Top officials in King County voted Thursday to give more power over homelessness policy to a coalition of homeless and formerly homeless people that had been accusing elected and nonprofit leaders of sidelining their voice.
It’s a relatively small power move, but a big shift in governmental norms in King County. For years the county has given seats on decision-making boards or committees to people who’ve been homeless, but left it up to nonprofits or agencies to choose those participants from the vast number of people who’ve experienced homelessness.
The vote was at the monthly meeting of the governing board of the regional homelessness authority, which was created this year to consolidate all policy and budget decisions in the county in hopes of finally bringing homelessness numbers down after years of record highs.
Three members of that 12-member board — which includes Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, King County Executive Dow Constantine and other elected leaders — are people who’ve been homeless and now work in advocacy or homeless services.
But who should choose those people has been a point of contention.
“We need to let people who are most impacted make the decisions,” Marc Dones, executive director of the National Innovation Service and one of the architects of this regional homeless authority, said during public comment before the vote. “I’m concerned frankly with developments that move that power away from those people.”
In the authority’s original design, governing board members with lived experience would be chosen by and answer to the Lived Experience Coalition, a caucus of homeless and formerly homeless people.
The Lived Experience Coalition was created in 2018 and is made up of a few hundred voting members who elect 25 leaders. It’s largely people of color, especially Black and Indigenous people, who experience homelessness at higher rates than white people in King County despite being a small percentage of the general population. Many members of the coalition are candid in criticizing the homeless response system and even the nonprofit service providers who prop it up.
But the legislation that created the authority ended up writing out the coalition, instead giving the power to choose those seats to a board of nonprofit and elected leaders or appointees called the All Home Coordinating Board.
This and a litany of other issues frustrated coalition members, who have been trying to negotiate a change to the authority’s bylaws that would give them the power to choose the lived experience seats on the governing board.
It also frustrated the coalition’s allies, several of whom crowded the virtual public comment section before the governing board meeting Thursday to urge the board to give power to the Lived Experience Coalition to fill those seats going forward.
“I want to let you know your voters are paying attention, and we believe those who are closest to the problem are closest to the solution,” said Danielle Kuhlmann, a horn player for the Seattle Symphony.
The board voted 11-1 to make the change in the authority’s bylaws. The only no vote was from Metropolitan King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn, who said in an interview that the change went against the agreement he felt had buy-in from leadership outside the urban parts of King County.
He foresees the regional homelessness authority eventually proposing a countywide tax or bond to address homelessness, much like one passed in Portland earlier this year, but believes countywide support for such a tax will be hard to get.
“I’m all about grabbing a little bit of additional influence, perspective,” Dunn said. “That’s power politics, but it’s all fun and games until everyone in downtown Seattle is putting together this incredibly lavish proposal that will fund and buy a home for every homeless person in King County, and then it flubs on election night.”