Can Spokane avoid the pitfalls of Seattle’s beleaguered homelessness authority?

Local organizers and politicians have a vision for a local homelessness authority. In Seattle, a similar collaborative is struggling.
“Hey, can I see your paper real quick?” (Photo illustration by Valerie Osier)

On Wednesday at 8 a.m., the team working to cobble together a regional homelessness collaborative will share their vision and begin soliciting community feedback at the Spokane Convention Center. This effort has been nearly a year in the making and has recently involved lots of meetings with top officials at local governments throughout the county. It’s one of the few things that often-at-odds groups like homeless service providers and conservative politicians generally seem to think is a good idea. 

But what happens when a good idea is poorly implemented? And what steps might organizers take now to avoid problems in the future?

As we’ve covered before, the apple of Spokane’s eye when it comes to homelessness solutions is Houston. There, a regional collaborative is credited for cutting through bureaucratic inefficiencies and helping drastically reduce the number of people living unsheltered. Spokane leaders flew to Houston for a tour last summer, and recently, the team behind the Spokane collaborative effort flew out a consultant from Houston to help work on what a regional collaborative could look like here.

But while Houston is the go-to example of a homeless authority moving the ball on getting people housed, a more local and perhaps more relevant example serves as a cautionary tale. In Seattle and King County, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority (KCRHA), which has been operational for about two years, has struggled recently. The CEO of the authority, Marc Dones, resigned in May in lieu of being fired. The KCRHA has repeatedly struggled to get Seattle, King County and suburban municipalities in the region aligned on both policy and funding for the authority’s audacious budget requests.

To dive more into this cautionary tale from the other side of the Cascades, RANGE reached out to Erica Barnett, the publisher of, an independent reader supported news organization in Seattle. Barnett has been doing in-depth reporting on the agency and shared some thoughts on how the KCRHA is doing and what lessons Spokane can learn from their experience.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

RANGE: What were the vibes around the KCRHA when it formed? 

Erica Barnett: I think there was a lot of hope at the beginning, especially. The homelessness problem in Seattle has just been getting worse and worse in the time that I’ve lived here, which is more than 20 years — and I think there was just a lot of frustration with the way that things were sort of atomized or siloed between various agencies.  

We had a regional coordinating body called All Home, but it was at the county level, and then the city of Seattle had its own sort of homelessness response through the human services department. I think the vibe was that this was going to finally bring everything into one place and there would be one point of authority and one point of accountability for the entire region. I think with that there was also a hope that there would be more funding for homelessness in the region, even though the KCRHA started out with and still has no ability to raise taxes or do anything to raise funding on its own.

That is one of the fundamental limitations of the organizing structure, and I think it became apparent very quickly that that was going to be a real problem.

RANGE: Can you talk about that financial aspect a bit more? 

EB: Seattle is the primary funder and King County is the secondary funder. They both give tens of millions of dollars to this effort. [This] used to be money that they would spend themselves — now it goes to the KCRHA. There’s basically no money coming in from suburban areas. 

The suburban cities do have a say in the governing board. I don’t wanna get too much into the structure because it gets pretty Byzantine and boring, but suffice it to say the suburban cities definitely have an input on policies and what kinds of approaches they want the homelessness authority to have. 

There are really conflicting ideas about how to respond to homelessness in the region. [KCRHA] is very committed to housing-first policies and some of the suburban cities are much more interested in treatment-first or other approaches that I think are not as evidence-based. 

More recently, there was a conflict over whether to fund congregate shelters at all. The authority under CEO Mark Dones — who just left recently — really went all in on the idea that congregate shelters are bad and we shouldn’t fund them.

Suburbs pointed out that in a lot of cases [congregate shelters] are the only kind of shelters they have. So, there is some conflict over that.

I think the issue now is: How do we drastically ramp up funding in order to actually implement some of the stuff that we want to do in this region? Even if suburban cities were able to chip in a few million dollars, it doesn’t solve the problem of insufficient funding because basically all that happened is the city of Seattle increased funding a little bit and transferred the rest of their funding over, and King County did the same thing. 

So, there’s not a lot of extra funding here for homelessness despite having new structure.

RANGE: It seems like one of the challenges is also letting go of the reins when you’re paying the bills. How have power dynamics been between the city, county and the regional homelessness authority?

EB: What we’ve seen is that the authority has come out with these giant budget requests for huge increases in funding.

I think the last budget they asked to double their budget, and that was just a completely unrealistic ask. But, they’ve asked for these huge increases and the city and county have come back saying, ‘no, we’re not going to do all those things that you want us to do,’ because usually the increases are for very specific things. So, the city will bump up their funding a little bit. The county actually, I think, kept their funding basically the same last year.

At the same time, the city of Seattle has a policy of sweeping encampments more or less constantly, and it’s really ramped up.That is a policy that the KCRHA definitely does not agree with. But, they don’t really have any control over that because that’s still controlled by the city.

So, it seems like even though they’ve kind of tasked this organization to take the lead on homelessness, it might not be driving city policy across the board.

RANGE: How would you describe the current status of the KCRHA?

EB: The founding CEO Mark Dones resigned recently and that was because they were going to be fired, according to my reporting. It’s in a bit of chaos. They’ve acknowledged they’re having trouble hiring for some of these very key roles doing things like administering contracts and making sure that all of these homeless agencies — that actually do the work in the region — get paid. With this year’s contracts, they’re almost done getting checks out that should have gone out closer to the beginning of the year.

There was a lot of mistrust when the agency got going between the KCRHA and people who have been doing the work in this region for many, many years. Dones came in and basically said we are going to build a new system from scratch and hired people within the agency itself to do outreach work and to go out to encampments and paid them a lot more than people already doing that work for nonprofits were making. And I think there was just this sense of, ‘we know better than you’ that the agency projected.

There’s a lot of mistrust and I think that’s going to require a lot of rebuilding for the agency to really function well in the region.

RANGE: How much of that is from Dones leadership or is it just the overall structure of the agency?

EB: I think it’s a bit of both. I’ve heard a lot of relief from within the agency and also from service providers and advocates [about Dones departure]. Not to denigrate Marc Dones and their work, because I think they were rightly praised as a visionary, but I will say Dones was someone with a prickly personality who got in fights with people. 

I think there’s some hope that some of the outright warfare between the nonprofits and the KCRHA will end.

But I do think that they have some real structural challenges. They have a board that’s supposed to oversee their federal funding application every year. That was essentially not given the tools to do that job [and] didn’t know what its job was. I don’t lay that at the hands of the board. I lay that at the hands of the agency for not setting itself up and not setting up these boards for success. 

I think there’s just a lot of work to be done before they can get back on the path of their mission. And, part of that is finding a CEO because the interim CEO is only there for another five and a half months or so.

RANGE: What are the biggest lessons that you’ve seen that Spokane should be trying to learn from the KCRHA? 

EB: I’m going to say one that’s obvious and one that’s perhaps a bit controversial. One is I think that the agency has to have some sort of funding authority, whether it’s direct taxing authority or the authority to do a referendum to raise taxes.

If all [a regional homelessness authority in Spokane is] is moving money from one ledger to the other, it’s not going to make for a big, impactful change.

The other thing I would say is as far as hiring a CEO or a director or whoever, for that role it’s best not to have a visionary or a big picture person who doesn’t like the administrative details, which I think describes Marc Dones.

Get somebody who understands the problem, has a big picture vision, but also is willing to get down in the weeds and the Excel spreadsheets and look at the details of what’s happening at the agency, and delegate authority too. I think that was a huge problem with the previous CEO. That’s not just me saying it. That’s what I’ve heard from many people both within and outside the agency.


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