In King County’s fragmented homelessness system, calls for a change

  • Tue Apr 24th, 2018 1:30am
  • News

Vernal Coleman

The Seattle Times

Two-and-a-half years after a state of emergency over homelessness was declared in Seattle and King County, responsibility for responding to the crisis remains fragmented.

And frustration over who is really in charge is not just coming from outside the homeless-response system — but from inside it as well.

On paper, All Home is King County’s coordinating agency for homelessness services. But while the agency can recommend policy and outline strategies, it lacks authority over how and where public dollars are spent. The funders, including King County and Seattle, retain that power.

A growing list of people inside the homeless-response system — including Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, the former director of All Home and King County’s human-services director — have identified a troubling lack of central authority for the homeless crisis.

Members of All Home’s governing board aired similar frustrations at a meeting in January. “This group feels impotent,” said Melinda Giovengo, CEO of Youth Care at the meeting. “We look at a problem, but we don’t really try to solve these issues.”

“There are times I walk away from these meetings and wonder what my role really is,” said Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus, a board member, at the same meeting.

On Monday, All Home is hosting a two-day discussion with leaders from around King County about streamlining authority to fight homelessness.

All Home acting director Kira Zylstra said discussion will initially focus on the challenges of the current, more fragmented approach.

“We’ve served as the backbone of the response and there have been clear improvement in some areas,” she said. “But there are also clear gaps in accountability and implementation. There needs to be some change.”

Zylstra said the group will also look at how similar discussions have played out elsewhere.

The meeting comes at a critical moment. The results of January’s annual point-in-time count of the region’s homeless could be released as soon as next month. The number of homeless people sleeping outside has doubled since 2014, a trend underscored by hundreds of unsanctioned tent camps citywide.

The Seattle City Council appears to be moving toward a new $75 million-a-year tax on high-grossing businesses to pay for additional services for the homeless and affordable housing.

Meanwhile, a task force put together by Durkan, King County Executive Dow Constantine and several other local officials has released its own preliminary recommendations for addressing the root causes of the crisis.

All of these hold implications for the region’s broader strategy, which cuts across dozens of municipalities and over 70 different organizations receiving public money to facilitate it.

In total, Seattle and King County — with pass-through state and federal dollars — spend more than $81 million a year on a homelessness-response system that touched more than 29,000 people last year. Additional spending by federal housing authorities in King County bring the total operational budget for the county’s homelessness system to more than $195million a year.

But any talk of changing the strategy is complicated by questions of who should be in charge and how much authority over it they should have.

All Home was formerly known as the Committee to End Homelessness but changed names and reorganized after the unsuccessful conclusion of the 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness in 2015.

Since 2016, All Home, Seattle, King County and the United Way have been operating under an agreement that emphasizes better data collection and measuring the performance of organizations contracted to provided serve the homeless.

But the agreement doesn’t designate one central authority to implement strategies as the county’s homelessness crisis has worsened.

The city of Seattle funds about seven out every eight emergency-shelter beds countywide, while King County operates the mental-health and chemical-dependency systems, as well as the county jail. All Home, with federal money, pays for nearly half of the permanent-housing beds in the county. While they coordinate, they are not integrated.

In January, shortly before stepping down to take a new position with the YMCA, former All Home Director Mark Putnam called for bringing authority over the region’s efforts under one roof.

“I believe we need to make that kind of shift, where we are really consolidating authority over and oversight around homelessness” Putnam said.

The lack of coordination is at least part of the reason that Durkan and Constantine established the 75-member One Table task force, which includes elected leaders, businesses and union leaders, philanthropists, service providers and formerly homeless people from across the county.

The group began meeting in January with a stated purpose of addressing the root causes of homelessness by putting an array of political forces in the same room.

Draft recommendations, released earlier this month, call for providing on-demand behavioral-health treatment, decriminalizing homelessness and creating new job-training programs.

But the initial recommendations do not address who should be in charge of turning them into policy, or an integration of the fragmented structure.

Durkan did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesperson for Constantine declined to comment for this article, citing the group’s ongoing talks.

King County Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles, who also sits on the One Table committee, said rising numbers of people living on area streets show the current structure is not enough.

“One Table would not have formed if All Home as it’s currently built was able to handle this all,” she said. “I’m not sure what it would ultimately look like, but we have to start looking at other models.”

Elsewhere on the West Coast, Portland, San Francisco and other cities have attempted to bring services for the homeless under one roof — with mixed results.

Three years ago, the strategy for solving homelessness in Portland’s Multnomah County was fragmented, with each of the stakeholders taking funding for a separate piece of the response, said Marc Jolin, head of the city-county joint office of homeless services.

“That wasn’t the most efficient delineation of the work,” he said.

Multnomah County, Portland and other neighboring cities merged efforts into Jolin’s office with a comprehensive strategy that has created more opportunity to partner and coordinate with the mental-health and law-enforcement agencies that homeless clients deal with regularly, he said.

In doing so, the county’s stakeholders agreed to cede some power to a joint office.

It’s unclear if Seattle and King County would be willing to take that step.

The All Home meeting begins Monday. A second meeting is scheduled for Wednesday.