For the last 20 years in the Seattle-area fight against homelessness, efforts have been cyclical: Governments and providers say they’re going to solve the issue and seek input from experts and people who’ve actually been homeless, but then continue much the same way they have in the past.
2020 is supposed to be the year things change, with the creation of a Regional Homelessness Authority. A union of local governments with more representation and power than previously existed in one body, the authority would streamline, plan and make decisions about who receives all local government funding for homelessness.
Beyond its power, one important new aspect of the authority is that it would give an unprecedented amount of say to the people it’s supposed to serve: people who’ve actually been homeless before.
Three members of the governing committee — which has final say on all policy and hiring in the regional authority, and also has members from King County government, the City of Seattle, and an alliance of surrounding cities — are people who’ve experienced homelessness and also have experience in social services or advocacy.
But those three — and the coalition of homeless and formerly homeless people they represent, called the Lived Experience Coalition — say they have been “railroaded” by the county and nonprofit leaders, said Sara Rankin, a co-founder of the Lived Experience Coalition and law professor at Seattle University.
“It’s a generous con,” Rankin said. “They may be invited to the table, but once that box is ticked off, they’re not given a genuine, meaningful position of authority. … It seems like the Lived Experience Coalition is being systematically stripped.”
Who chooses the seats?
In the original design of the authority, people with lived experience would be chosen by and answer to the Lived Experience Coalition, a democratic group of homeless and formerly homeless people.
The Lived Experience Coalition was created in 2018 by organizers who’ve been homeless or were homeless at the time — some public employees, some advocates, some people who had advised county policy in the past. It’s made up of 100 general membership seats who meet bimonthly and vote on who among them will fill 25 leadership seats.
That would provide a body to hold these unelected positions accountable, according to Marc Dones, executive director of the National Innovation Service and one of the architects of the new system. It could make it less likely those positions are filled by people hand-picked by nonprofits, something the authority wants to avoid, since much of its work involves deciding what money goes to which strategy and which nonprofit.
Many members of the coalition are not afraid to criticize the system and even the nonprofit service providers who prop it up; in interviews, members criticized some homeless service providers, and called them part of a “homeless industrial complex.”
“In the housing and homelessness sector, we absolutely have a very strong nonprofit industrial complex,” Dones said. “And how systems work is they create the messengers they need for their own perpetuation.”
Bringing the Lived Experience Coalition onto the governing board wasn’t an idea everyone involved with the creation of the authority agreed with: Former Bellevue Mayor John Chelminiak, for instance, advocated last year that the entire governing committee be made up of elected officials.
The coalition is very diverse, and its largest demographics are Black and African American (35%) and Native American (25%), the two groups who become homeless at the highest rates in King County, despite the fact they comprise smaller rates of the housed population.
The coalition started the year in a rocky spot: Members who come to meetings are supposed to be paid $20 a meeting from the county for their time, but in January all stipends went unpaid until roughly May, according to Juanita Spotted-Elk, a member of the coalition.
Leo Flor, director of the county Department of Community and Human Services, whose office was in charge of providing stipends, said they were delayed because of a change in the county’s “internal process.”
But leading members of the coalition feel this is simply one instance in a pattern of sidelining people with lived experience, not only by county employees, but nonprofit leaders and elected officials closely involved in homelessness work.
Coalition members would like to choose who sits in the seats reserved for people with lived experience on the governing committee. But the final version of the Inter-Local Agreement creating the committee and the authority gave that power instead to a board of mostly nonprofit leaders, called the Continuum of Care Board, who would consider, but not be bound by the coalition’s recommendations.
Of the three people the Lived Experience Coalition’s leadership team recommended for the governing seat positions, only one was eventually appointed by the Continuum of Care Board — and the two others nominated weren’t even members of the Coalition (although they have since joined).
“At their whim, the (Continuum of Care) Advisory Board could remove the leaders with lived experience off of those seats, could determine how long the tenure is in those seats. And so they have a lot of power and control,” said Lamont Green, a co-founder and interim co-chair of the Lived Experience Coalition.
“We’re learning as we go along,” said Sara Levin, who sits on that advisory board and is vice president of United Way of King County. “It’s new muscles we’re stretching as we learn how to share power, and when authority is delegated and when it isn’t.”
The coalition members and other regional homeless authority members are currently writing the bylaws for the authority, where they hope their role can be further enshrined and they can be given more control over the seats.
But since their appointments, governing board members with lived experience say they’ve been kept out of the loop, informed sometimes just an hour before about staffing meetings, and not provided meeting materials beforehand, several members said in a governing board meeting in June.
Flor said his department, which is in charge of these meetings, was in transition and “working kinks out.”
“Ideally, four months from now it’s going to be the new CEO staffing this whole thing in a way that’s more sustainable,” Flor said. “We certainly take responsibility for, and I take responsibility for, the fact that we’ve had to work up to that — and I think we’re in a much better situation now.”
But to members of the coalition, these incidents feel like more than a coincidence. Their feelings that they’ve been pushed aside came to a head at the July meeting of the governing committee.
The meeting task: Appointing an “implementation board,” a group of experts who manage and operate the authority. The problem: One of the nominees was former Bellevue Mayor John Chelminiak, who had opposed the idea of having nonelected leaders on the governing committee.
The governing committee’s lived experience members had been raising concerns about Chelminiak and a few other nominees for over a month, Green said, arguing that they were part of a status quo approach to solving homelessness — one that had not worked in the past, and hadn’t focused on racial equity. They asked the governing committee to reconsider Chelminiak’s nomination.
The committee voted 7-5 to include Chelminiak, although two Seattle City Councilmembers on the panel sided with coalition members and voted against him.
Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus said they believe Chelminiak had changed his views about the coalition (Chelminiak said the same thing in an interview later).
Coalition member Zaneta Reid said she felt “seen but not heard.”
“(We’re) just for show,” Reid said. “Not to speak, but just to say we have people with lived experience.”
“They are engaging in processes they always have — the words sound nice, but the process has never been different,” said Kirk McClain, who sits in another lived experience seat. “They are all experts and experienced at this process, and they’re just doing what they’ve always been doing, but just saying different words.”
Reagan Dunn, a King County Councilmember who also sits on the governing committee and voted with the majority, said denying Chelminiak a seat on the board “would be sending a message to the suburbs that ‘we don’t care all that much about you.'”
“There’s enormous value in having homeless or formerly homeless individuals with experience on the committee. I hope that they are able to be independent of any group or organization, and are able to give us all the benefit of listening to them,” Dunn said. “But also, those with lived experience need to listen to us… In order to be successful you need a broad base of support from Seattle across the suburbs and into the unincorporated areas.”
The vision NIS and other advocates had for the lived experience seats hasn’t been completely reached, Dones said — but the county has gone 75% of the way toward it, and will eventually need to go that further 25%.
But the system can’t be fixed without listening to the people for whom it’s not working, Dones said.
“We need their voices, we need their perspective in order to build the thing that will work,” Dones said.