It’s Friday the 13th, a 90-degree August day, and inside the Salvation Army’s Sodo shelter, the highest-ranking staff are starched up in distinctive military-style uniforms with a serif ‘S’ on red lapels despite the heat.
In a few months, the contracts for this and every other government-funded shelter, hotel, housing project and rent voucher for current or formerly homeless people will come under control of a new entity — the Regional Homelessness Authority.
The CEO of that authority, the new head of homelessness in King County, is about to walk through the door.
While Seattle mayors have, for years, appointed “special advisers” and cabinet-level homelessness directors to try to reverse the metro area’s decades-long climb to third-largest homeless population in the country, this CEO has more power and autonomy than anyone previously tasked with the challenge. This person can gather and demand data, renegotiate contracts with nonprofits, redesign strategies and potentially remove politics from the process of fixing homelessness.
When Marc Dones walks through the door, it’s not just their unconventional role that makes them stand out. It’s the black skinny jeans, earrings and a rainbow-striped tank top, showing muscular arms tattooed with bees, peace signs and flowers.
Dones stands out in many local government spaces: A candid speaker not afraid of conflict in a city where government officials are often tight-lipped, a Black person overseeing nonprofits mostly led by white people, a queer nonbinary person managing a shelter system that’s mostly segregated into men’s and women’s shelters.
A Midwestern policy wonk, researcher and racial justice advocate, Dones’ personality and style is a stark change from the average bureaucrat along downtown’s Fifth Avenue government row. Dones was hired in 2018 to design the Regional Homelessness Authority. Now at the helm, they face possibly the hardest job in town.
Since starting in April, Dones has put in 5 a.m. to 8 p.m. workdays from an apartment in Ohio, then Seattle. Recently, they moved into the new homelessness authority offices in the downtown Yesler Building, where the windows overlooked one of the county’s largest and most infamous tent encampments at City Hall Park. Outreach workers and cleanup crews cleared the long-standing encampment this summer, a reminder that as more people appear on Seattle’s streets, financial and political costs are also mounting.
This summer, Dones has been asked again and again what their big idea to solve homelessness in King County is.
And they’ve insisted again and again they don’t have one.
Dones can’t fix the behavioral health system, ramp up or suspend encampment removals, or generate the kind of money needed to build the thousands of extremely low-income housing units that experts say the county has to build.
Running the authority will be a balancing act between the competing — and occasionally combative — interests of Seattle and its suburbs, nonprofits and activists, elected leaders and people with lived experience of homelessness.
“I think that what people will want from me and want from the authority, because we’re in a crisis, is an immediate approach to boil the oceans and, like, open up the stadiums as shelters,” Dones said. “I’m not going to do that.”
But Dones does have a plan.
“I did not think I would be in this job“
Dones is used to attention and doesn’t shy away from it. They’re vocal on Twitter about their support for defunding police and “luxury communism,” which set local conservative media abuzz when Dones was first hired. Their father is legendary basketball player Isiah Thomas, and their mother’s paternity suit against him was publicized for decades.
As a teen, Dones was hospitalized twice after mental breaks. During the second, they walked into the kitchen at home, grabbed a knife, told their mother, “I’m going to kill myself,” and went upstairs to the bathroom.
After a medication journey from Lexapro to lithium, Dones was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and is on mood stabilizers.
Wanting to help other young people going through crises, Dones started government work in a Massachusetts’ state position nearly a decade ago, helping design a $10 million-per-year grant to reduce youth violence.
It was a tough first posting, but it didn’t take Dones long to realize that homelessness was often at the crux of gang issues. Gangs had houses: “Gangs were the literal way they were putting food on the table,” Dones said.
An independent evaluation from the American Institutes for Research found in 2020 that youth enrolled in the program had 36% fewer arrests for violent offenses than other at-risk youth.
Though Dones was young, they stood out to Marilyn Anderson Chase, Massachusetts’ former assistant secretary for health and human services.
“I always credit myself with not always needing to be the smartest person in the room, but I sure knew how to find them,” Chase said. “And Marc was one of those people.”
Dones moved into consulting and has since led a push to get philanthropic and nonprofit leaders to see homelessness as a racial justice issue, a tectonic shift that’s begun to carry some governments along with it in the last few years, according to David Wertheimer, a veteran of King County government and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Dones came up with the theory of “network impoverishment” to describe why Black people fall into homelessness more often than whites.
“One of the things I love about what Marc does is, it’s not just sort of a political diatribe — it’s data based,” Wertheimer said. “Look at the numbers.”
That work influenced the design of the Regional Homelessness Authority. Three out of 12 seats on the governing board — the top level — are occupied by people who have been homeless, and the co-chair of the lower-level implementation board lives in a tiny-house village in Georgetown. All four people currently in those seats are Black.
Dones never planned to someday report to them, though.
“I did not think that I would be in this job,” Dones told Salvation Army shelter staff that August day. “In fact, I told multiple people that I was not going to apply and ‘Good luck.’ And then 2020 happened.”
Dones gets to the point quickly. The Salvation Army shelter was set up during the pandemic without a long-term funding stream. Dones wanted to talk about whether the organization could use the same amount of money for something better.
“This site, as I have reviewed multiple times in my budget projection, is on a couple of different cliffs,” Dones said.
Dones chuckled as the room silently shifted, masked staff glancing at each other.
“I’m just gonna say it,” Dones said, “because I think we should, like — it is important that we all be honest about what is happening.”
Dones’ job has included a lot of these talks. So far, instead of boiling the ocean, Dones is charting a slow course correction through politically viable waters.
Their priorities: fix the county’s laggy and incomplete data system so they know exactly who is homeless where, then impose a sensible set of requirements for homeless shelters and nonprofits housing people. These measures could be unpopular with the nonprofits, who have often argued they’re too thinly spread and housing is too scarce to do more with less.
But in return, Dones wants to increase pay for nonprofits’ staff so bad pay and high turnover are no longer the norm.
These tweaks will, of course, make city and county leaders nervous. Hundreds of millions of dollars have already poured into the system over the past five years, and the problem has barely budged.
King County’s homeless population has topped 10,000 since 2015. Meanwhile, residents and business owners are impatient for visible change — fewer tents in parks, fewer needles on the street — in exchange for the increased spending on the problem.
So instead of pushing for more taxes, Dones plans to launch a capital campaign and ask big business and philanthropy for $1 billion to buy “bridge housing” — more hotels, apartments or houses where people can get off the street and stay temporarily until they find more permanent housing.
“Someone said to me, ‘Your job has a lot of power,’” Dones said, and shook their head. “My job is chief cat-herder.”
An impossible job?
After its creation, the Regional Homelessness Authority was immediately mired in strife as some suburbs rebelled against new taxes for homeless services, and factions of the board disagreed on who deserved a seat.
In the middle of this, COVID-19 hit, emptying out the region’s homeless shelters, tossing the lucky residents into hotels and locking the less lucky out on the streets. One study showed tents in downtown and other highly populated areas increased by 50%. Federal aid poured in, but a labor shortage at homelessness nonprofits has stalled some projects.
The search for someone to run the authority was delayed more than half a year.
Meanwhile, in Seattle and across the country, reopening brought with it renewed encampment removals, resuming a pre-pandemic pattern of pushing homeless people out of parks and neighborhoods. In Seattle, camps that have grown too big to legally move have caused mounting frustration.
Dones was concerned from their vantage point in Ohio. They saw an infant authority beginning to founder, a once-in-a-generation opportunity potentially slipping away.
But Dones didn’t originally get the CEO job. It was offered to another equity and homelessness consultant from Atlanta who declined, sparking speculation that the task was too daunting.
“As a community, we may have created a position that is next to impossible,” said Alison Eisinger, director of the Seattle-King County Coalition on Homelessness, during an authority meeting in March. Eisinger said in a recent interview that she no longer feels that way about the position.
Dones is, of course, daunted. They haven’t been sleeping well.
But Dones also feels confident that an experienced team of people around them can move the needle.
“I don’t think my job is impossible,” Dones said. “I’m 35. The things that I’ve chosen to do in my life, I’ve done relatively well. I have not taken on things that I think are not doable.”
The smartest person in the room?
Though the authority is young and Dones is new, there are already harbingers of battles to come — especially next year when Dones takes control of Seattle and King County homelessness spending.
During a July walk-through of the empty offices of the Regional Homelessness Authority, Dones vented to county staff. After months of questioning from elected leaders on Dones’ staffing plans, the PROTEC17 union, which represents city and county employees, showed up at a meeting the previous week to demand that new positions in the authority automatically join their union.
“I am on record as being a socialist. I love unions,” Dones said with a rueful laugh. “But the CEO doesn’t pick the union.”
Not everyone is a fan of Dones’ style. They can come off as though they think they’re the smartest person in the room.
When Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus first sat down with Dones years ago while planning the authority, she felt as if their approach was at times condescending and full of “buzzwords.”
“I felt like any approach, other than the one that they may think, isn’t valid,” said Backus, who said she has since changed her mind.
It’s not just the suburbs. Dones has already clashed with elected and nonprofit leaders in Seattle over the city’s effort to double the number of tiny-house villages in its boundaries, which they oppose.
Dones is open about their issues with everything from congregate shelters to the way advocates have communicated to the public the concept of “housing first,” the idea you should house a homeless person before working on drug use disorders or serious mental illness.
“The housing and homelessness space is like a policy graveyard,” Dones said. “It’s where all bad things — well, they don’t go here to die, they go here to haunt the land forever.”
At the end of another long summer day, Dones decompresses at Queer Bar with a basket of chicken fingers and shots of tequila. They moved to a walk-up a few blocks away, not because they wanted to live in Capitol Hill — Dones would prefer someplace rural and quiet — but because they didn’t want to be accused of escaping visible homelessness.
It’s late, and Dones seems a little tired of all the criticism. Dones wonders, if they were white and cisgender, would people be questioning their ability to do this job.
“What if I am the smartest person in the room?” Dones said. “And what if that’s OK?”