Feb 22, 2022
Marc Dones, CEO of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, and Crystal have an in-depth, honest conversation about addressing homelessness. They talk through the critical need to acknowledge the lack of appropriate housing supply, the harm our system has traditionally perpetuated on those it aims to serve, and the desperate state of a chronically underfunded service infrastructure. Though the scope of the problem is daunting, they discuss how the solutions are mostly straightforward, but hinge on a real commitment to resourcing them.
As always, a full text transcript of the show is available below and at officialhacksandwonks.com.
King County Regional Homelessness Authority: https://kcrha.org/
“King County head of homelessness may be an ‘impossible’ job, but Marc Dones is optimistic” by Scott Greenstone from The Seattle Times: https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/homeless/king-county-head-of-homelessness-may-be-an-impossible-job-but-marc-dones-is-optimistic/
“Why does prosperous King County have a homelessness crisis?” by Benjamin Maritz and Dilip Wagle for McKinsey & Company: https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/public-and-social-sector/our-insights/why-does-prosperous-king-county-have-a-homelessness-crisis
“Seattle homelessness nonprofits struggle to hire, complicating plans to expand shelters and housing” by Scott Greenstone from The Seattle Times: https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/homeless/seattle-homelessness-nonprofits-struggle-to-hire-complicating-plans-to-expand-shelters-and-housing/
“A Literature Review of Single-Room Occupancy (SRO) Supportive Housing Structures in the United States: An Assessment to Ascertain the Viability of SROs to Address the Needs of Homeless and Vulnerably Housed Populations in New York City” by Ashwin Parulkar and Daniel C. Farrell for HELP USA: https://www.helpusa.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/A-Literature-Review-of-Single-Room-Occupancy-SRO-Supportive-Housing-Structures-in-the-United-States.pdf
“Building the Capacity of the Homeless Service Workforce” by Joan Mullen and Walter Leginski for The Open Health Services and Policy Journal: http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download;jsessionid=D7337FB9BA53EC10246DDFB46B6B37AE?doi=10.1.1.457.1884&rep=rep1&type=pdf
“Frontline Workers: Urban Solutions for Developing a Sustainable Workforce in the Homeless Services Sector of Los Angeles County” by Vanessa Rios from Antioch University Los Angeles: https://www.antioch.edu/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/RIOS-VANESSA.-URBAN-SOLUTIONS-FOR-DEVELOPING-A-SUSTAINABLE-WORKFORCE.-.pdf
[00:00:00] Crystal Fincher: Welcome to Hacks & Wonks. I'm Crystal Fincher, and I'm a political consultant and your host. On this show, we talk with policy wonks and political hacks to gather insight into local politics and policy in Washington State through the lens of those doing the work with behind-the-scenes perspectives on what's happening, why it's happening, and what you can do about it. Full transcripts and resources referenced in the show are always available at officialhacksandwonks.com and in our episode notes.
Today, I'm thrilled to be welcoming this person to the show. Today, we have joining us, the CEO of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, Marc Dones. Thank you so much for joining us.
[00:00:52] Marc Dones: Thanks for having me.
[00:00:54] Crystal Fincher: Well, I wanted to have this conversation - we have talked about homelessness, what the unhoused population needs, providing housing, services - throughout several shows here on Hacks & Wonks. But it's a conversation that is so rich and there are so many facets to it, we really can't talk about it enough. I was really excited to see you take the helm of the Homelessness Authority - and just listening to you in various venues, just the vision that you're bringing to it. So, I guess, just to start out for people who may not be familiar with who you are and what this job entails, what brought you here and what is the work that you are charged with doing?
[00:01:42] Marc Dones: Well, for folks who aren't familiar with me - one, I'm jealous. You're living a great life and I encourage you to keep living it. You have managed to escape having to know about me or any of the things that I have to worry about, most of which are the worst things that our culture produces. So, kudos to you and teach me your ways.
What brings me to the work to some degree is my life - I'm a queer, non-binary Black person, I have some significant mental health issues - I have been psychiatrically hospitalized twice - I did some couch surfing. And when I began my nominal professional career, I was, as most young people are, fascinated most with myself and I wanted to understand - I remember being in my early 20s and trying to understand how it had kind of worked out for me, right? And my work and my research really led to the fact that it was kind of luck - that statistically speaking, this is not likely. And so, I think that part of the reason why I have done this work for as long as I have and what I'm trying to do is - to make a world where luck is not the mediator of a positive outcome for a person who's like me - where we are able to rely on the government and our social structures and our safety net, to produce the kinds of outcomes that we deserve as opposed to having to luck out.
So that's why I'm here, and I think that the work of the Authority - in a sentence - is to end homelessness. And homelessness is complicated, it is complex - I've said every which way to Sunday - there is no silver bullet here. There's just actually nuanced work, and it's just the one thing - that's all we got to do - is end homelessness in the county.
[00:04:14] Crystal Fincher: Simple phrase, hard work. So, what does it take to end homelessness?
[00:04:22] Marc Dones: It takes a couple thing - from my perspective, for our region and just broadly in this country, it takes a couple things. One is, we have to have a very serious conversation about housing. And it's critical we start every conversation with a conversation about housing, because for too long, frankly, we've started the conversation with everything but housing. And so, we've become obsessed with formulating homelessness through the lens of crime, or just of mental health, or all this service infrastructure without ever thinking about the roof. I say all the time that - with reverence and deep respect for the social workers I work with and know - no number of social workers becomes a home. It's not like you get assigned six case managers and they sort of Transformer-Autobot into a house.
And so, in this country, we have done a terrible job of producing and maintaining low-income housing stock. And in particular, for wonks, that's the 0-30% AMI - so Area Median Income is the index we use - it's got a lot of flaws and we can talk about those, but it's a good barometer of how much money you need to make in order to live in a region without being cost burdened. For our truly lowest income residents, that 0-30% AMI, we don't produce anything for them.
And I think what's really critical there is that 0-30% AMI - folks in their minds often, I think, picture - I don't know what people picture anymore actually. But the point that we should make is that 0-30% AMI is in many instances a barista, it is - a senior on fixed income is 0-30% AMI. And I'm not saying this in an effort to create the other thing we often do, which is the poor people we can empathize with and so, therefore we're worried about helping. I'm saying this just to be really clear that there was a time when getting to 0-30% AMI actually was hard to do because of the level of destitution it required. Now, you can work full-time or be attached to what's supposed to be our nation's greatest benefit structure and still be in that income bracket.
The other thing that I think we really need to talk about when we talk about ending homelessness is - the harm the system does when it is attempting to house you.
[00:07:18] Crystal Fincher: Yes.
[00:07:18] Marc Dones: In all honesty, part of the reason that much has been made about our shot here at really implementing a system that centers the voices of people with lived experience and who are currently experiencing homelessness, is it gives us this opportunity for the first time to be like, These things do more than just not help - they hurt, right?
[00:07:42] Crystal Fincher: Yes.
[00:07:43] Marc Dones: And so much of our system has been organized through these punitive and paternalistic and carceral lenses that they really create - not just like, "Oh, this was unpleasant." - they create trauma. And that trauma disincentivizes people from engaging in whatever the supportive services they might need. It also creates really significant - I've been playing with this idea for a number of years - this attachment theory, but for housing. That by the time you get to housing, the process has been so traumatic that you attach to it poorly. And so, as a result, are more likely to then experience homelessness again, because of the psychological damage that getting to that housing has caused.
And then the last thing would say is just that services are really important. We do need to support people who have experienced different kinds of trauma - whether it's intimate partner violence or war - and for reasons are or for those reasons, I should say, are experiencing housing instability. And our service infrastructure is awful - it is - we don't have it.
[00:09:09] Crystal Fincher: Right.
[00:09:10] Marc Dones: I think I would be remiss not to be clear that that is also racialized and classed in its construction. The vast majority of folks who do the frontline service work in the homelessness system are women, and in particular, women of color. To me, then it feels like no accident that it has been okay for 30, 35 years to pay them $27,000, while we ask them to manage people who are, in some cases, actively decompensating with psychotic spectrum disorders. Again, I say that not disrespectfully because I have been the person who's been decompensating with a psychotic spectrum disorder. It's hard to manage and we don't compensate those folks the way we compensate white men who do the exact same work, but with a different credentialing, because they had access and yada yada yada. For me, there is a really clear connection between ending homelessness and ending the poverty that we impose on the staff we are asking to do that work.
[00:10:28] Crystal Fincher: Such good information with all of that. I want to start off with what you talked about with housing - and such a critical point of the need to start these conversations with housing. I want to ask about the lowest end and I forget - there was an article that I read a while back that was talking about what we used to have but don't have anymore - like one room rentals, day rentals. And that being a way that a lot of people made it back on their feet or actually prevented themselves from winding up on the street - hey, this is suboptimal and I ultimately want a different, larger place to stay, but this is shelter that I can afford. This is my place that I can afford, and in a room, and single-occupancy type thing - but those used to be here. We used to have more of that supply and don't. Do you see that as part of the issue? Is that a more minor missing part of it? Do you think that we also need to increase the amount of really low-income stock that we have?
[00:11:37] Marc Dones: I think it's a huge part of it. I mean, let's be clear. America navigated two previous homelessness crises brought on by the two previous World Wars, largely through SRO [single room occupancy] stock. I mean, it was a known thing that vets could come back and get a room at the Y - that was just how we navigated that. And certainly before the passage of the GI Bill, that was it, that was literally it. With the passage of the GI Bill, we see vets having access to other kinds of monetary supports and financial tools to purchase homes in some instances. Although, we should also note that the GI Bill implementation was certainly quite racialized and so, who got access to those financial tools is its own story. Somebody's book, not mine. But I will be really clear that we lost those SRO units and other low-income housing units in the great suburbanization wave that begins at the end of the 40s and then pushes into the 50s and 60s.
So, with the creation of the suburbs, we begin to see a corresponding almost unraveling, frankly, of a lot of what had been that standard low-income housing stock. And it then leads to, in particular, with the 60s and some of the work that happens inside the Civil Rights era - we then see a sudden reinvestment in low-income housing. But now, it's taking the form of the Projects and of these other forms of architectural investment that are much more family-oriented than they are for single adults. They're supposed to be stable long-term apartments and then we see the advent of certain kinds of programs like Section 8, et cetera, or voucher programs.
But all of these post-suburbs conversations have at their core the same thing they're trying to solve for, which is a lack of the housing for people to access just on their own. In reality, again, if I think about most folks experiencing homelessness that I've known, most people could find their way to a thing and rent it themselves if it existed. They don't need my help to do that - that's demeaning. The only reason our voucher programs exist, the only reason we run the system we run is because that naturally occurring low-income stock is not available to people to find and get to on their own.
[00:14:40] Crystal Fincher: I hope we do a better job collectively of prioritizing and addressing that because it's a mess. Also, the service delivery system has a number of challenges and this is an issue. I heard you speaking somewhere before on a panel, and it really struck me just - hey, we can throw millions of dollars at this today. That does not mean that tomorrow we are in a position to spend that millions of dollars and implement stuff based on that. I don't know that a lot of people have visibility into that part of the system. People just hear of services and they think people are operating shelters or some places for people to live. And there are some social workers who maybe connect people to mental health resources. And these things are offered to people every time there's a sweep on the street and they get to opt-in or opt-out. They opt-out and so - hey, we did our best and I guess we got to sweep them now - is where a lot of people are at. What actually happens within this system and what is the current state of our service infrastructure?
[00:15:59] Marc Dones: Okay, so what currently happens, if we're being just very candid is - up until the pandemic, we offered you typically at best a mat on a floor with hundreds of other people. You needed to be in for the night, typically no later than 7 or 8 [PM], and out by around 5 or 6 in the morning. There was very little place for the storage of your personal belongings, if there was any place for the storage of your personal belongings. You couldn't - if you have a pet or had a pet, that - tough, no space for that. We oftentimes - well, actually in the vast majority of instances, not oftentimes - also run or ran those shelters, I should say, on the sole basis of gender. And so, if you are trans or non-binary, that can be a real uphill walk.
Or if you are a couple and were like "I'm in a heterosexual relationship" - I mean, I am not, but if you were in a heterosexual relationship and wanted to - which no disrespect to heterosexual relationships to be clear, it's just it's not the one I am in. But if you were in a heterosexual relationship and wanted to go to a shelter as a couple, that's not a thing. If you are a family, you need to be a family that we understand - meaning that you have to be, typically, a biological parent with children. Those kids certainly can't be over 18 - they probably can't even be in their teens - because oftentimes if you're trying to access shelter and have teenage children, particularly teenage male children, then they will be sent to the adult male shelter far away from wherever you are.
And that kind of goes on, actually. I could keep going through the many, many - frankly, to my mind - cruelties that we have imposed on people experiencing homelessness just to try to be inside for the night for decades. And so, when we say "we offered you shelter" that's what we've been saying. We didn't offer you - even a room - we have offered you kind of a place to be.
In this community, in this region, we have worked hard over the last three-ish years to move many of our shelters towards what's called an enhanced shelter status, which means you might have greater service connectivity, or some small expectation of privacy, but that's really it. With the pandemic, suddenly we couldn't do that to people anymore. I just got to be honest - if it takes a world-altering deadly disease to force us to realize that our treatment of other human beings was so inhumane and so beyond the pale unacceptable that we couldn't contain disease spread, that's something.
Since then, we have done a lot of work. Now, you see that hotel-motel shelter model - all of a sudden things that were not possible are suddenly possible. Certainly, now that I am in this position - let me just be very clear - we will continue to drive towards a model of shelter that is like SRO. That should be the minimum for what is considered shelter - a door, a key, dignity, the ability to mind your own business, to sleep when you want to sleep, to come and go when you need to come and go. Because the other thing I'll add, sorry, just because I think it's important is, we said to people, "You have a 7 PM curfew, you got to be out by 5 [AM]" and then told everybody to get a job, so heaven forbid they have the night shift.
[00:20:57] Crystal Fincher: Yeah.
[00:20:58] Marc Dones: What's the plan? There's no plan for that.
[00:21:00] Crystal Fincher: There is no plan - right.
[00:21:03] Marc Dones: That, I think, is what has been happening and I think it's really important for listeners to have that actual reality in their heads of the humaneness that we have pretended we have been operating with is - it should embarrass us, frankly.
[00:21:24] Crystal Fincher: It absolutely should and that bare minimum of humaneness, to your point - if someone had a job, someone doesn't have a traditional family, which many people are kicked out of their homes as teens for a variety of reasons - because their parents didn't agree with their sexuality or lifestyle or whatever it is. And finding people who help them to survive that are a family and trying to stick together and that not being possible. So much of what is actually reality on the ground outside is not acknowledged as an acceptable reality for our services system and for shelter and that leaving so many people out. And so, hearing, "Well, they refused services," has been - I just remember when I realized that, "Oh no, actually - being offered services doesn't actually mean being offered services for that person." It could be services that don't apply, that they are not eligible for, that they can't fit into - and then just too bad.
I guess, how do we get from, "Too bad, we can't accommodate you, this doesn't work," to being able to at least accommodate folks in shelter, to get people housed and on the path to becoming stable?
[00:22:50] Marc Dones: Well, I think part of it is - the portion of your question around, what is the state of our system from a services perspective and why can't we just spend $20 million because it was given to us? The reality is that - you could give us $20 million - there's no one to spend it. It's like, yes, it is now in an account, cool. But spending it means it has to pay somebody's salary, or pay for the benefits of a person, or pay for a property. It has to do something and the capacity of the system, because it has been chronically underfunded at the staffing level for 30 years, is, I mean, we're worse than at the bone at this point. We are actually - this is a slow crumbling. I have agencies in the system right now that have north of 200 vacancies and no pipeline to fill those vacancies - because we too have been hit by the great wave of resignations as people are like, "I don't want to live like this." No one wants to hear this because it somehow - I don't know why it feels so weird - but we have to pay people more. I'm just going to keep saying it until it gets just really in people's little noggins, I guess. Because if we don't pay people more, then we continue to see these turnovers, we continue to see these vacancies, and more money can come and more money can come and it won't mean anything. There will be no one to do anything with it, full stop.
And we have to spend more money. There are at least 45,000 people experiencing homelessness in the county. We don't have the budget - our budget, if I tried to divvy that up across everybody, it essentially turns into about $3,000 a year per person. Or what that translates into is a little over $10 a day, which is just - that's not doing anything. When a permanent supportive housing unit for scale costs about $24,000 per year - that's inclusive of services. Not everyone needs permanent supportive housing, but the difference then between PSH and where we are now is $20,000 per person. We have to put more money in the system, but in order for the system to be able to use that money, we really have to have the people who can do the work. The thing that I want to be really clear about is - this whole system - all of that, we use the word "system" and we use all these words that make it sound, I don't know, make it sound some type of way. I don't know.
But at the end of this - this, all of this, is people helping people. That's what's happening - it is people who have chosen - because of their own lives, because of what they see, because of where they feel called in life - to help somebody else. If they can't do it because they can't afford to do it, then there's no help. I'm a big fan of technology, I think technology can do cool stuff - but you ask people how they got into stable recovery, it's not an app. They work with other people who've been on that journey, who can talk with them about it, who can be like, "Yeah. I know it's very hard actually." When we don't provide for that kind of support, when we create through our staffing models such incredibly high turnover, the reality then becomes that you're never able to build a relationship. You can never have that honest conversation. The first time I wanted to have a conversation about like, "I think I might have some very serious mental health problems." - I had to work up to - there was a lot of trust, there was a lot of like, "Oh, maybe I'll flirt with telling someone, maybe I won't." All of these things take time and trust to disclose, to begin to actively work on. We have created these positions that have such high velocity of turnover that no one can build the trust. No one can hold those relationships.
And so, so much of what I'm trying to do and what my team is trying to do is - honor the fact that it's the relationships that do the work. And to turn this system into one that is relationship-oriented instead of always focused on these transactions. I guess, the last thing I would say is just that, in that vein, I think it's really critical that we be clear that this is not just some wacky notion I have. The first paper on the impacts of staff turnover on housing the chronically homeless came out in like 2010, I think. And noted that an initiative that the Feds started in 2003 to end chronic homelessness didn't get that done - largely suffered, largely suffered, because the implementation sites couldn't maintain staff. I mean, this is a question of, do we actually want to do this or not? The path is bright and clear. There are no tremendous unknowns. It's just a question of, do we actually care? Or is it just a thing that it makes us feel good to talk about?
[00:28:26] Crystal Fincher: Right, or feel good to fund and not actually be concerned about the end result, which is what I feel like we set ourselves up for sometimes by saying, "Okay, we have a great appropriation. Boom, here, let's go. Solve it, Marc."
But I also think it's helpful when we talk about service providers - I think some people envision this system of people and, "Hey, let me look up - someone needs shelter, let me dial up the shelter directory and ooh, I can see on my screen, there's a vacancy there. Let me send them here," where there is no cohesive system. We're talking about nonprofit organizations, we're talking about mental health and health organizations, we're talking about a huge hodgepodge of charities, nonprofits, health and mental health service providers who have some joint contracts, some individual contracts, but really it's just this patchwork of things all over the place. And I don't even - I think it was en vogue for a while to talk about - well, we just need a streamlined dashboard to have everybody just on the same page and see. I mean, that's been tried and has failed and several iterations in several places - because there are so many different providers. It just seems these are not people on one standard system, one standard way of doing things.
But to that, these organizations have a model that is really not able to handle what is being asked of it. Unless those models change, it seems pretty apparent - unless frontline workers are paid more - we're asking them to de-escalate and mediate more than police officers and firefighters do. They're doing it oftentimes with more trauma behind them if they have lived experience. And being asked to do it while living in poverty - which doing anything and everything while living in poverty is harder. Also, these organizations are understaffed, so you have people making minimum wage who are also doing the job of two and three people and being asked to do as much as they can bear until they burn out. Until we engage with that - and there have been some conversations within some organizations - but it seems like until there's a much wider conversation about that and acknowledgement of that and pressure to address the needs that we have today in our system, that it's not a realistic expectation that if we provide the money or if we - certainly, money can do a lot in a lot of different areas, especially if we just give it to people directly. But for looking at the system of service providers, we really have to ask - if your model is not working today, then what is it serving and who is it serving? How do we reorient that towards the people who actually need the help the most? I really hope we have more of that conversation among here.
I guess, looking forward, what do you think it's going to take to help some of those conversations along? Have you seen progress in any areas, or any models that can be followed for looking at how to align our provision of services to the actual needs of the people who need shelter?
[00:32:17] Marc Dones: I mean, this is the scary part - is, I think we're actually the farthest down that road in the country. We're the only system - I report to someone who lives in a shelter. One of my board chairs lives in a shelter right now. Half of my staff, myself included, identify as people with lived experience. No other system can say that and so, we are the next great experiment. I think about what it means to not just say we're centering people with lived experience or to say we're centering the voices of people who are actually trying to use the stuff, but to have that be structural and not tokenistic and really, really embedded. I mean, there are so many things that - we should talk for hours.
[00:33:05] Crystal Fincher: I know - I'm looking at the time going - man, I could ask you 17 more questions right now - yes.
[00:33:05] Marc Dones: I think - there are so many things in which you just said that I want to talk about. The thing that I want to really lean in on is - I do think, and I have seen it personally - I've seen people change over the course of the pandemic and realize how bad some of the congregate shelters were and have to be like, "We can't go back there." People who I've had arguments about it with in the past were like, "Actually, no, this is terrible." I do have hope and when I think about how we move forward and how we as a region can maybe be the proof point for why it is successful to center people - this is hokey, but I think it is about the community conversation. And I want to disaggregate that from the media conversation. I'm on a podcast, but still.
[00:34:24] Crystal Fincher: I'm just a political consultant. I am not media.
[00:34:27] Marc Dones: There we go, but I think that we got to talk to each other more than be talked at by media. I love my journalist colleagues and I have great respect for what they do and, frankly, the work they do to hold government accountable and all the ways that that must be done. But the way we talk about homelessness in the media is broken. It is bereft of that fundamental humanity and is tied to almost every single misconception that I can name. And so, when people ask me, "How can I make a difference?" I say, "Look, we just had a really great conversation. I feel like you asked me some questions, you got some different information. In some cases, I was informed by one of your perspectives. Invite your neighbor over and have this conversation with them, host a little dinner for your block. If you're part of a Rotary Club..." And I really mean that because unless we, as the community, start to have a different conversation about homelessness, we cannot expect either at the elected official level or the budgeting level - we can't expect those things to change. If this is a democracy, for as long as we can try to hold onto that -
[00:35:58] Crystal Fincher: Yeah, that's a whole other show, isn't it?
[00:36:02] Marc Dones: - then, it's incumbent on us to be having the conversation we want to see leadership have. I try very hard to take my cue from the community so that I can just be like, "Look." I remember I got into a dust-up about some stuff a couple months ago and I remember calling my board chair who lives in a shelter. I was like, "Am I wrong? Tell me if I have lost my mind and I will stop. This is what I see, and if you tell me or the community tells me that I'm out of line, then we'll end this right now."
And that's what I think we need to be doing, is really focusing on building that community conversation, building that community will. I say this all the time and I mean it - I don't say no to anything - I have been to Rotary Clubs, I have done little dinners to talk about homelessness, because I want us to hold the nuance and compassion necessary to build the system that will get this job done.
[00:37:08] Crystal Fincher: Well, I certainly appreciate you taking the time to talk about this today and to shed some light on this for us. You are welcome back anytime - there's so much more we could talk about, but we are at time today. I just want to, once again, thank you, Marc Dones, CEO of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority for just helping to enlighten us. We are certainly going to keep an eye on how things unfold. Thanks so much.
[00:37:36] Marc Dones: Well, thank you for having me - glad to be here, I'll come back. We'll talk about democracy.
[00:37:40] Crystal Fincher: I thank you all for listening to Hacks & Wonks on KVRU 105.7 FM. The producer of Hacks & Wonks is Lisl Stadler with assistance from Shannon Cheng. You can find me on Twitter @finchfrii, spelled F-I-N-C-H-F-R-I-I. Now you can follow Hacks & Wonks on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever else you get your podcast - just type "Hacks & Wonks" into the search bar. Be sure to subscribe to get our Friday almost-live shows and our midweek show delivered to your podcast feed. If you like us, leave a review wherever you listen to Hacks & Wonks. You can also get a full transcript of this episode and links to the resources referenced in the show at officialhacksandwonks.com and in the episode notes.
Thanks for tuning in. We'll talk to you next time.