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Renew Regional Commitment to Preventing Homelessness

Written by Rachel Smith, Michelle Merriweather, and Dennis Quirin

Special to The Times

Last week, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority (KCRHA) began its first-ever leadership transition as inaugural CEO Marc Dones announced their departure from the organization. 

As leaders in the business, philanthropy and nonprofit communities, we thank Marc for their consistent and transparent partnership, and for their innovation in the first phase of the agency’s work.

Elected leaders in the City of Seattle and King County took a courageous leap in 2019 when they voted to create KCRHA, moving to end decades of fragmentation in the homeless response system, ensure people in need can access services, shelter and housing as efficiently and quickly as possible, and center people with lived experiences of homelessness.

Since then, progress has been made and lessons have been learned. 

Over the past two years, KCRHA and partners at state agencies have resolved 14 encampments, including long-entrenched sites in North Seattle and the Chinatown International District (CID). Every one of those resolutions helped hundreds of people transition off the street.

With Gov. Jay Inslee’s Rights-of-Way Safety Initiative, KCRHA has moved nearly 300 individuals, including couples and families, into temporary or permanent housing. In downtown Seattle and the CID, the public-private Partnership for Zero established a cross-sector Housing Command Center that has helped more than 100 people into permanent housing, an effort that will continue on through the commitment of the We Are In coalition.

And nearly 1,400 households now have long-term leases through federal emergency housing vouchers, an effort that’s drawn national notice for its success.

King County, meanwhile, has created more than 1,300 units of Permanent Supportive Housing, with more to follow. Redmond has broken ground on almost 300 additional units. Bellevue is opening a new men’s shelter later this year. And over the winter, five northern cities in King County became the first to join Seattle in coordinating funding and strategy with KCRHA.

Most recently, the White House validated King County’s progress by making our community one of just five across the country to join a new homelessness prevention initiative that unlocks new coordination and support from the federal government.

Those are successes, but we also have to be honest about where improvement is needed. Recent reports in The Seattle Times about difficulties with service provider contracts — funding for those on the front line — stretching on for two years now are very concerning. There are operational and oversight fixes that need to be made, quickly. Times columnist Danny Westneat’s latest piece urges leaders to seriously focus the organization — we agree.    

Some have asked: Why can’t leaders in government, philanthropy, business, services and labor just agree on an approach without all the bureaucracy? Couldn’t city and county governments just all agree to consolidate provider contracts and use the same metrics? Couldn’t they just all agree to use best practices and data to make decisions?

Maybe. But in the history of our local governments, despite decades of warnings and analyses, those changes never happened — until the creation of KCRHA. We need to be clear-eyed that moving away from KCRHA would be an affirmative step back to a fragmented and worse system.

The next permanent CEO of KCRHA will have all of these issues and many more to solve as part of their scope. Needless to say, the job will not be easy — it is critical that they continuously improve processes to help those experiencing homelessness, and do so with urgency. And as external partners, it is critical that we provide the support and patience needed for the CEO and agency to thrive.

No matter who is leading our region’s homelessness response system, we want to be very clear: Community leaders support the institution of KCRHA and the countywide approach to preventing homelessness. We are committed to the long-term success of regional action on homelessness, and are committed to making sure the next permanent CEO of KCRHA has all the resources and support they need to continue making progress. We will embrace efforts to make the agency more effective, and at the same time, we will reject attempts to undermine it.

As the five-year plan to address homelessness is finalized in the coming weeks, we are reminded that transformative change does not happen overnight, especially at this scale. It is a long process requiring input and buy-in from everyone in the community, especially people who have been homeless themselves.

We are in the middle of a major shift that will lead to better outcomes for our neighbors without a safe and stable place to live. Together, we must build on successes and fix mistakes — and keep moving forward.

Rachel Smith is president and CEO of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce.

Michelle Merriweather is president and CEO of the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle.

Dennis Quirin is executive director of the Raikes Foundation.