As criticism of a “fractured” homeless-response system rises 30 months into a declared state of emergency, Seattle and King County are considering integrating homeless services.

Share story

Seattle and King County have agreed to explore a new model for managing the homelessness crisis, responding to persistent criticism that no single entity is responsible for it even 30 months after both declared it a state of emergency.

The legal agreement, to be signed by Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and King County Executive Dow Constantine on Thursday, lays out a potential path toward a new, centralized authority intended to “increase the effectiveness, reach, and efficiency” of the homeless-response system, according to the document.

The Seattle Times’ Project Homeless is funded by BECU, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Campion Foundation, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, Raikes Foundation, Schultz Family Foundation, Seattle Foundation, Seattle Mariners, Starbucks and the University of Washington. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over Project Homeless content.

· Find out more about Project Homeless  

The agreement, called a memorandum of understanding, does not prescribe what that may look like, but it is the most tangible step toward system reform since the creation of a 10-year plan to end homelessness in 2004.

About this project

Project Homeless is a new Seattle Times initiative that examines and explains the region’s complex problem of homelessness with watchdog reporting and solutions-oriented stories. Project Homeless is community-funded journalism with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Campion Foundation, Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, Raikes Foundation, Schultz Family Foundation, Seattle Foundation, Seattle Mariners and Starbucks. Seattle Times editors and reporters operate independently of the funders and maintain editorial control over Project Homeless content.

The agreement responds to a rising theme, raised from both inside and outside the homelessness-services community, that the current model is hampered by fragmented and sometimes duplicative government human-services agencies spread across the county, its 39 cities and a homelessness coordinating agency that lacks real power.

Durkan highlighted the “fractured” structure in her mayoral campaign, and King County’s independent auditor repeated it in a performance audit issued Monday, citing “diffuse authority,” which restricts the ability to adapt to a worsening homelessness crisis.

“We have too many cooks in the stew,” Durkan said Wednesday. “At the end of the day, we want one consolidated system that has governance, authority and resources to address this problem.”

Overall, Seattle and King County spend about $114 million a year operating a homelessness system that served about 29,000 people last year, totals that spiked in recent years.

Snapshot counts of homelessness in King County show that the numbers of people sleeping outside have doubled since just 2014, as can be seen in the 400-some unauthorized tent camps that dot the city.

Seattle funds and is home to more than 80 percent of the emergency-shelter beds in the county, with relatively little help from other cities. King County runs the mental-health, chemical-dependency and criminal-justice systems, all of which are drivers of homelessness. A third agency, All Home, receives federal money and coordinates policy but has no independent budget authority, leading to internal criticism that it is an “impotent” entity in the crisis.

The agreement to be signed Thursday notes that, although the homeless population is clustered in Seattle, “some of that population originates from other cities in the county, making this a shared crisis affecting all of the county’s municipalities.”

“It is absolutely true Seattle is bearing a disproportionate share of the resources needed to tackle this problem,” Durkan said in an interview Wednesday. But she said the rising problem of housing affordability is a regional problem that calls for cross-border solutions.

In the agreement, King County and Seattle are also agreeing to common contract language and data analytics, which are critical to holding the region’s broad network of service providers to contract-performance targets.

Kira Zylstra, the acting director of All Home, said centralizing authority for the homeless crisis is not just about money. “It’s how do we make decisions. How we create a clear strategy to make sure that everything we do to address homelessness are all leading back to that strategy,” said Zylstra. “It’s about more than just investments. It’s about that centralized authority.”

Seattle and King County are setting a December deadline for recommended changes to the homeless governance, after staff looks at models in other cities.

Ben Thompson, co-author of the King County audit released this week, said his team talked with Los Angeles, San Francisco and Portland’s Multnomah County, all of which have more centralized homelessness-services systems.

Thompson said the audit team didn’t find “any single right way” to manage homelessness, but said Portland has seen better outcomes since integrating city and county services.

“With a more centralized governance structure, they were able to make decisions faster and to identify gaps in a more efficient way,” he said. “We definitely do need to make a change.”