Amazon, Starbucks, Microsoft Philanthropies, billionaires Steve and Connie Ballmer, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and a host of other corporations and philanthropists announced Thursday they intend to spend more than $10 million in an effort to dramatically decrease homelessness downtown and in the Chinatown International District.
Their investment will help set up and fund a team from the new King County Regional Homelessness Authority, designed to triage and alleviate homeless camping from Belltown to Little Saigon.
While many of these corporations have previously invested money toward addressing homelessness, they usually stick to programs that focus on children and families. It’s rare to see them put a large investment into mitigating the kind of chronic homelessness that, while it’s only a portion of the overall homeless population, dominates public discourse.
Philanthropic leaders are expected to hold a news conference Thursday to announce the funding, joined by Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell, King County Executive Dow Constantine and Marc Dones, CEO of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority.
Dones and the authority will be charged with implementing the philanthropies’ plan for the money, which entails a central command table with representatives from the authority, city and county governments that will meet every day and focus on housing and responding to homelessness downtown. Much of the money will help hire formerly homeless “peer navigators” who will meet with and develop plans for each person living homeless downtown. The initiative will also provide flexible funding to get them whatever they need to get housed.
It’s a daunting task: Many of the city’s shelters for single men are downtown, as well as the jail, and Harborview Medical Center with its psychiatric emergency room is right up the hill. This creates a constant churn of medically fragile people and people with mental illnesses, who often use substances and have criminal records that make them hard to house.
“It’s not a small body of work to just dig ourselves out of the situation that all of the previous decisions have gotten us to,” Dones said. “This is not a small thing we are going to bite off, and I will commit to communicating at least monthly about what’s going on.”
Dones said the goal is to get to fewer than 30 people living outside in downtown Seattle — down from the 800-1,000 the authority estimates live there now. They hope that success can be replicated in other parts of the city and county, including in a few cities that will be announced soon.
Businesses and local leaders have been clamoring for months about a solution to chronic homelessness downtown, as tourists and employees gradually return.
“Time is a-wasting,” said former Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire, who reached out to many of these organizations to ask them to donate. “We are in a crisis, in my mind and in Marc [Dones’] mind, so therefore we had to get money.”
Steve and Connie Ballmer gave the majority of the gift; Amazon did not disclose the specific amount of its donation, and Microsoft could not be reached for comment. Starbucks is contributing $150,000 to the initiative.
This kind of gift hasn’t happened in the past from these big-name donors because there hasn’t been one coordinated agency where philanthropies could direct their money, according to Felicia Salcedo, executive director of We Are In, a regional clearinghouse for private dollars around homelessness. Salcedo also worked at the former coordinating body on county homelessness, All Home, which was smaller compared to the regional authority and didn’t have as much budgetary power.
“Funders could call the city and hear one strategy, call the county and hear another, and call All Home and hear a third,” Salcedo said.
In this partnership, the private sector is providing funding that public systems can’t always easily access, said Alice Shobe, the global director of Amazon in the Community, the company’s corporate philanthropy arm. Then, the public systems “do the pieces that they do best,” like investing in affordable housing units and new shelters.
“One thing we feel strongly about is to address a crisis as urgent as homelessness, you need to really be going on all fronts,” Shobe said.
The investment will pay for a team of 30 “peer navigators,” caseworkers who have been homeless and will focus on getting small groups of homeless people from the street to housing. Right now, Seattle’s method of clearing encampments largely relies on one organization to get someone off the street, another to shelter them, and sometimes a third to house them long term — and the data around success is incredibly poor, with most people leaving shelters to untracked destinations. The goal of these navigators is to stay with people every step of the way.
“They are the glue. They are what make this go,” Dones said.
Heidi Wiersma, the authority’s new director of special projects, will oversee the effort. Wiersma previously worked for the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.
One of the problems with the current system is that if someone doesn’t want to go to a shelter because it doesn’t fit their needs — pets or partners aren’t allowed, for instance — they simply leave and often stay on the street, Salcedo said. But a peer navigator can be responsible for them once they walk out the door, and connect them with the right shelter or use the plan’s funding to get them inside short term.
Dones and the architects of this plan are pinning their hopes on about 2,000 units of permanent supportive housing being built around the county — rooms with no exit dates and with clinical staff in the building, designed for poor people with serious behavioral health and/or medical needs. They hope to open the rooms this year and next.
But an ongoing concrete workers strike has thrown the timeline of those units into question, Seattle Deputy Mayor Tiffany Washington said, and opening new shelter spaces is proving harder than expected because of a nonprofit labor shortage attributed to low pay.
The downtown plan isn’t new: Dones originally proposed it to the Seattle City Council last year during budgeting, and the council contributed $5 million for a “high-acuity” shelter that would be triple-staffed and focused on people with the most mental health needs. But the council didn’t fund the peer navigators, and instead encouraged Dones to incorporate more input from the outreach organizations that are already doing this work. But Dones moved forward with the original plan to hire the navigators, who will be authority employees. Dones says it’s informed by models around the country and expertise from people who’ve been homeless.
“My job is to listen to people with lived experience, who were clear from day one that they wanted peer navigators,” Dones said. “And so that’s what we’re going to get.”
Microsoft Philanthropies underwrites some Seattle Times journalism projects.
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated Felicia Salcedo’s title and the organization she works for. Salcedo is executive director of We Are In, a regional clearinghouse for private dollars around homelessness.