Unifying Seattle, King County and suburban cities’ homelessness response efforts was always going to be a daunting challenge. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the complexity of the long-awaited shift.
That should not stop leaders from pushing forward. Even as physical distancing complicates efforts to get the new Regional Homelessness Authority running, growing economic uncertainty intensified the urgency for a robust and effective response to this critical community need.
The King County and Seattle City councils and the King County Regional Policy Committee approved the joint authority last December, but first steps have necessarily taken a back seat to the public-health emergency. The authority’s 12-member governing committee held its inaugural meeting May 21.
The group includes King County Executive Dow Constantine, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, elected officials from the county, the cities of Seattle, Auburn, Redmond and Renton and three representatives who have experienced homelessness. In keeping with emergency rules for public meetings, they convened last week via Zoom and limited discussion to “necessary and routine matters” — establishing a meeting schedule and discussing a timeline for recruiting and hiring a CEO to lead the new authority, a process that is expected to take several months.
That first meeting revealed that disagreements persist among some members of the committee. Seattle City Council President M. Lorena González reiterated her concerns that the bylaws ensure a balance of power between groups represented in the authority. Some of those details will likely be negotiated in bylaws discussions as early as next month.
But committee members should be careful not to get bogged down in minutiae. The group has the challenge of standing up the new authority under unusually restrictive circumstances. Collaboration will be made more difficult by social distancing requirements. Resources available for tackling the mission could well be thinned by more immediate priorities and a longer-term budget squeeze.
The group must act swiftly and with full transparency to shift responsibility to the new authority. More than ever, working across city lines is necessary to align and invigorate a fragmented regional system of programs and services. The goal remains to ensure that homelessness in the Puget Sound region is never more than a brief, one-time experience, and to simplify and streamline services and fill in critical gaps.
Members of the governing committee must give full consideration to foundational decisions without getting sidetracked by petty differences. This is not a time for grandstanding but for compromise in pursuit of a greater good.