Despite big budgets, homeless agency is clueless in Seattle
By Jeremy Lott | February 8, 2024
An optimistic headline topped the joint news release from Washington state’s most-populous city and its most-populous county in December 2019 heralding the formation of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority. This effort would create a “new unified regional homelessness authority: evidence-based, accountable and equitable.”
King County Executive Dow Constantine boasted the new regional authority “will repair the fractured system of governance that currently exists, improve the coordination of both services and funding countywide, center people with lived experience in our deliberations, and give us our first real opportunity to reduce the unacceptable disproportionality of homelessness among communities of color.”
Then-Seattle mayor Jenny Durkan called it a “historic day” that would turn the corner on the region’s spiraling homelessness crisis. Critics – by no means all of them conservative – say she was right in the sense that it was the launching point of a historic blunder.
The authority, known as KCRHA, began with a budget of about $132 million according to initial projections. That included $57 million from the county, plus some rent-free office space and $75 million from the city. In both cases that was misleading. “These totals include federal funding coordinated by the Continuum of Care,” the two governments explained.
That figure had ballooned to $253.3 million in 2023, or roughly a 100-percent increase in funding in just a few years, and the agency wants more money. It projects the need for as much as $11.8 billion in “investments” over the next five years in “one-time capital” construction costs as well as annual operating costs, to keep homelessness at bay, “depending on the rate at which additional permanent housing is created.”
Results have been meager so far, and that’s being generous. The agency helped house about 1,400 people with federal housing grants and about 250 more through the now-cancelled “partnership for zero” program. At the same time, homelessness is up in the Seattle-King County region, according to federal Department of Housing and Urban Development data – from 11,751 homeless in January 2020 to 14,149 homeless in January 2023.
The related problem of drug overdoses has worsened as well. King County saw 507 confirmed drug overdose deaths in 2020. That morbid yearly tally had risen to 1,274 at the end of 2023, the vast majority of those from fentanyl poisoning, according to the King County overdose deaths dashboard.
Prominent critics think the policies the agency pushes are part of the problem. “[I]t breaks my heart to see the KCRHA double down on Seattle’s failed policies on homelessness,” Reagan Dunn, the one remaining moderate-conservative on the King County Council, said in a statement.
“We know from King County’s 2019 Point-in-Time Count that 45% of the homeless come here from outside our area to take advantage of our generous services. Until we come to terms with this, King County will be a dead-end street for the nation’s homelessness,” Dunn continued. The county and city have the third largest concentration of homeless in the nation behind Los Angeles-Los Angeles County (No. 1) and New York City (No. 2), according to HUD numbers.
The King County councilmember also argued that significant public spending on mental-health and drug rehab needs to be a priority, or else “KCRHA’s jaw-dropping price tag will still fall short.”
Even officials who are more sympathetic to KCRHA’s mission have been critical. Take current Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell. In talks with Seattle police officers, he was reportedly sharply critical of the agency. “I didn’t set this stuff up,” Harrell told SPD officers, according to the local radio station KTTH. “I get one vote out of nine, and they criticize my removal efforts. … No one has a right to camp out in a park where our children are supposed to play. I’m not supposed to see freaking syringes in a park.”
True, Seattle has made some progress clearing off homeless encampments. But that has come largely in spite of – or even over the objections of – the purported authority on homelessness.
There’s also evidence that the agency went a little mad with the “equity” part of its mandate. The Seattle Times’ liberal columnist Danny Westneat decried the agency’s “grandiosity,” explaining that KCRHA meetings spend “significant time debating larger societal issues, as well as dwelling on the implied value of ‘lived experience,’ the notion that only someone who has been through something can fully understand it.”
Westneat further argued that this obsession had “reached peak-Seattle [in May 2023] when one RHA [Continuum of Care] advisory committee attempted to seat a registered sex offender, on the grounds that sex offenders have valid lived experiences, too.”
“This is about equity!” Co-Chair Shanéé Colston told fellow member Kristina Sawyckyj. She said this after Sawyckyj objected to a convicted sex offender who had also harassed her being seated on her own committee. In a story first reported by the urbanism website PubliCola, Co-Chair Colston continued, “And everyone – everyone – deserves housing. I don’t care if they’re a sex offender!”
Colston was forced out in May 2023. The same month, KCRHA’s first CEO Mark Dones resigned in the wake of charges of mismanagement, including the failure to pay the department’s bills in a timely manner. He did not go quietly, saying in a statement: “In order to do better, we must all commit to telling the whole truth, not just about the work now, but also how generations of systemic racism and oppression, decisions made by people in positions of power, brought us here.”
At this, Westneat could only shake his head. “Is this [agency] worth it?” he asked. “Could we be helping more homeless people without the extra bureaucracy?” It’s an intriguing question. Divide the amount spent on the homelessness authority in 2023 by the number of homeless counted that same year. It comes to just over $17,900 a head. That would be more than enough to board people in most of the country for a year, though perhaps not in Seattle.
Jeremy Lott is a writer based in Washington state.