About a year after the search for a CEO began, Regina Cannon, a homelessness and racial-equity consultant from Atlanta, has turned down the offer to run the Regional Homelessness Authority, King County officials said Wednesday.
It is unclear why she declined the offer. Cannon did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
This is another setback for the long-delayed setup of a Regional Homelessness Authority, which is supposed to get Seattle, suburban cities and King County government on the same page responding to homelessness.
The coronavirus pandemic, the shift to doing all public business online, and infighting between suburban leaders and Seattle and the county slowed down the search. In early February, though, the authority’s governing board made a public offer to Cannon.
The authority is about half a year behind its original schedule, which was to hire a CEO by September 2020. Cannon would have been the first employee, who would then hire other employees in the $132-million-budget organization. She was selected by elected leaders, experts, and formerly homeless people from around the region.
The future CEO has a daunting task ahead: Trying to bridge the divide between Seattle, which has been paying for most of the region’s homelessness services, and suburban cities, some of which have resisted recent efforts to spread homeless shelters out or get them to pay to buy hotels for chronically homeless people.
In response to questions from The Seattle Times, King County confirmed Wednesday morning in a statement that Cannon declined the position, and said county staff are contacting members of the authority’s implementation board to find a time to reconvene and determine next steps.
Cannon was a respected but largely behind-the-scenes consultant whose work focused on the intersection of homelessness and race. In King County, a 2020 survey estimated 25% of homeless people in King County are Black, while only 7% of the county is. Cannon has helped research the cause of this disparity: In 2019, a report she co-authored based on data from King County and other jurisdictions found homeless nonprofits were prioritizing white people for housing over people of color.
She was popular with the entire authority’s governing board — even King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn, a Republican who has been publicly critical of Seattle leaders’ focus on lack of housing and racism driving homelessness without talking enough, in his opinion, about drug use and mental health.
“Whoever’s going to come in as CEO, it’s just an incredibly challenging job in an incredibly tough environment,” Dunn said. “I think she could’ve done the job. … She was clearly the best-qualified candidate and she had the best experience and maturity.”
Dunn stepped away from his role on the governing committee this month.
The only other publicly named candidate for this job was Marc Dones, one of the original designers of the authority and the director of the consulting firm the National Innovation Service. Dones is a much younger and potentially more controversial choice, an Ohio-based consultant who has called out the “nonprofit industrial complex” for failing to fix homelessness.
Although she voted for Cannon, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan was the only governing committee member to mention and commend Dones during the vote to select Cannon. However, when asked if she now supports Dones for CEO, the mayor’s office didn’t answer specifically.
“Our region needs a CEO who is deeply invested in leading us in a joint approach to truly make progress on the homelessness crisis, and it is important that we get this right,” a statement from her office said. “The implementation board and our region’s leaders are committed to finding the right person with the skills to improve outcomes for the most vulnerable members of our community.”
Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who sits on the governing committee and also chairs Seattle’s committee on homelessness, said he was disappointed but that there are many other qualified potential leaders the hired headhunter found.
“I’m still confident we’re going to have a good CEO, despite Ms. Cannon not accepting the position,” Lewis said. “I think that having a central unifying figure is important.”