Tag: Partnership for Zero

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

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

By Erica C. Barnett

The King County Regional Homelessness Authority’s Partnership for Zero program—a heavily hyped public-private partnership aimed at ending unsheltered homelessness in downtown Seattle—is ending, PubliCola has learned. About 35 “systems advocates”—formerly homeless people KCRHA hired to do outreach and case management for people living unsheltered downtown—will be laid off. Their union, PROTEC17, was informed of the decision to end the program Monday evening, and the staff were informed this morning, KCRHA spokeswoman Anne Martens confirmed.

“We are winding down the Partnership for Zero pilot program, and we will be applying the lessons we learned to the system as a whole,” Martens said Monday. The positive lessons, she said, included the fact that the “emergency management approach and style is effective at building cooperation” and that having a centralized access point for all private housing resources is better than requiring every individuals service provider locate housing on an ad hoc basis.

The KCRHA posted an official update on the end of the program Tuesday afternoon.

Martens said the KCRHA would be posting 11 new jobs in the areas of “housing navigation and stability and housing acquisition” internally, and that system navigators will be encouraged to apply. Many of these employees are recently homeless, and some were hired only a few months ago.

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

“One of the challenges is when people are spread out and mobile across downtown, it’s much more difficult than focusing on one defined encampment that’s in a place.” —KCRHA spokeswoman Anne Martens

In a joint statement to PubliCola, Mayor Bruce Harrell and King County Executive Constantine called the news “a disappointing end result” to the pilot program, “for the Authority, their workers, philanthropists, and, most importantly, people living on the street unhoused downtown.” The two executives said they will be “meeting with program leaders and the financial supporters of this effort to better understand lessons learned and how best to move forward,” adding, “This experience provides further confirmation of the need for the comprehensive review we launched of the organization’s governance structure, oversight, and accountability systems.”

Although the program used one-time funding, the KCRHA had planned to fund it with Medicaid reimbursement through a program called Foundational Community Supports, including the funds in the agency’s budget for 2025. Officials as well as experts familiar with FCS were skeptical about relying on the complex federal program to fund the downtown initiative, and a report, commissioned by the KCRHA but never released, outlined the challenges KCRHA would face if it tried to tap the funding directly. Martens acknowledged that the Medicaid funding, which former CEO Marc Dones confidently predicted would pay for 85 percent of the program by next year, “has not come to pass.”

Additionally, Martens said, the agency learned that “there are challenges in having an administrative agency run direct service” instead of contracting nonprofit partners to do the work, the standard approach in King County. With Partnership for Zero, the KCRHA was essentially running a parallel service system that duplicated, and in some ways competed with, the existing system of nonprofit providers that already do similar work; REACH, for example, lost a number of skilled outreach workers to better-paying positions as systems advocates.

Another lesson, Martens said, was that focusing on a large geographic area like downtown Seattle was less effective than working to house people in specific, identifiable encampments. “One of the challenges is when people are spread out and mobile across downtown, it’s much more difficult than focusing on one defined encampment that’s in a place,” Martens said. This past summer, the KCRHA divided the Partnership for Zero area into five discrete “zones” in an effort to break down the downtown region into smaller sub-areas, but this move did not solve for the fact that people can, and do, move around.

Other challenges, Martens said, “involve coordination across systems—when you’re looking at the public health system and the behavioral health system,” for example, “we need full systems coordination, not just project by project.”

As part of Partnership for Zero, the KCRHA established a “Housing Command Center,” using technical assistance from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, to meet daily and coordinate housing for individual clients. The KCRHA referred to the HCC as an “incident command center” that would respond to downtown homelessness the same way local emergency operations centers respond to major events like protests and extreme weather. The HCC stopped meeting regularly earlier this year, but the agency will continue to deploy the approach for emergencies and “system-wide challenges” that require coordination across many different partners, Martens said.

Martens said the authority is now working to narrow its focus, under interim CEO Helen Howell, to “focus on system administration” and spending money on existing contracts more effectively—for example, by making sure providers get paid on time, an issue that came up earlier this year and still has not been completely resolved.

Launched with a high-profile press event in 2022, the program never produced the kind of results the agency and its then-director Dones promised. Under the original five-phase plan, the agency was supposed to have reduced the number of people living unsheltered downtown to “functional zero” in “as little as 12 months”; in reality, since the program launched 19 months ago, it has housed just 230 people, from a “by-name list” of people living downtown that totaled nearly 1,000. Many of those 230 are using temporary vouchers that will expire after their initial one-year lease.

The end of Partnership for Zero coincides with the pending release of three separate audits into the program—one federal, one state, and one by King County—which reportedly reveal significant dysfunction within the program and the agency as a whole. KCRHA director Helen Howell has scheduled meetings with members of the agency’s boards to discuss the audit results later this week.

We Are In, the organization that coordinated the private funding for Partnership for Zero, told PubliCola in a statement that the program “successfully moved more than 230 individuals in over 210 households living unsheltered into permanent housing, developed a comprehensive data infrastructure for identifying individuals experiencing homelessness and their unique needs, and built trusting relationships with unhoused neighbors, setting them on the path toward stable housing.”

We Are In, the statement continued, is “committed to ensuring that the learning from Partnership for Zero is applied to create sustainable systems change and to continue working with government partners to design and implement the next phase of this critical work.”

We Are In did not identify what “the next phase” would look like, nor did it identify what the group had learned, specifically, while the program was in effect.

When the project launched, its funders said it would serve as an example of what the agency could accomplish by being innovative and experimental in its approach, starting in downtown Seattle, where many of the city’s largest businesses are located.

By building a “by-name list” focused on a certain geographic area, hiring people with lived experience to do most of the work typically done by established nonprofits, and placing most people in regular, market-rate housing through incentives and agreements with private landlords, the new approach would “build infrastructure and add capacity to the system in order to deliver comprehensive services and housing or shelter for those experiencing unsheltered homelessness in target areas, helping to revitalize our communities and providing all residents an opportunity to thrive,” according to We Are In’s 2022 Partnership for Zero press release.

Alison Eisinger, the director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, said the successes Partnership for Zero managed to achieve illustrate the need for more resources to help people get and remain housed; the collective contribution from private groups and companies worked out to about $11 million. “While it was ill-conceived for the RHA … to attempt to create its own service provider team, we and others welcomed additional resources and focus to walk with people experiencing unsheltered homelessness to help them secure homes quickly,” Eisinger said. “That’s what our whole system desperately needs: more housing resources, more focused and urgent attention to get people housed.”

The fact that Partnership for Zero was an experimental pilot that did not include sustained resources, Eisinger added, “reveals weaknesses of the philanthropic model as a driver of service delivery. We need to focus on getting the significant and sustained additional public dollars that every honest analysis demonstrates is necessary. Period.”

Three of the four original co-directors of the program told PubliCola they received little guidance from the agency about how to stand up the Partnership for Zero program and were under tremendous pressure to hire people quickly and start collecting a list of names right away. “There was this big push to just hire people based on having lived experience, and not requiring any sort of formal work experience or even work history at all,” said Dawn Shepard, a former (and now current) staffer for the outreach agency REACH who was featured prominently in media reports touting the KCRHA’s approach to downtown homelessness.

“They said, ‘We’re just going to train you from the ground up,’ and we didn’t have the capacity for that. We’re trying to stand up a new program and we’re making commitments that there’s no way in hell we’re going to be able to meet.” The “philosophy” KCRHA promoted, Shepard said,  “was ‘overpromise and underdeliver,’ and at REACH, “it’s the opposite. You never are supposed to be further damaging to clients by promising them stuff you can’t provide.”

PubliCola spoke with Shepard and two other former co-directors for a planned story we planned to write about the system navigators earlier this year.

Former KCRHA CEO Marc Dones and Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell

According to one of those former co-directors, Elijah Wood, he was hired after just one interview, a process the agency replicated when hiring the system advocates.  “We had virtually no onboarding and were told, ‘You need to have the entire workforce by May, which gave us two months to hire 36 people,” Wood said.

“The biggest red flag, from the beginning, was the amount of work that we were expected stand up with very little support,” a third former co-director, Joe Conniff, said. “We were very disenfranchised as directors.” One of the results of this “chaotic” rush, the former co-directors noted, was the new system advocates, many of them recently out of homelessness or trying to maintain their sobriety, were thrust into risky or traumatic situations, including places where people were actively using and dealing drugs, without adequate training on safety and strategies to protect their own mental health.

PubliCola was the first to report on the Partnership for Zero in February 2022, when the system advocates were known as “peer navigators” and the plan was to have each navigator follow a client “longitudinally” through the entire housing process, from living on the street to signing a lease. At the time, philanthropic donors and business leaders were enthusiastic about the idea, which would take some of the work already being done by many nonprofit agencies and hand it to KCRHA employees whose primary qualification was prior experience being homeless.

On Tuesday, the Downtown Seattle Association sent PubliCola a statement calling Partnership for Zero “the right approach that was executed in all the wrong ways. The effort lacked sound management, oversight and focus.

“If the KCRHA wants to be recognized as the leading entity on the region’s response to homelessness, it must effectively execute a strategy to reduce homelessness in downtown Seattle, the area of the region with the highest concentration of individuals experiencing homelessness,” the DSA statement continued. “It’s unacceptable for the region’s homelessness response agency and local government to have no plan for the area with the most significant homelessness crisis. If the KCRHA isn’t up to the task, the city and county should assume responsibility and immediately and stand up a plan for downtown Seattle.”

When Partnership for Zero launched in 2022, DSA director Jon Scholes said the program “takes [the response to homelessness downtown] to a different scale, and brings in the housing resources that [existing] outreach teams, for the most part, haven’t had, or have had a limited supply of.”

But those existing outreach agencies expressed skepticism about the plan from the start, noting that housing people experiencing chronic street homelessness requires more than a personal history of homelessness (which, many leaders noted, most of their employees have) but practical experience doing the complex, often grueling work of case management and housing placement, which requires navigating many byzantine systems.

Additionally, providers pointed out, the new KCRHA staff would make significantly more as government employees than nonprofit agencies are able to pay, producing a brain drain from an industry that already struggles to retain qualified staff.

The Partnership for Zero program evolved significantly over time, once it became increasingly clear that the original plan to have one person navigate a group of clients through every aspect of the homelessness and housing system was unrealistic. The program was first revamped to allow people to specialize in certain parts of the housing process—making sure people made it to court hearings, for example, or working with landlords to convince them that someone will be a responsible tenant.

According to former co-director Conniff, it was clear from the beginning that they were being asked to do too much. “We were having to wear all these hats, while simultaneously having to deal with an oppressive structure and a system that felt very biased.”

More recently, the system advocates placed more than 120 clients in hotels run by the Lived Experience Coalition, which ran out of money for the hotels back in April, forcing the state to step in and help the KCRHA move people elsewhere.

System advocates were also required, over time, to fill a number of emerging needs that weren’t directly related to its original purpose. Instead of doing outreach broadly, for instance, system advocates focused on specific encampments within the downtown “catchment” area that raised concerns and objections from nearby residents and businesses, a process that sometimes required the team to displace large groups of people they had never worked with before, Wood said. Just before Thanksgiving, for example, the Housing Command Center directed his team to “resolve” an encampment along Alaskan Way that was the source of a number of complaints, despite the fact that they had never done outreach to the site.

Wood, who went on administrative leave in late 2022 and was subsequently fired, said he was frustrated by the emphasis on resolving high-profile encampments instead of everyone experiencing homelessness downtown. “There was no strategy for people who were outside of encampments, so we were cleaning up encampments and doing nothing for the people who [were] just sleeping outside,” Wood said.

KCRHA is funded primarily by the city of Seattle and King County. In their joint statement, Executive Constantine and Mayor Harrell said they were committed to helping KCRHA succeed. “We need an effective regional approach to make sustainable, permanent progress addressing homelessness,” they said. “We believe for that approach to be successful, KCRHA must be a working part of the solution.”

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

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

By Erica C. Barnett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Erica C. Barnett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.”

Marquee Plan to End Unsheltered Homelessness Depends on Federal Funding Source Some Call Risky

Image via We Are In.

By Erica C. Barnett

Last week, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority’s implementation and governing boards approved a 2024 budget proposal that assumes the agency will receive significant future funding from Medicaid to keep the Partnership for Zero program, which aims to end unsheltered homelessness in downtown Seattle, going. Currently, the program is funded by corporate and philanthropic donations through a public-private partnership called We Are In.

The federal funding would come through a statewide program for Medicaid clients called Foundational Community Supports that funds “pre-tenancy” services for chronically homeless people—everything from getting an ID to negotiating an apartment lease.

“Based on current research, we estimate that Medicaid will reimburse 85% of Partnership for Zero (PfZ) costs,” or about $5.2 million, the KCRHA’s 2024 budget says. In 2022, a group of corporate and philanthropic donors pledged $10 million to fund the initial downtown Seattle “demonstration project,” which pays case managers known as system advocates to connect people living downtown to services, shelter and housing. Over the next five years, KCRHA plans to expand Partnership for Zero countywide.

Several members of both boards, including Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus, expressed reservations about relying on a federal program that the KCRHA has never used before to fund one of the agency’s marquee initiatives. “I’m just concerned about approving [a budget] where you don’t have the money,” Backus said. “As someone who provides our budget to the council every two years, we never put anything in the budget … that’s aspirational.”

“I think that there were some estimates that were like, ‘this will make it rain money,’ and then there were other estimates that were like, ‘this will get you two nickels.’ We feel confident that this is a capturable amount of revenue.”—KCRHA CEO Marc Dones

“I would love not to spend more money than we have,” KCRHA CEO Marc Dones responded. “So what we’re doing is a number of dry runs with Medicaid billing while we’re still entirely grant- funded”—essentially, submitting invoices for real services to see what gets rejected and approved.

“Our current conservative estimate [is] an 85 percent reimbursement,” Dones added. “I think that there were some estimates that were like, ‘this will make it rain money,’ and then there were other estimates that were like, ‘this will get you two nickels.’ We feel confident that this is a capturable amount of revenue.”

But providers and advocates familiar with Foundational Community Supports, speaking to PubliCola on background, said that although the concept behind FCS is extremely forward-thinking—the six-year-old program treats housing as a form of health care, which is new for Medicaid—relying so heavily on FCS to fund a costly, high-profile effort like Partnership for Zero is a significant risk.

To understand why, it’s helpful to understand a bit about how nonprofits use the program to fund services for unsheltered people in King County.

Foundational Community Supports is a fee-for-service program; it pays $112 for every documented “encounter” between a service provider and a client, up to a maximum of six encounters a month. (In the case of KCRHA, the government itself, rather than a nonprofit, will be the service provider). If a case manager has a dozen clients and manages to document six encounters with each of them every month for a year, that adds up to about $95,000. The starting salary for KCRHA’s system advocates—formerly homeless peers who serve as case managers and outreach specialists for Partnership for Zero—is $75,000, so a $95,000 reimbursement would more than pay for both’ salaries and benefits, with some to spare for administration and other costs.

So far so good. Except, service providers say, that it’s almost impossible to “max out” on providing services to unsheltered people this way. Case managers must document each encounter with an unsheltered person in detail, with case notes that demonstrate what service they provided and how that encounter got the person closer to their housing goal.

Opportunities for “wasted” time abound. If a case worker goes out looking for a client and doesn’t find them—a common situation when trying to find unsheltered people, especially in a city that sweeps encampments—that time doesn’t count. If a case manager is new and still in training, or in the process of convincing someone to sign up for the program, that time doesn’t count. And if everything goes perfectly but the case notes are too short, or too long, or don’t include the right kind of details to convince the third-party administrator reviewing a person’s forms, that time doesn’t count either.

Because Foundational Community Supports isn’t a reliable source of funding, service providers don’t typically rely on it to fund entire programs; instead, they “braid” FCS with other funding sources to create a stable foundation for ongoing programs. The constant documentation and pressure to monetize every interaction with unsheltered clients can make it harder to build relationships with unsheltered people. According to one experienced homeless service provider, FCS is “just not really how rapport-based type outreach services relationships work, or how they’re usually delivered.”

Multiple people with Medicaid billing experience mentioned the concept of the “golden thread”–  a consistent narrative through every piece of documentation that explains why the person needs specific services and how each of those services are helping them achieve their self-determined goals. Failure to convincingly document that “thread” is “why a lot of claims get denied,” one former service provider said.

“We are comfortable that that’s a good number, but we’re not going to know until we start doing it and we’ll build a better and better understanding of what a successful reimbursement package is.”—KCRHA Chief Administrative Officer Meg Barclay

Facing pushback from board members last week, Dones pointed that the agency still has money left over from We Are In’s original $10 million commitment to pay for the program through 2023 and potentially beyond, if getting funds through Medicaid proves more challenging than the agency anticipates. And, KCRHA Chief Administrative Officer Meg Barclay noted, the KCRHA is consulting with the Corporation for Supportive Housing, which trains service providers to do Medicaid billing, to learn how to maximize their reimbursements.

Even so, Barclay added, Medicaid is “kind of a black box—sort of strange. So we are comfortable that that’s a good number, but we’re not going to know until we start doing it and we’ll build a better and better understanding of what a successful reimbursement package is.”

Debbie Thiele, CSH’s managing director for the western United States, told PubliCola last year that FCS is “designed to be as user-friendly as possible to a group of providers who are not health care providers.”

One implementation board member, Simha Reddy, said he saw the KCRHA’s effort to fund Partnership for Zero through Medicaid as an experiment that could be helpful to other nonprofit providers who could “jump on the bandwagon” and “learn alongside us.”

And Dones pointed out that the KCRHA won’t be the only government entity to rely on Medicaid funding to run a homelessness program—Spokane, they said, “funds a huge portion of their system” with Foundational Community Supports.

“I do think that the discussion around the difficulty of these dollars is not actually borne out by even our neighbors in Washington,” Dones told the implementation board last week. However, service providers who spoke with PubliCola said Spokane is both smaller (with a homeless population of around 1,800) and more affordable than King County, making it easier to house people in private-market housing and help them stay there.

The budget both boards approved last week isn’t a final spending plan. The KCRHA will send it to its two primary funders, King County and the city of Seattle, later this year, and adopt a finalized budget in December. What the votes represent is a bet on Dones’ plan to fund Partnership for Zero, which will otherwise run out of funding next year.

Editor’s note: Due to a transcription error by the author, the original version of this story incorrectly attributed Backus’ quote to Seattle Deputy Mayor Tiffany Washington.

No Clear Solution for Hotel Evictions After Chaotic Homelessness Board Meeting; Budget Decision Postponed

By Erica C. Barnett

Update 11am April 15: This morning, the KCRHA reportedly sent its own outreach workers, known as system advocates, to the hotels where the Lived Experience Coalition has been paying for rooms through a federal emergency grant to figure out who is in the rooms and what their needs are. The KCRHA did not immediately respond to a request for more information about what the goal of this outreach is and whether funding has come through to pay for the rooms or provide other accommodations to the people living in them.

An unusually chaotic meeting of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority’s implementation board yesterday left unanswered questions about the fate of at least 165 people who remain in hotel rooms administered by the Lived Experience Coalition, which ran out of federal grant money to pay for the hotels earlier this year. As PubliCola reported exclusively on Monday, a public-private partnership called We Are In provided $1 million to pay for the hotel rooms through last Friday, but the KCRHA itself has said it can’t provide ongoing assistance for any hotel residents other than its own clients, who numbered about 30 (of as many as 250) as of last week.

In a conversation with PubliCola, Lived Experience Coalition director LaMont Green expressed confidence that no one at the hotels would end up back on the street. “A majority of the folks [who have left the hotels so far] have been accessing diversion, noncongregate shelter, shared housing, and some just regular permanent housing” using rapid rehousing subsidies, Green said.

However, it’s unclear whether the LEC will be able to continue moving people out successfully on their own; a majority of the people who have left so far are KCRHA’s own clients, and if the agency and local funders wash their hands of the situation, the LEC, an advocacy group that is made up largely of volunteers, will be on its own.

“The KCRHA recently became aware of an LEC program that has some financial difficulties . … We need to step away, frankly. I will again clarify for the public, the program is not operated by KCRHA, is not being funded by KCRHA, and has no formal connection to the KCRHA leadership level.”—KCRHA CEO Marc Dones

City officials, including the mayor’s office, did not respond to requests for comment earlier this week. However, on Tuesday, Deputy Mayor Tiffany Washington said in an email addressed to “funders and partners” that the “LEC seems fully capable of winding down the work without assistance from KCRHA. I propose that we release KCRHA leadership and staff to focus on other work and key initiatives like partnership for zero”—a reference to the Partnership for Zero effort, funded by We Are In, to eliminate homelessness in downtown Seattle.

Although the KCRHA’s own downtown outreach workers, known as system advocates, were directly responsible for placing dozens of KCRHA clients into the LEC hotels, agency CEO Marc Dones has maintained that the KCRHA knew little to nothing about the hotel program or its funding.

“The KCRHA recently became aware of an LEC program that has some financial difficulties and we are currently evaluating with the city, county, state, and private funders to determine how to fund the program and support residents of it,” Dones said during Wednesday’s implementation board meeting. “We need to step away, frankly,” Dones added. “I will again clarify for the public, the program is not operated by KCRHA, is not being funded by KCRHA, and has no formal connection to the KCRHA leadership level.”

The board meeting included other signs of the growing schism between the LEC—a coalition that advocates for people with lived experience, which the authority has described as “an independent organization that appoints representatives to the KCRHA Implementation Board and Governing Committee, and is a partner in our efforts to end homelessness”—and the KCRHA. Three positions on the board reserved for people with lived experience of homelessness remain unfilled, and a simmering debate over who should fill those roles bubbled to the surface as part of a separate discussion about bylaws, whose details the board is still debating after three years in existence.

Dones said the process for appointing the lived experience positions has been haphazard and “needs to be rethought,” and that the nominees should include “people who are not members of the LEC.” However, members of the advisory committee that appoints people to the board the nominations have tried to call a special meeting to make their nominations, and claim the KCRHA is blocking them from doing so by refusing to post a meeting notice on their website, as required by law. In short: It’s a mess.

With the clock running down on Wednesday, the board had just a few minutes to ask questions about a 2024 supplemental budget proposal they had received less than 24 hours before the meeting (and that still isn’t posted publicly on the KCRHA’s website).

With the clock running down on Wednesday—the KCRHA ordinarily caps its board meetings at two hours, but this one went long—the board had just a few minutes to ask questions about a 2024 supplemental budget proposal they had received less than 24 hours before the meeting (and that still isn’t posted publicly on the KCRHA’s website). Dones said it was “alarming” that the board wasn’t familiar with the proposal, and noted that the board already approved the agency’s biennial budget in 2023, suggesting that this was just a continuation of that budget.

During a brief discussion, board members argued that biennial budgets still deserve scrutiny, and often change from year to year; both the state of Washington and the city of Seattle, for example, operate on a biennial system but still go through a lengthy annual budget process. The KCRHA just proposed a revision of its new five-year plan that would refocus the agency on immediate shelter under a new mission statement—“To Bring Unsheltered People Inside as Quickly as Possible to Prevent Death and Further Harm”—that could, board member Ben Maritz argued, require the agency to change its spending strategy as soon as next year.

Additionally, the 2024 budget proposal includes requests for funding for nearly a dozen new KCRHA staffers, including three new HR staffers and a new “Housing Central Command Manager” for the “housing command center” that opened as part of Partnership for Zero last year. A memo on the budget that outlined the new positions is available on the KCRHA’s website.

The board decided to postpone approving the budget until its next meeting, which hasn’t been scheduled yet, and the meeting ended abruptly after several members dropped off the Zoom call, depriving the meeting of a quorum.

As Homeless Agencies Bicker Over Blame, Time Runs Out for Hundreds Living in Hotels

By Erica C. Barnett

Up to 250 people experiencing homelessness who have been living in hotels around the region could be back on the streets in the next few days now that funding for the hotels, provided through a one-year federal grant to a group of homeless and formerly homeless advocates called the Lived Experience Coalition, has abruptly run out. The people at risk of eviction include both individuals and families, and most have no housing plan in place.

Ordinarily, the LEC is not a housing or shelter provider; its primary role is advocating for policy solutions to homelessness and ensuring that people who’ve experienced homelessness have a seat at the table when policy decisions are made.

Last year, though, the LEC received a series of federal grants, including a $1 million, one-year grant to rent hotel rooms from FEMA’s Emergency Food and Shelter Program and another $330,000 to program to connect hotel residents to employment. The LEC signed an agreement with the nonprofit Building Changes to serve as its fiscal sponsor—a pass-through agency that distributes funds for new or grassroots organizations.

Over the past year, but particularly between January and March of this year, the LEC moved hundreds of people into hotel rooms funded by the federal grant. By March, cash flow was dire. As of early April, the estimated gap between the funding the LEC had on hand and what it owes various hotels totals more than $700,000, and the shortfall is ballooning at a rate of about $1.1 million a month, according to several sources familiar with the situation.

The King County Regional Homelessness Authority, which has distanced itself from the hotel program, also used the LEC hotel rooms to move people off the streets of downtown Seattle as part of a public-private partnership aimed at ending unsheltered homelessness downtown, called Partnership for Zero.

“We’ve been notifying [the LEC] about the cash issues for a year,” Building Changes executive director Daniel Zavala said. “We shared [concerns] on several occasions throughout 2022, and really in December of this last year we were more formally flagging some of the cash flow issues.”

In emails and memos obtained by PubliCola, the LEC denied this, and said Building Changes failed to provide them with information about their cash flow when they requested it.

“For a very long time, we were operating blindly which caused us to spend $370,000 more than the grant we were awarded,” LEC director LaMont Green wrote in an email detailing LEC’s grievances with Building Changes. “We consistently asked for the financial reports but to no avail. Building Changes made us aware of this gross overspend less than 2 months before year end. … Additionally, when LEC received financial reporting it was often inaccurate.”

Zavala, from Building Changes, disputes this account. “We provided financial information on numerous occasions to the LEC over the last year,” Zavala said. “We’re here because the LEC mismanaged its finances.”


But the crisis isn’t just about a single organization falling into arrears.

The King County Regional Homelessness Authority, which oversees the region’s response to homelessness, also used the LEC hotel rooms to move people off the streets of downtown Seattle as part of a public-private partnership aimed at ending unsheltered homelessness downtown, called Partnership for Zero.

The organization that runs Partnership for Zero, another nonprofit called We Are In, initially floated the idea of using $1 million of the remaining program funds to get the LEC out of arrears—and keep the hundreds of people living in the hotels from falling back into unsheltered homelessness.

As of two weeks ago, according to emails, We Are In planned to use $1 million of the $10 million it pledged for Partnership for Zero to pay for the hotels. “We will be allocating $1M of the remaining partnership for zero funds at KCRHA to the outstanding LEC hotel invoices,” We Are In director Felicia Salcedo wrote to Zavala on March 30.

Taking these funds out of Partnership for Zero, Dones responded in the same email thread, would “cause the KCRHA to pause hiring as these funds were obligated to support staffing. My team estimates that this will reduce the overall housing capacity of the project by at least 1/3 if not more.”

On Monday, We Are In spokesman Erik Houser said the organization ended up using $1 million of its own funds, separate from the Partnership for Zero, to pay the LEC’s outstanding invoices for the hotels. That money ran out on Friday, and Houser said it’s now up to “other partners,” including government funders, to address the problem.

A spokeswoman for the KCRHA said Monday that “together with public and private partners, we have been working to identify possible solutions.”


Last week, a frenzy of finger-pointing almost overshadowed the imminent human crisis.

In one email exchange with LEC director Green’s requests for help coordinating shelter or housing for people living in the hotels, for example, KCRHA CEO Marc Dones wrote, “As I have stated repeatedly this is not a kcrha program and funding decisions are not being made by kcrha staff. …  I am unclear how else to be of assistance.” It was a comment Dones would echo repeatedly throughout the week, and not without justification—the KCRHA was not involved in the original FEMA grant and played no part in the LEC’s partnership with Building Changes.

But the KCRHA was aware of the program. In fact, the agency’s own system advocates—outreach workers who connect people living unsheltered downtown to shelter and housing—were using the LEC hotel rooms to shelter people living downtown. Starting late last year, KCRHA staff utilized LEC-funded hotel rooms to shelter at least 90 people living in downtown Seattle, something PubliCola first reported back in February. According to an email Green sent to a group of agency and nonprofit partners last week, Green told Dones about the program in April 2022.

Green did not respond to a request for comment (in general, the LEC makes decisions and statements collectively) and the KCRHA declined to speak with PubliCola about the timeline. However, a KCRHA spokeswoman did confirm that of about 30 of the people KCRHA staffers moved into hotels through the LEC program were still in the hotels last week. The spokeswoman said all 30 were either moving into permanent housing or had housing plans in place.

Last week, with accusations flying between the LEC, Building Changes, and the KCRHA, Building Changes announced it was pulling its fiscal sponsorship from the LEC, which will be unable to receive or distribute funds until it obtains its own nonprofit status. The LEC sent a letter to Building Changes saying it would create “cruel and unusual duress” for Building Changes to drop its sponsorship without an exit strategy, but the decision appears final. “I can confirm that we have terminated our business relationship with the Lived Experience Coalition,” Zavala said.

Building Changes is also the fiscal sponsor for We Are In, which has pledged $10 million to the KCRHA for its Partnership for Zero work. That effort, which the KCRHA initially hoped to wrap up within a year, is behind schedule, in part, because landlords have been reluctant to rent to people with one-year subsidies without knowing what happens in “the 13th month,” according to an update from Dones in January.

As the program enters its second year, KCRHA is under pressure to show it’s making progress; We Are In is distributing its $10 million pledge in tranches, including an initial $4 million last year.


It’s unclear what, if any, funding is available to cover the hotel funding shortfall, which continues to grow every day the LEC’s clients remain in their rooms, which are distributed across several hotels in South and North King County, as well as one in Tacoma.

The implementation board includes three members (out of a current 13) who were appointed by the Lived Experience Coalition, including LEC co-founder and co-chair Okesha Brandon.

King County, which (along with the city of Seattle) is one of the KCRHA’s primary funders, says it does not have the money to pay for the LEC’s hotel bills. “We were recently made aware that the Lived Experience Coalition (LEC) is unable to maintain their temporary hoteling program, which had been used to shelter people experiencing homelessness,” a spokesman for King County Executive Dow Constantine said Friday.

“To determine how this situation occurred and ensure oversight and accountability, KCRHA is calling for a formal inquiry and audit of how the LEC program was managed and what will be done to prevent a similar situation in the future.”—King County Regional Homelessness Authority

“The hoteling program is independently run and managed by the LEC and is not a program within the KCRHA,” Constantine’s spokesman continued. “However, public and private partners are concerned about the impact on individuals currently sheltered in hotels and are working together to identify possible solutions.”

Spokespeople for Mayor Bruce Harrell and the city’s Human Services Department did not respond to requests for comments.

In a statement, the KCRHA said the agency was “recently made aware that the Lived Experience Coalition (LEC) is unable to maintain their temporary hoteling program, which had been used to shelter people experiencing homelessness.

“The LEC is an independent organization, and their hoteling program is not funded by KCRHA. However, we recognize that the closure of any shelter program has a significant impact on our communities and on the lives of the people given refuge in these hotels.”

The homelessness authority is “calling for a formal inquiry and audit of how the LEC program was managed and what will be done to prevent a similar situation in the future,” the statement concluded. Meanwhile, at press time, it was unclear what will happen to the people still staying in the LEC-funded hotels, and whether they’ll get to stay until they can move to other shelters or housing or be sent back out onto the street.

The KCRHA’s implementation board will meet on Wednesday, when Dones and the board are expected to discuss the hotel issue in public for the first time.

Plan to Eliminate Visible Homelessness Downtown is “Clearly Behind Schedule,” but Backers Remain Optimistic

By Erica C. Barnett

Last week marked the one-year anniversary of the Partnership for Zero, a $10 million public-private partnership aimed at ending visible unsheltered homelessness in downtown Seattle. During the official announcement on February 17, 2022, King County Regional Homelessness Authority CEO Marc Dones said they considered it “feasible” to reduce the number of people living unsheltered in the downtown core to “30-ish people” within a year. “Straightforwardly based on the data, yes,” it is doable, Dones said, “and then secondly, straightforwardly based on what we have to do to help people—yes.”

Since that announcement, the partnership between the KCRHA and We Are In, the umbrella group for the KCRHA’s philanthropic donors, has hit a number of milestones—including a “by-name list” of almost 1,000 people living downtown and the establishment of a “housing command center” to coordinate housing placements—but has not come close to the goal of housing or sheltering a large majority of people living unsheltered downtown. According to an announcement from We Are In and the KCRHA last week, the downtown effort has housed 56 people so far in a combination of permanent supportive, rent-restricted, and private-market housing—about 5 percent of the people the agency’s outreach workers have identified downtown.

As of last week, according to KCRHA spokeswoman Anne Martens, another 96 people were in “interim options”—mostly hotel rooms paid for by vouchers distributed by the Lived Experience Coalition—waiting for housing placements. Hundreds more have either filled out questionnaires about their housing needs, gotten new IDs, or are “moving through the housing process at three prioritized sites (specific encampments or geographic areas),” according to last week’s announcement.”

Jon Scholes, the director of the Downtown Seattle Association, told PubliCola that Partnership for Zero is “clearly behind schedule, and I think they clearly need to pick up the pace.”

The KCRHA is under intense pressure to resolve several encampments in and around the Chinatown/International District, which is in the Partnership for Zero area, as well as another longstanding encampment in North Seattle that neighborhood residents have called a threat to public safety. During a recent meeting of the KCRHA’s governing board, agency CEO Marc Dones said the agency is working to “activate pathways inside” for people living in those encampments, “inclusive of the existing shelter resources, emergency housing, and permanent housing as available.” Mostly, these pathways appear to involve hotel vouchers, not housing.

Jon Scholes, the director of the Downtown Seattle Association, told PubliCola that Partnership for Zero is “clearly behind schedule, and I think they clearly need to pick up the pace.” Most of the people the KCRHA’s outreach workers, known as systems advocates, have identified downtown have been homeless for years and have significant behavioral health conditions, Scholes added. “This is a population that can be challenging to get into housing quickly, and then once you get them there, to keep them there,” he said.

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Still, Scholes said, he’s hopeful that “as they are able to free some resources up from the work in some of these encampments, they’re able to continue to move into the central neighborhoods of downtown.” Kylie Rolf, the DSA’s vice president for advocacy and economic development, added that “in the amount of time that the Unified Command Center has been operational and the system advocates have been on the ground, I think they have made remarkable progress.”

Martens said the agency learned several “key lessons and improvements” for the program in the first year. The first: “Setting up the infrastructure takes time.” Training the system advocates, setting up the housing command center, and creating a new outreach system has taken longer than expected, as has “gathering the documentation to obtain a photo ID” for people who have been living outside for years and, in many cases, don’t have an official address or other documents that could prove they are who they say they are.

The agency has retooled the concept of system advocates so that they no longer will stay with a single client through every stage of the shelter and housing process. Instead, “we’re increasing the efficiency of the Systems Advocates team by shifting advocates into specialized teams, instead of every advocate managing every step of the process,” according to a spokesperson.

Additionally, Martens said, the agency has retooled the concept of system advocates so that they no longer will stay with a single client through every stage of the shelter and housing process. Instead, she said, “we’re increasing the efficiency of the Systems Advocates team by shifting advocates into specialized teams, so instead of every advocate managing every step of the process, we now have teams of advocates focused on Outreach & Engagement, Housing Navigation, and Housing Stability.”

This appears to be a shift from the original concept of system advocates, who were supposed to be a single, “longitudinal” point of contact through every stage of the housing process, from identifying a person and getting them on a “by-name list” to connecting them to housing to ensuring that they have the resources they need to stay housed. We’ve reached out to the KCRHA for clarification about the currentrole of the system advocates.

Scholes said one complicating factor downtown is that many of the people causing a feeling of “disorder” downtown are fentanyl users who aren’t actually homeless. “They may be housed and they may have a fentanyl addiction, and that’s why they’re on the sidewalk. And we sort of shorthand it as homelessness… [but] they’re going to need a different set of interventions” than what the homelessness authority can provide.

Last week’s anniversary announcement included news that the Partnership for Zero has received another $1 million in funding, bringing the total to around $11 million. Although the KCRHA previously said it would use Medicaid funding to pay for the system navigators after last year (prompting skepticism from some Seattle councilmembers) the authority is paying for the outreach workers through its general budget, which is funded by the city of Seattle and King County.

Feds Come to Seattle to Set Up “Command Center” for Downtown Homelessness

Photo by Joe Mabel; CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

By Erica C. Barnett

Contractors with the US Department of Housing and Urban Development convened at the city’s Emergency Operations Center last week to begin setting up a formal “housing command center” for addressing homelessness in downtown Seattle, PubliCola has learned. The King County Regional Homelessness Authority requested HUD’s help setting up the command center, which agency CEO Marc Dones touted during the announcement of a public-private partnership called “Partnership for Zero” earlier this year.

HUD, which funds housing through housing vouchers and other programs, has been meeting quietly with officials from the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, King County’s Department of Community and Human Services, Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office, and officials from the city’s Human Services Department over the past two weeks. The goal, according to KCRHA spokeswoman Anne Martens, is to set up a “incident response system” plan for homelessness, treating it like an emergent crisis rather than a perpetual, unchanging problem.

“We’ve heard from our neighbors that we need to treat this emergency like an emergency, so that’s exactly what we’re doing,” Martens said.

The difference isn’t just semantic. “An incident command system is a management structure that can really be used to organize any big event,” from planning a wedding to planning for emergency shelter during heat and smoke, Curry Mayer, the director of the city’s Office of Emergency Management, explained. In practice, this means setting up several teams to deal with operations, logistics, planning, and administration, all reporting to a command team that runs the show and gets information out to the public and press.

“We are taking best practices learned from years of emergency housing response during disasters like hurricanes and other major displacements, and applying those proven practices to help people experiencing homelessness move inside,” Martens said.

In a statement, a spokesperson for HUD’s regional office said that although the technical assistance does not come with any new funding for housing or services, it “helps communities apply the lessons learned from other communities, including those that used a similar structure to assist people experiencing homelessness following major disasters. The duration of the technical assistance will depend on the circumstances on the ground, but it will likely last a few months.”

The team is already meeting daily to share updates on each team’s progress and challenges, the same way local agencies meet daily during short-term emergencies, like the snowstorm that shut down transportation around the city last year and left thousands of unsheltered people out in subfreezing temperatures for days.

This approach is a dramatic departure from the traditional approach to homelessness, which is divided into silos such as encampment removals, emergency response, shelters, and housing. The logistics team, for example, might be in charge of figuring out ways to make permanent housing accessible more quickly, such as waiving eligibility requirements (HUD rules currently require a person to be homeless for at least a year before they’re eligible for a voucher, for example) or offering incentives to landlords to move people into apartments quickly.

“This effort will further improve coordination and speed up action, with permanent housing as the top priority,” Martens said.

Although the command center doesn’t come with additional funds for housing, multiple people familiar with the effort expressed hope that it could open the door to additional HUD funds in the future. In 2020, a McKinsey report estimated that it would cost as much as $1 billion a year to fully address homelessness in King County—more than eight times the KCRHA’s current annual budget. Mayor Bruce Harrell—whose office directed questions to the KCRHA—has indicated that he has little interest in contributing tens of millions more to the KCRHA’s budget, as the authority has requested.

The Office of Emergency Management won’t be directly participating in the command center’s operations, but they will provide meeting space and a press room for regular briefings. Because the EOC’s operations are sensitive, the question of access has been the subject of some internal debate. The building where the KCRHA is located, a former jail that also houses the county’s sobering center, and the Seattle Municipal Tower across the street from City Hall, were both reportedly considered but rejected in favor of the high-tech, visually appealing emergency hub.

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””