King County’s executive Dow Constantine thought a lot last year about his first take on politics as a kid: the Paris Peace Talks at the end of the Vietnam War.
As is known, before the talks could even begin, they were held up by a disagreement over the shape of the table at which the North and South Vietnamese leaders would sit.
Constantine was thinking of a struggle in the local area: Who can have a say in how the Seattle area will tackle homelessness for the foreseeable future?
A year ago, the county and the city of Seattle signed an agreement to create a “regional homelessness agency” that seeks to unite the county’s major cities under one banner to address the homelessness problem. The agency was created to bring all of King County’s homelessness money and decision-making power into one office, With a single government committee made up of elected leaders and the homeless, this would oversee a CEO.
But a year later, the agency hasn’t really gotten to work – blocked by COVID-19 and damaged by divisions between suburban leaders and the Seattle government. The agency still hasn’t hired a CEO or staff, which it hopefully did until last September and probably not until March now. This has halted replacements for homeless people who have left or been fired from the city and county human resources department. Meeting notifications were sent to the public or even to employees a day or sometimes hours beforehand. In August the government committee passed divisive amendments to its statutes, forgot to vote to enact them, and is now debating whether they were even legal.
The Seattle Times Homeless Project is funded by the BECU, Bernier McCaw Foundation, Campion Foundation, Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, Raikes Foundation, Schultz Family Foundation, Seattle Foundation, Starbucks, and the University of Washington. The Seattle Times retains editorial control over the content of Project Homeless.
More obviously, King County’s leaders disagree on how to tackle homelessness – and that suburban cities fear that funding for more shelter and social services will drive an influx of homeless people across their cities like Seattle looks like.
At the same time, nearly 12,000 people recently lived in shelters or outside of the Seattle metropolitan area – a number that has barely changed in recent years, despite the fact that governments have put more money into trying to solve homelessness.
“[In Paris]During the war, they argued for weeks about the shape of the table, ”said Constantine. “I do not think that the people who are fighting on the streets of our district today are very interested in statutes and inter-local agreements.”
“An ounce of slack”
For decades, the homeless response in the Seattle area has been confusing and sometimes contradicting. More than 70 social service nonprofits respond to various bosses – the city of Seattle, the county, the federal government, philanthropy – with hundreds of millions of dollars spent and no one responsible for where all of the money goes.
Almost everyone who interacts with or works with the homelessness system agrees that a coherent strategy for the future would be a step in the right direction.
For Seattle leaders, this is also a way of getting other cities to tackle the problem they are largely paying for: According to the county’s homeless database, around 20% of people living in or out of shelters in Seattle became sign up for homeless services in Seattle, homeless anywhere else in King County.
“Honestly, they need to start taking on more of the burden,” said Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, whose success in establishing authority has been hailed as one of the most important accomplishments of her tenure.
Durkan blamed COVID-19 for the slowdown, saying it had not been easy through Zoom to put together a new government body that emptied most of the large emergency shelters and turned the region’s homeless system on its head.
“It was like building an airplane while flying it in a Category 5 hurricane,” Durkan said.
Marc Dones, executive director of the National Innovation Service and one of the agency’s architects, pointed out that the pandemic made things like hiring a CEO next to impossible because skilled workers wouldn’t quit their jobs.
“We all had plans for 2020. And what did we do? We stayed at home, ”said Dones. “We have to cut ourselves and everyone here like an ounce of leeway.”
Choosing a CEO that everyone agrees on will be the first major hurdle for 2021 – followed by hiring an entirely new department amid an impending eviction crisis and a possible wave of new homelessness.
“Sometimes we come in our own way”
Harold Odom attends regional homelessness agency meetings in an 8 by 10 foot house in Georgetown. As co-chair of the agency’s implementation committee, he represents the Lived Experience Coalition, a homeless-run and advocate agency that has spent 10 years on the streets.
But Odom never met most of the people he sees during these sessions. The heads of the agency only met after the pandemic. Its spotty WiFi makes it difficult to listen and even harder to speak in meetings.
At the last meeting of the implementation committee, it took Odom 15 minutes to log in. Frustrated, he bought a T-Mobile hot spot with nearly $ 100 of his own money.
“It’s hard to meet people and get to know them virtually,” said Odom. “To build trust.”
This lack of trust is exacerbated by ongoing conflicts over who gets seats at the table – and who can decide who sits in those seats.
In August, the government committee amended its statutes to give Odom’s coalition authority to select three homeless people to serve on the government committee – removing that authority from a board of largely nonprofit leaders.
This was a welcome change for the coalition, which can be critical of agencies providing homeless services. Odom has even criticized the non-profit that runs his small house village during public gatherings. Now the coalition would control a quarter of the seats on the government committee.
“This is an industry that people work in and when it gets better some people will be unemployed,” Odom said.
However, the change in the rules has also given critics of authority the possibility of threatening insurrection.
Rod Dembowski, a member of the district council, alleged at a meeting of the regional policy committee in September that these statutes were in fact “illegal”, describing them as an effort by Seattle leaders to undermine the original agreement between the district and the city. Although the county council attorney agreed, the matter has not yet been resolved.
Reagan Dunn, a member of the county council and the only Republican on the agency’s impartial government committee, believes the committee is “on the verge of collapse” because of these differences.
Dunn believes he and other county council critics could have the votes to deviate from the agreement that the city, county and suburbs signed – effectively blowing them up – if not appeased.
“It hasn’t failed yet, but there is a very good chance it will fail and collapse under its own weight,” said Dunn.
This would require some reversals from county council members who have largely spoken out in favor of the agency.
Meanwhile, the controversial new rules have not yet been enacted as the committee forgot to hold a final vote at the end of August. According to emails from the Seattle Times, this was scheduled for September, but the September meeting was canceled due to conflicting schedules, and the October meeting was a workshop on racism and homelessness that did not involve regular business.
The statutes were then not adopted at the November meeting, when the government committee agreed not to meet in December.
“Is it frustrating? Yes, because I don’t want people to look at us and point their fingers and say, “There’s another organization that can’t pull itself together,” said Nancy Backus, Auburn mayor. “Sometimes we come in our own way, I’m afraid.”
View from the suburbs
Dunn was a skeptic of authority from the start. According to a survey that Dunn’s office completed last year of nearly 3,000 voters in his district, which stretches from the southern edge of Bellevue to Enumclaw, more than three-quarters of those polled are against tax increases to fund more services for the homeless.
“People in the suburbs – it’s not like they want to spend more money on the homeless,” Dunn said.
Dunn himself believes that new resources should be used in mental health, drug treatment and a “hard love approach” rather than just focusing on housing.
Some were aware of these differences in the creation of the agency. Again it came down to the friction of who would get a vote.
Last year’s interlocal agreement was rewritten at the last minute to give the suburbs three seats on the government committee, though they did not help fund the agency. Seattle City Council, which raised the most money of any jurisdiction at $ 75 million, signed the rewritten agreement in December 2019, albeit with concerns. And over the past year, the conflict between suburban cities and Seattle and their allies in the county has intensified.
Take Renton. When County Executive Constantine proposed a sales tax to pay hotels for people who have spent the longest time on the streets, Renton, along with five other suburban towns, decided to go for it and will instead spend its tax dollars on affordable housing.
And when the county housed over 200 homeless people from downtown Seattle in a Renton hotel to protect them from COVID-19, Renton voted to move them out later in 2021. The city also imposed severe restrictions on future accommodation within the city limits.
Renton City Councilor Ed Prince sits on the agency’s board of directors with Constantine. However, he voted for these measures and worked with the executive branch. However, he sees the future less badly than Dunn.
“Is there any frustration? Sure, ”said Prince. “But I think we can find out. And I hope no one will leave the table. “