In the midst of a pandemic, with more than 10,000 households experiencing homelessness in King County and thousands more living on thin margins, the news that a promising, transformative leader turned down the offer to lead a new regional response is a heavy blow.
That’s especially so, since the City of Seattle has already begun scaling back staff tasked with managing contracts for homelessness-related services in anticipation of the transition.
The authority’s board, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and King County Executive Dow Constantine must redouble their focus and efforts to launch the Regional Homelessness Authority and lift homeless people into homes and stability. But they should not rush their choice of leader or lower their standards.
Atlanta-based consultant Regina Cannon’s decision not to take the CEO job last month is disappointing, but it’s also an opportunity. If no other exemplary candidate remains on the shortlist, the RHA Implementation Board should conduct a thorough new search. It is worth the time it takes to get this right.
Every step along this unfamiliar road has taken longer than anticipated: crafting an interlocal agreement that Seattle, King County and other cities could agree on; launching the Governing Committee and Implementation Board; starting the search and finding a candidate. To now sprint through this critical hire would squander all that painstaking work.
Some fear that further delay will cause the region to slide back into the infighting, politicking and finger-pointing the RHA was designed to short-circuit. They point at the county’s missteps in housing homeless people at a Renton hotel without consulting city officials, or Mercer Island’s new ordinance prohibiting camping on public property as examples.
Those tensions won’t magically dissolve with a new authority. But, if RHA leaders conduct a new search with greater transparency and community involvement, it would build trust and consensus around this critical shift.
In the meantime, Durkan and Constantine should keep building support for the regional model they pitched to the public with promises of success and efficiency. Their work will not be done until the regional authority has a leader who can achieve that vision.
Instead, the City of Seattle has seemingly rushed to rid itself of the responsibility. In anticipation of the authority’s activation, city officials reduced the number of staff members in the city’s Homelessness Strategy and Investment division, Seattle Human Services Department Interim Director Helen Howell told the RCA Implementation Board at a March 1 meeting. Now only 15 staffers are managing 180 contracts, half the previous number. One-third of those workers are temporary. That is Seattle’s problem to solve and shouldn’t influence RHA leaders’ decision.
Rather, they must focus on the goal: Finding a CEO who has the skills and experience to build an entirely new organization that inspires confidence, rallies diverse stakeholders to common cause, maximizes resources and identifies what’s working to make homelessness brief and rare.