Tag: We Are In

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.”

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

By Erica C. Barnett

A draft report on a short-lived hotel shelter program run by the Lived Experience Coalition—a group of advocates who have direct experience with homelessness—says the LEC was in over its head when it accepted $1 million in federal funding to run its first shelter program, which ran out of funding earlier year.

But the report, by independent consultant Courtney Noble, also concludes that other factors, including lack of transparency from the LEC’s fiscal sponsor Building Changes and a hostile relationship with the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, contributed to the program’s collapse.

“LEC did not have the capacity to run a direct service program of this scale,” while Building Changes—a small nonprofit that serves as a fiscal sponsor for other groups, including the public-private partnership We Are In— “did not have sufficient capacity to manage the exponential growth in accounting functions necessitated by the launch of the hoteling program,” the report concludes. Meanwhile, “[b]etter coordination between KCRHA and LEC was necessary and possible, but failed to occur due to personalities and expediencies.”

Marc Dones, the KCRHA’s former director, and LaMont Green, the head of the LEC, clashed over the hotel program and many other issues, and Dones went from embracing the LEC to distancing the agency from the group as the relationship between the two entities soured over the past year.

“The essential problem here was poor management of public (FEMA) funding, ultimately necessitating an investment of additional public and private resources” to save the program, the draft report says.

“An error of this margin evinces a complete abandonment of the oversight necessary of any direct service program.”—Draft report on hotel overspending

PubliCola has written extensively about the hotel shelter program, which provided temporary housing for hundreds of people during the pastd winter and early spring. The LEC ran the program using funds from FEMA’s Emergency Food and Shelter Program (EFSP), administered by the United Way of King County and funneled through Building Changes. Earlier this year, the LEC accused Building Changes of withholding critical information about their finances, and Building Changes countered by accusing the LEC of failing to keep its spending in check.

The draft report concludes that as fiscal sponsor, Building Changes (referred to as “BC” in the report) failed to provide timely information to the LEC about its finances, but the LEC should have had some inkling, based on the amount they were spending on the hotels from week to week, that their money was dwindling. “BC can be faulted for failing to provide regular financial reports,” the draft report says. “However, the hoteling program staff and LEC Leadership should have also been monitoring their expenditures in real time. An error of this margin evinces a complete abandonment of the oversight necessary of any direct service program.”

The LEC, Building Changes, and the United Way of King County declined to comment directly on the draft report. In a joint statement, the three organizations said, “We do not believe it to be productive to litigate the findings of this report nor resurface prior grievances regarding the actions or inactions that led to it. … All parties have acknowledged that there are areas for improvement and we have all taken steps toward that joint effort – both within our individual operations and among the coordinated efforts between us.”

One issue the report raises, but does not dwell on, is the question of whether the local Emergency Shelter and Food Program board, which is administered by a staffer for the United Way of King County, should have issued the million-dollar grant to the LEC in the first place. According to the report, the hotel program wasn’t actually eligible for EFSP funding, which was reserved for existing programs, not new ones. “As implemented, this was not an existing program, and should not have been eligible for this funding,” the draft report says. Complicating matters, the LEC itself holds five of 19 seats on the local board that chooses who gets funding through the EFSP program, creating “the appearance of self-dealing” even though LEC members recused themselves from the vote that resulted in the grant.

A spokesperson for the KCRHA said the draft report “captures some of the challenges of coordinating across our homeless response system, and the importance of trust in leadership and clear communication.”

In late April, the KCRHA unceremoniously took over the program, using state funding, its own money, and a contribution from We Are In to keep hotel guests in their rooms while transitioning them to other locations or, in some cases, back to the streets. This abrupt takeover created more ill will between the KCRHA and LEC, as the two organizations clashed over access to client information and other issues; ultimately, the KCRHA created (and took credit for) creating its own “by-name list” of people living in the hotels, a group the LEC already knew intimately but whose information they would not share with the homelessness authority without explicit permission from each client.

The report concludes that the homelessness authority and LEC could probably have worked out their differences, but “[p]oor communication and hostility between organization leaders” made it all but impossible for the two groups to work together.

The KCRHA has consistently claimed it knew next to nothing about the hotel program, even as the agency’s own “systems advocates”—case managers with lived experience of homelessness, including some from the LEC— were moving KCRHA clients into the hotels as part of the We Are In-funded Partnership for Zero program, which aims to eliminate homelessness in downtown Seattle.

“There are many fractured relationships, historical grievances and mistrust between parties,” the draft report says, and “[s]ome sort of mediation or reconciliation is necessary between KCRHA, BC and LEC.”

The draft report is skeptical about this claim. “While KCRHA leadership may claim they were unaware of the program, there were clearly many points of intersection between KCRHA and LEC on this work,” the report says. However, the report also that under We Are In’s funding agreement, system advocates were supposed to use available resources like the LEC hotel program before tapping into We Are In’s funding. This meant that system advocates—under pressure from KCRHA and the city of Seattle to show progress reducing visible homelessness downtown—came to rely heavily on the LEC program, ultimately moving 121 people into the hotels.

Half of We Are In’s board are members of the LEC or people appointed by the LEC. We Are In declined to comment for this story.

The LEC played a key role in the creation of the KCRHA, whose charter document cites the LEC as a co-author of the agency’s mission statement and theory of change. Over its first two years, the KCRHA deepened the entanglement between the two organizations, granting the LEC unprecedented authority to appoint members to the KCRHA’s governing and implementation boards, directly appoint the agency’s chief ombudsperson and hire some of their staff, conduct the annual “point in time count” of the region’s homeless population, and appoint members to the region’s homelessness continuum of care committee.

Although this relationship gave people who have actual experience being homeless an unprecedented voice in decision making at the authority, it also created the potential for huge problems when conflict inevitably arose between the two partners. “There are many fractured relationships, historical grievances and mistrust between parties,” the draft report says, and “[s]ome sort of mediation or reconciliation is necessary between KCRHA, BC and LEC.”

The report is still in draft form and will be amended in response to “factual” feedback from the LEC, Building Changes, and the KCRHA, before it’s finalized and released later this week.

In Last-Minute Bailout, State Provides $6 Million to Pay for Hotel Shelters That Ran Out of Money Last Month

By Erica C. Barnett

In the final days of the state legislative session, Seattle lawmakers quietly bailed out a hotel-based homeless shelter program that ran out of money in early April, using $6 million in “underspend” from a program that addresses encampments in state-owned rights-of-way to keep the hotels open while the King County Homelessness Authority tries to find places for hotel residents to go.

The KCRHA has until the end of June to spend the money, which can only be used to “maintain the operations of, and transition people out of, as appropriate, a hotel housing more than 100 people experiencing homelessness that is at imminent risk of closure due to a lack of funding,” according to language state Rep. Nicole Macri (D-43, Seattle) and Sen. Joe Nguyen (D-34, Seattle) inserted into this year’s supplemental budget.

“Generally speaking, a request of that amount coming this late would not have had the sympathy that it did. At that point, I was like, ‘I don’t want 300-plus families to be unsheltered.'”

—State Sen. Joe Nguyen[/perfectpullquote]

“[KCRHA CEO] Marc Dones reached out, saying they had discovered this crisis several weeks [earlier], saying they had been trying to figure out how to transition people” out of the hotels, Macri said. At the time, the KCRHA estimated there were more than 300 people living in rooms at six hotels, a number that has since dwindled. “They said this is an urgent need—it’s an immediate need right now.”

“Generally speaking, a request of that amount coming this late would not have had the sympathy that it did,” Nguyen said. “At that point… I was like, ‘I don’t want 300-plus families to be unsheltered.'”

Because it was so late in the session, Macri said, it wasn’t possible to just move the underspent dollars from one year’s budget to the next. A change like that would require legislation to reallocate the funds, which are earmarked for the highway encampment program. Instead, the state Department of Commerce provided supplemental budget language that allowed the KCRHA to use the leftover money, which would otherwise have gone back to the state’s general fund, to pay for the hotels.

As PubliCola reported exclusively earlier this month, the Lived Experience Coalition received a total of $1.3 million in federal grants through the United Way of King County, but the money ran out earlier this year, forcing a scramble to save the program.

The LEC, formed in 2018, is a group of people who have direct experience with homelessness or systems that homeless people frequently encounter, such as the mental health care system. Until last year, they had never been in charge of a shelter or housing program. The LEC has blamed the hotel crisis on its fiscal sponsor, a nonprofit called Building Changes, which denies responsibility for financial errors.

We Are In, the funder for Partnership for Zero, stepped up to pay for the hotels through the first week of April. (According to a spokesman, the two We Are In board members who are affiliated with the LEC recused themselves from the vote.) The KCRHA is planning an investigation into what happened with the hotels, which will be paid for by the Campion Advocacy Fund, one of We Are In’s funders. Later this month, the authority reportedly plans to discuss the hotels during a joint meeting of the agency’s governing and implementation boards.

Meanwhile, Dones has said the regional authority only recently became aware of the hotel funding crisis and had nothing to do with the LEC’s contract to run the hotels. However, the KCRHA’s own downtown outreach workers, known as systems advocates, placed dozens of people in the hotels this year as part of the Partnership for Zero, a public-private partnership aimed at ending unsheltered homelessness downtown.

It’s unclear why the KCRHA asked for so much spending authority. “I really left it to the executive branch to vet it and to determine, ‘is this a reasonable thing to do?'” State Rep. Nicole Macri said. “I didn’t get a clear accounting.”

At its peak, the hotel shelter program was spending more than $1 million a month to pay for about 250 hotel rooms, including rooms in two last-chance hotels for people who had been kicked out of other locations due to behavioral issues. If the KCRHA uses up the entire $6 million between April and the end of June, it will have spent $2 million a month.

It’s unclear why the KCRHA asked for so much spending authority. “I really left it to the executive branch to vet it and to determine, ‘is this a reasonable thing to do?'” Macri said. “I didn’t get a clear accounting. … It seems like a lot.” A Commerce Department staffer did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.

When PubliCola inquired about the hotels this week, a KCRHA spokeswoman said “our team is continuing to match people to resources” and that it would be a day or two before they could provide details about plans to wind down the hotels and how much it will cost. “We’re still finalizing some of the locations and ensuring that everyone is taken care of,” the spokeswoman said Tuesday.

In a joint statement sent to PubliCola after this story was published, the offices of Gov. Jay Inslee, King County Executive Dow Constantine, and Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell said, “This hotel voucher program was launched and operated independently from any city, regional, or state effort. When our teams were alerted to the situation, we worked with partners in the public and private sectors to identify potential solutions and coordinate with the King County Regional Homelessness Authority (KCRHA).”

“Without continued funding, hundreds of individuals that include families with children and seniors with significant health issues would likely return to living outside. Because of the vulnerability of this population, the Legislature approved the governor’s request for $6 million to further support this transition effort.”

Sharon Lee, the director of the Low-Income Housing Institute, said the KCRHA asked LIHI for access to some of its tiny houses, including units that are ordinarily reserved for referrals from the city’s HOPE Team, which offers shelter to people living in encampments. Many of those living at the hotels will need shelter that can accommodate special needs, including women and families fleeing domestic violence and well as people with debilitating mental and physical health issues.

In addition to her work as a legislator, Macri works as a deputy director at the Downtown Emergency Service Center, which provides shelter, health care, and housing. She said Dones initially asked for six months to move people out of the hotels, but that she suggested a quicker time frame “because of the high cost.” However, she noted that it can be challenging to find shelter and other resources for people with high needs, especially in a city with so few available shelter beds.

In 2021, DESC had to relocate 130 people from an emergency COVID shelter at Seattle Center to other locations when that shelter shut down. “Of course, DESC does operate other shelters, so we were able to slowly refer people to beds at DESC and other providers,” but even that took three months, Macri said. To make it work, “we had to redeploy staff [and] stop taking referrals”—a tradeoff that meant people living unsheltered were unable to access those shelter beds.

The right-of-way cleanup program, originally proposed by Gov. Jay Inslee to reduce the number of encampments on property owned by the Washington State Department of Transportation, funds JustCARE, a program headed up by the Public Defender Association that shifted its focus last year to provide case management and shelter exclusively for people living on state-owned rights-of-way. According to the Department of Commerce, the program was fully or partly responsible for sheltering or housing more than 300 people in King County. The The reallocation,  reduces the KCRHA’s 2022-2023 budget for right-of-way work from $45 million to $39 million.

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.