King County Executive Dow Constantine has been thinking a lot this past year about his first exposure to politics as a child: the Paris peace talks at the end of the Vietnam War.
Famously, before the talks could even start, they were held up by a disagreement about the shape of the table the North and South Vietnamese leaders would sit around.
It’s been on Constantine’s mind because of a battle closer to home: Who gets a say in how the Seattle region will tackle homelessness for the foreseeable future.
A year ago, the county and city of Seattle signed an agreement to set up a “regional homelessness authority,” trying to unite the county’s major cities under one banner to rally against the problem of homelessness. The authority was created to put all money and decision-making power over homelessness in King County in one office, with a single governing committee composed of elected leaders and people who have been homeless, that would oversee a CEO.
But one year in, the authority has yet to really start its work — stalled by COVID-19, and damaged by divisions between suburban leaders and Seattle government, the body still hasn’t hired a CEO and staff, something it hoped to have done by last September and now probably won’t happen until March. That has held up the replacement of homeless program staff who left or were laid off from the city and county human services departments. Meeting notifications have gone out to the public or even staff members a day or sometimes hours before. In August, the governing committee passed divisive amendments to its bylaws, forgot to vote to enact them, and is now debating whether they were even legal.
Even more apparent is that leaders within King County do not agree on how to fix homelessness — and that suburban cities are afraid funding more shelters and social services will draw an influx of homeless people that will make their cities look like Seattle.
At the same time, nearly 12,000 people at last count are living in shelters or outside in the Seattle metro area — a number that has changed little over the last few years even as governments put more money into attempting to solve homelessness.
“[In Paris], they spent weeks and weeks arguing about the shape of the table while the war raged on,” Constantine said. “I don’t think people struggling on the streets of our county today care very much about bylaws and interlocal agreements.”
“An ounce of slack”
For decades, the Seattle area’s homelessness response has been confusing and sometimes contradictory. More than 70 social service nonprofits answer to several different bosses — the city of Seattle, the county, the federal government, philanthropies — with hundreds of millions of dollars spent and no one person in charge of where all that money goes.
Nearly everyone who interacts with or works with the homeless-services system agrees that a cohesive strategy for the future would be a step in the right direction.
For Seattle leaders, it’s also a way to get other cities to address the problem they are largely paying for: According to the county’s homelessness database, in 2019 around 20% of the people staying in Seattle shelters or enrolling in Seattle homeless services became homeless somewhere else in King County.
“Frankly, they’re going to have to start shouldering more of the burden,” said Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, whose success at creating the authority has been praised as one of her tenure’s major accomplishments.
Durkan blamed COVID-19 for the slowdown, saying that putting together a new body of government via Zoom, in the middle of an event that emptied out most large shelters and turned the entire region’s homelessness system on its head, hasn’t been easy.
“It has been like building a plane while flying it in a Category 5 hurricane,” Durkan said.
Marc Dones, executive director of the National Innovation Service and one of the architects of the authority, pointed out the pandemic made things like hiring a CEO nearly impossible because qualified people weren’t leaving their jobs.
“We all had plans for 2020. And what did we do? We stayed home,” Dones said. “We’ve got to cut ourselves and everybody like an ounce of slack here.”
Picking a CEO that all sides agree on will be 2021’s first major hurdle — followed by hiring a whole new department in the middle of a looming eviction crisis and potential wave of new homelessness.
“Sometimes we get in our own way”
Harold Odom attends regional homelessness authority meetings from an 8-by-10-foot house in Georgetown. As a co-chair for the authority’s implementation board, he represents the Lived Experience Coalition, a body run by and representing homeless people, drawing on his 10 years living on the street.
But Odom has never met most of the people he sees during these sessions; the heads of the authority didn’t start meeting until after the pandemic hit. His spotty Wi-Fi makes it hard to listen and even harder to speak in meetings.
At the last implementation board meeting, it took Odom 15 minutes to sign in. Frustrated, he bought a hot spot from T-Mobile with nearly $100 of his own money.
“It’s hard to meet people and get to know them virtually,” Odom said. “To build trust.”
That lack of trust is exacerbated by continued conflicts over who gets seats at the table — and who gets to choose who sits in those seats.
In August, the governing committee amended its bylaws to give Odom’s coalition power to choose three people who have been homeless to sit on the governing committee — taking that power away from a board of mostly nonprofit leaders.
This was a welcome change for the coalition, which can be critical of agencies that provide homeless services — Odom has even criticized the nonprofit running his tiny house village during public meetings. Now, the coalition would control a quarter of the governing committee’s seats.
“This is an industry that keeps people working, and if things get better, some people will be out of work,” Odom said.
But the change in rules also has given an opening to critics of the authority to threaten a revolt.
County Councilmember Rod Dembowski claimed in a September regional policy committee meeting that those bylaws are actually “illegal” and characterized them as an effort by Seattle leaders to undermine the original agreement between the county and the city. While the County Council’s lawyer agreed, the matter has not yet been settled.
Reagan Dunn, a County Council member and the only Republican on the authority’s nonpartisan governing committee, believes the committee is “on the verge of collapse” because of these disagreements.
Dunn thinks he and other critics on the County Council could have the votes to walk away from the agreement that the city, county and suburbs signed — effectively blowing it up — if they aren’t appeased.
“It hasn’t failed yet, but there is a very good chance that it will fail and collapse under its own weight,” Dunn said.
That would require some reversals from County Council members who have been largely in favor of the authority.
Meanwhile, the controversial new rules haven’t been enacted yet because the committee forgot to hold a final vote at the end of the August meeting. It planned to do so in September, according to emails obtained by The Seattle Times, but the September meeting was canceled due to conflicting schedules, and October’s meeting was a workshop on racism and homelessness that didn’t include any regular business.
The bylaws then didn’t come up at the November meeting, where the governing committee agreed not to meet in December.
“Is it frustrating? Yes, because I don’t want people looking at us and pointing fingers and saying: ‘There is another organization that can’t get its act together,’” said Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus. “Sometimes we get in our own way, I’m afraid.”
View from the suburbs
Dunn has been a skeptic of the authority since the beginning. According to a survey Dunn’s office completed last year of nearly 3,000 voters in his district, which stretches from the southern edge of Bellevue down south to Enumclaw, more than three-quarters of respondents are against raising taxes to fund more services for homeless people.
“People in the suburbs — it’s not like they’re dying to spend more money for the homeless,” Dunn said.
Dunn himself thinks new funding should go toward mental health, drug treatment and a “tough love” approach rather than just focusing on housing.
Some were wary of these differences at the creation of the authority. Again, the friction came down to who would get a voice.
Last year’s interlocal agreement was rewritten last-minute to give suburban cities three seats on the governing committee, despite the fact they weren’t helping fund the authority. The Seattle City Council — which put up the most money of any jurisdiction, $75 million — signed the rewritten agreement in December 2019, but with misgivings. And in the last year, the conflict between suburban cities and Seattle and their allies at the county has deepened.
Take Renton. When County Executive Constantine proposed a sales tax to pay for hotels for people who’ve spent the longest time on the street, Renton opted out, along with five other suburban cities, and will instead spend its tax money on affordable housing.
And when the county put up over 200 homeless people from downtown Seattle in a Renton hotel to keep them safe from COVID-19, Renton voted to move them out over the course of 2021. The city also imposed tight restrictions on any future shelters in city limits.
Renton City Councilmember Ed Prince sits on the authority’s governing board with Constantine, but he voted for these measures, working at cross-purposes with the executive. However, he has a less dire view of the future than Dunn.
“Is there some frustration? Sure,” Prince said. “But I think we’ll be able to figure it out. And I hope no one will leave the table.”