In ‘22, we will develop a whole system rebid that we’ll put out in the summer. And then in ’23, we’ll have a whole new system,  full stop, very night and day, I suspect.

Alongside that, a third piece of business that we’re developing is around what we’re calling bridge housing. We have identified that there’s a gap in the system—we have the permanency of permanent supportive housing and we have shelter, but we don’t have a lot of stuff really in between. And so from a systems perspective, what that means is that the waiting lists for a lot of that stuff can be very long—sometimes many, many years.

“Administratively what we’ve said to people is, ‘You can choose to wait in shelter, or you can choose to wait outside.’ And that’s not acceptable.”

And so what that means is that even if we never said it out loud, administratively what we’ve said to people is, “You can choose to wait in shelter, or you can choose to wait outside.” And that’s not acceptable. We need to have something that is permanent, that is housing, and that allows people to have stability and to have lives while whatever the thing that they are waiting for is coming online. We really need to have something that is in the middle.

I really want to be clear when I say it needs to be not time-limited. How long a person can be there shouldn’t be dependent on how long it will take them to get to the thing that is their thing. Or if they identify another pathway. If they get there, spend a year, and they’re like, ‘Actually, you know, I don’t think I need that supportive housing, I got this job, or I’m gonna move in with my whatever,’ they can choose to leave. There will be no “Oh, you have 24 months.”

Dow Constantine has suggested that the hotels the county is purchasing with Health Through Housing dollars will be one-stop shops for services, including connections to permanent supportive housing elsewhere, treatment, and other services that aren’t necessarily covered by the tax. Do you think this approach is enough to put a substantial dent in the problem, and have you seen it work elsewhere on the scale the county is talking about (1300 vouchers, 1600 hotel rooms, and 500 new enhanced shelter spaces all told)?

What we are looking at is not necessarily hotel/motel acquisition, but more at single- and multifamily acquisition as a strategy. But I do I agree with the fundamentals of the county position, that that does begin to get us towards scale. One of the things that that we often say on our team is that when we are talking about solutions, we have to be talking about thousands every time. We can never really be talking about hundreds, because the rough estimate is that there are about 15,000 people in the county who probably need support from our agency in some way, shape, or form. And so we really always have to be saying 2,000, 3,000, 4,000. Continue reading “Regional Homelessness Director Marc Dones: “The Driver of Homelessness Is Economic.””

Afternoon Fizz: Sheriff Fires Deputy, New Director Lays Out Plans for Homelessness Authority, City Reinstates 72-Hour Parking Rule

King County Regional Homelessness Authority director Marc Dones

1. King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht will fire a detective for failing to follow basic de-escalation policies and for “extremely poor tactical and officer safety decisions” before fatally shooting a car theft suspect near Enumclaw in 2019.

Detective George Alvarez is a 21-year veteran of the sheriff’s office with a lengthy use-of-force record, including five shootings and a criminal charge for assaulting and threatening an informant in 2003. In November 2019, Alvarez and his partner, Detective Josh Lerum, were driving an unmarked car when they spotted 36-year-old Anthony Chilcott, wanted for stealing an SUV and a pet poodle, driving in rural southeastern King County. Earlier that day, Chilcott had evaded a Washington State Patrol officer, but when the detectives found him, he had parked next to a power station to smoke a cigarette. At the time, Johanknecht wrote, “there was no imminent risk” to members of the public.

Nevertheless, without consulting with Lerum or waiting for backup, Alvarez decided to pull within inches of Chilcott’s driver’s-side door, sparking a confrontation that ended with both detectives shooting Chilcott in the head. Neither detective was wearing a sheriff’s uniform, and witnesses at a bus stop nearby told investigators that they didn’t initially realize that the pair that rammed the stolen SUV across the road and broke the driver’s-side window with a sledgehammer and the butts of their handguns were police officers.

In a letter to Alvarez explaining her decision, Johanknecht emphasized that she did not decide to fire him for the shooting itself, but for his decisions that led up to the shooting. “You did not use the opportunity you had to slow things down,” Johanknecht wrote. “The urgency here was created by your actions, not the actions of the suspect.” Johanknecht and other department leadership also called into question Alvarez’s claims that Chilcott posed an “immediate danger” to witnesses at a bus stop nearby. Instead, Johanknecht argued that Alvarez’s actions had placed bystanders—and Lerum—in danger by sparking an unnecessary confrontation with Chilcott.

For his part, Lerum received a written reprimand for not wearing his ballistic vest or clothing identifying himself as a law enforcement officer during the encounter.

In a press release on Thursday, King County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Sergeant Tim Meyer drew a parallel between Chilcott’s death and the failed sting operation in 2017 during which plainclothes sheriff’s deputies shot and killed 17-year-old Mi’Chance Dunlap-Gittens on a residential street in Des Moines. King County agreed to pay a $2.25 million settlement to Dunlap-Gittens’ family in May 2020; however, according to Meyer, Alvarez is the first officer whom Johanknecht has fired for misuse of force or failure to de-escalate since taking office in 2017.

Cooper Offenbecker, an attorney representing Alvarez, told the Seattle Times that his client intends to appeal Johanknecht’s decision.

According to Rachel Schulkin, a spokeswoman for Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office, the city “will not immediately resume issuing citations starting April 1 and will instead have a grace period in which we remind the public about the parking rules.”

2. In a media availability this week, new King County Regional Homelessness Authority director Marc Dones said they intended to “allow for regional variations” in how various parts of King County respond to homelessness, giving the example of a “mega-shelter in Black Diamond” as something that “would not make sense” as part of a regional response. “I don’t see this job as being about running roughshod or issuing policy fiats; it will be about building things together,” they said.

However, Dones added, they are not interested in promoting the narrative that Seattle is somehow producing homelessness or generating the region’s homeless population; cities are natural “draws” for people experiencing homelessness in nearby areas, they said and “there is a natural pull to where there are services. We see this in jurisdictions across the country—people go where they think they can get the help they need.” Continue reading “Afternoon Fizz: Sheriff Fires Deputy, New Director Lays Out Plans for Homelessness Authority, City Reinstates 72-Hour Parking Rule”