Elected leaders and people who’ve been homeless from Seattle and its suburbs voted Thursday to choose the region’s first leader of the region’s homelessness response.
It’s a key step to setting up the Regional Homelessness Authority, which is supposed to declutter and depoliticize King County’s messy homelessness response, which has never had one clear decision-maker.
The governing board of the authority offered the job to Marc Dones, a policy strategist and activist based in Ohio. Dones accepted the position Thursday and will officially start April 26.
Dones, 35, is a social entrepreneur and perhaps an unconventional choice: While they helped design the authority, they come more from the world of racial equity and activism than direct homelessness services.
One of their biggest tasks will be to bring Seattle, King County and suburban cities together on a cohesive strategy to address homelessness throughout the region. Already, tensions between those groups has caused delay in getting the authority off the ground.
The pandemic also delayed the timeline for choosing a CEO by six months, and then, the first person offered the job — a racial equity consultant from Atlanta — turned it down. Dones was originally the runner up.
Dones has advocated locally to give people who’ve experienced homelessness more say over how the country responds to the growing crisis and has been critical of the nonprofits that local governments contract with to help people directly.
“Government is only what we agree to do together,” Dones said Thursday in an interview. “I feel like we have a chance to really get some stuff right, and really build and run a system that is really focused on the right things, and is listening to everybody, rather than, in the traditional bureaucrat mode, ‘we know what’s best for all of you.’ That’s not my approach.”
People working behind the scenes informally refer to Dones as “the architect” of the Regional Homelessness Authority, according to Nate Caminos, the co-chair of the authority’s implementation board, which led the hiring process.
Though the vote was unanimous, Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus said she had reservations about this choice; others alluded to the fact that suburban cities may not be as open right off the bat to Dones’ approach.
“I have not always agreed with Marc Dones on everything, but this is not a space where everyone needs to agree,” said Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan. “(Dones) is fiercely dedicated … to listening to everyone’s voices.”
Harold Odom, who lives in a tiny house village in Georgetown and co-chairs the implementation board that recommended Dones last week, said he and Dones did not get along when they first met two years ago. But after working with Dones on crafting the authority, Odom believes Dones is “a change person. Not someone to do the standard blowout, because that’s what we’ve had before and nothing’s gotten better.”
Dones worked their way up from a data and policy analyst for the state of Massachusetts to helping design and implement a $10 million per year youth violence reduction program for then-Gov. Deval Patrick. Since then, Dones has worked mostly in consulting at companies like the Center for Social Innovation and The Future Company, before founding their own company, the National Innovation Service.
The Regional Homelessness Authority is the culmination of more than three years of planning to get Seattle, its many nonprofits and the suburban cities on the same page when it comes to homelessness. Past iterations of a regional body — the Committee to End Homelessness, which was dissolved and replaced by All Home, which was dissolved last year and will be replaced by the authority — had no actual power over budgets and policy decisions.
The authority also will, Seattle leaders hope, encourage suburban cities to fund or at least allow more shelters and low-income or supportive housing for chronically homeless people, which is disproportionately funded by the city, despite the fact many homeless people in Seattle became homeless elsewhere, data shows. Seattle put up $75 million of the $132 million budget to create the authority.
“Our failure has been that the fear of going too far has kept us from going far enough since 2001,” said the Rev. Bill Kirlin-Hackett, who leads the Interfaith Task Force on Homelessness, to elected leaders during public comment. “All of you, across this county, need to be all in.”