Feb 28, 2023
On this midweek show, Crystal welcomes back Marc Dones, CEO of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, to catch up on how the response to the homelessness crisis is faring since their previous conversation. Marc highlights the success of using a Housing First strategy with three authority-run program centers that have moved 1,600 households inside in the last six months. The discussion then touches on the challenges of standing up the authority from scratch, building a nimble team informed by lived experience and capable of iteration in an environment that often views a pivot as failure, all while managing expectations of immediate results. Finally, Crystal and Marc talk through what’s needed to scale solutions up to address the true magnitude of the problem - improving the system’s durability of stay, addressing public safety in encampments through a public health approach, engaging and integrating available federal resources, and facing the necessity of compensating human service workers appropriately.
As always, a full text transcript of the show is available below and at officialhacksandwonks.com.
Marc Dones (they/them pronouns) is a social entrepreneur, policy strategist, and social justice activist with over 10 years of experience in equitable systems transformation. Prior to taking on the role of inaugural CEO for the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, Marc was the founder and Executive Director of the National Innovation Service (NIS), a consulting firm that helps governments redesign their approaches to supporting marginalized populations. Marc has also held leadership roles in social impact, policy and program design, and continuous improvement at the Center for Social Innovation (C4 Innovations), and is a faculty member at the School of Visual Arts (SVA). Marc holds a degree from NYU in Psychiatric Anthropology and is an experienced equity trainer.
Year In Review: 2022 | King County Regional Homelessness Authority
Draft 5-Year Plan | King County Regional Homelessness Authority
“Ending homelessness in King County will cost billions, regional authority says” by Greg Kim from The Seattle Times
“The Cost of Solving Homelessness: Dones Calls the Bluff” by Kevin Schofield from Post Alley
“Study: Human Service Wages Are Even Worse Than You Imagined” by Erica Barnett from PubliCola
[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. Be sure to subscribe to the podcast to get the full versions of our Friday almost-live shows and our midweek show delivered to your podcast feed. If you like us, the most helpful thing you can do is leave a review wherever you listen to Hacks & Wonks. Full transcripts and resources referenced in the show are always available at officialhacksandwonks.com and in our episode notes.
Today I am excited to be welcoming back to the program, the CEO of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, Marc Dones. The Homelessness Authority is tasked with the coordination, funding, and creation of policy for homeless response services in Seattle and King County. Welcome to the program, Marc.
[00:01:12] Marc Dones: Thanks for having me, Crystal.
[00:01:14] Crystal Fincher: So as the CEO of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, you have had quite the task on your hands. This is a crisis that we are dealing with here - that so many areas across the country are dealing with - and so many intersecting issues are at play here. Since the last time we spoke, what has been working and where does the work stand right now?
[00:01:39] Marc Dones: It's a great opening question. I think what has been working predominantly is the authority's sort of all-hands-on-deck approach. So we have really only three new things that we are currently running that are fully conceptualized and deployed by authority current staff. And the first is our emergency housing voucher program, in partnership with the three housing authorities. The second is our Partnership for Zero work, which is focused on addressing unsheltered homelessness in the downtown core of Seattle. And then the third is our right of way work, which is focused on encampments that are in state rights of way and was funded out of proviso that the Legislature and Governor Inslee crafted in the last legislative session. Most other programming, other than some sort of nips and tucks - so to speak - around the edges are largely functioning as they have functioned for the last five, six years - as the authority prepares to rebid all of those things this year, at which point there will be substantive changes in how those things function.
But what we're seeing in those three new program centers is quite a bit of success. The big differences, I think, are that we have oriented the engagement that we do with unsheltered folks to bringing them directly either into housing or emergency housing. And I know that sounds like a - why wasn't that happening? But for a lot of reasons that are confusing and wonky, the outreach teams have not historically been well connected to shelter availability, let alone housing placements. And so by restructuring these program centers to have an explicit focus on - how does the conversation you're having translate to someone coming inside, preferably to permanent housing, we have seen a really significant shift.
And so with our emergency housing voucher program, for example, we have the most successful - really in the country. We've utilized all of the vouchers that were allocated. We are in fact oversubscribed. A lot of that was through a really innovative approach to how we executed our initial over-80 MOUs with community serving organizations, some large service providers, some very tiny sort of mutual aid style groups that were right there. They were already talking to people, right? So rather than setting up a more centralized disbursement mechanism, like doing a very standardized bureaucratic thing of saying, You come to me to get your voucher. We said, No, let's just go where people are already talking about housing needs and then put a voucher there. And the result was stunning. And then additionally, and just a shout out - our housing authority partners were really, really, really incredible. They offered the most innovation I've seen out of move-to-work housing authorities in my career. They were really flexible. They reduced their contracting barriers. And the result is that 1,385 people - or households, I should say, so it's more than people - have come inside through that program.
Through our state right of way work where we are equally again focused on - how does this conversation bring you inside? We have attached a couple of different things. The first and most important is about 80 units of emergency housing. And that has been really a game changer, because what it means is that if your situation is quite complex and it's actually going to take a little bit to unwind some things or get you the identification, maybe you're undocumented and so getting identification is not just let's replace it from DOL, maybe you have a complex criminal legal system involvement and so we need to work to resolve that so that you can be housed effectively. That has been really, really significant because it has let us say, Great, we don't have to solve that today. You can still move inside. And that sort of frictionless move into that emergency housing space has really then teed us up to then resolve whatever those issues are and support people in moving on to their permanent destination. That said, we continue to have the same Housing First orientation that says - if we can get you into something permanent from outside, that's what we should do. And the reduction of the interim step and making sure that the interim step is not the default maneuver has actually been, I think, the most successful component across these three program centers. And so as a result - in that initiative, we've seen 120 folks come inside. And again, a number of those have gone already into permanent housing. I was present at one of the largest encampment closures that we have worked on - at what was called the Dearborn Encampment or Jungle 2 - and which people said to me, That'll be there forever. And I was like, I don't understand how that - that doesn't make sense to me. That feels like we've just abandoned people and we don't do that. But on the day of closure, I was there and I was watching people pack up their stuff and get in some of the moving vans that we'd contracted and drive to their apartments. So that was really beautiful to see.
And then similarly through our Partnership for Zero program, the same orientation - working with folks who are chronically homeless and saying, Can we get you leased up and into an apartment? And if not, is there an interim step that we need to take that is still going to be housing style in its orientation? And through that, 152 people have come inside. So all told, we've got about 1,600 households moved inside just through these three program centers in the last - really - six months. And so that I think is the - that's where this can go. If the whole system starts working like these three centers and has the level of integration between outreach and services and housing that we have constructed in these three centers, there's no reason that we can't see really significant throughput systemwide. So that to me feels like the success.
[00:07:52] Crystal Fincher: Absolutely. I do want to talk a little bit about what it took to build this apparatus that can now do this work, because it wasn't without controversy - as you alluded to, it was not the standard way that things were done. You came in. Obviously, they selected you for the job because you had the appropriate experience, expertise, and plan. But then when you're like, OK, time to do the plan - they're like, Wait, wait, wait. That's not how we've done things. That's different. You want to give other people a voice and power and control. And we usually do that internally and here with us. On top of just challenges building out this new authority, basically an entirely new organization - what was the process of working through those issues and building this apparatus, and what can we learn from this process that is now working?
[00:08:50] Marc Dones: Another great question. One, I will just say - I have never - I've run startups before. I've launched agencies - small agencies. I've launched departments. I've launched projects. I once had a career coach who is like - You know you're kind of a startup guru, right? That's your thing. And I was like, What do you mean? I hate it. It's so stressful. And she was like, But it's literally all you do. And that was a real mirror moment for me. But what I will say is this has been some of the most complex build-the-plane-while-you're-attempting-to-fly-it that I have ever been involved in - would not have been possible without the incredible team that we have managed to put together here at the authority. And to your point about power sharing - that roughly 60% of our staff have lived expertise with homelessness, with the systems that we are interacting with - I think has actually, frankly, served as one of the best ways that we have short circuited some of the discussion. Because rather than having to enter into fact finding, a whole bunch of people who work here are - No, I already know how that works. And I know how it works, not just from the theory of the policy that's written down, but I know how it works - I tried to use it and it doesn't work. And that I think has been really significant.
I think the other thing that I would just lift up is that when we started this, we really didn't have any infrastructure. We didn't have a general ledger system. We didn't have phones. We didn't have - I didn't have an email address for a while. And I've told that story before, but I think that when we think about, again, this is now roughly a 100-person agency managing well over $200 million - that's not normally the speed of any startup. And you look at these sort of startup incubators that spend a year just with their CEO, sort of like nursing an idea, let alone trying to go fully to field with those concepts. And so putting all that infrastructure together in one place - to be fully candid - I would never try to do again in the speed that we have done it. And I think that it is, again, a testament to this team. But also I think it was because the team recognized this is a crisis and we don't have the luxury of - Let's put it together slowly and yada, yada, yada. So there have been - I think we all admit - bumps, and there have been things that if we were doing it again, we wouldn't do it the way that we did it.
But we got here, really just trying to - Okay, how do we chart through this? And getting on a whiteboard, or getting on a call and saying what is the plan going to be? And if we need to iterate, how is that iteration going to happen? And I will say that one of the things that I think we don't lift up is - when the organization was being formed, there was a lot of discussion about - we want an organization that's nimble and is rooted in crisis response principles and can be, Oh, that's not working, right? And pivot. But normally in the language of government, a pivot or a reaction to something that isn't working or rapid and agile - de-risking of things is considered failure. And what I want to lift up in this discussion is I don't think our organization feels like that's failure - to acknowledge that something is not working and make a change as quickly as we acknowledge it's not working.
And so even with our Partnership for Zero work, for example, we have done significant restructuring of that process because about two months in we were like, This isn't catching the way we need it to catch. And so we worked with our HUD-TA partners and our internal staff and said, What has to change? We rolled out an entirely new team structure, a new way of doing matches, we introduced new tools. And now we are really seeing those things catch hold. And so I think there's an opportunity here for us to globally step back and ask, What is modern governance and what might it look like to translate some of our frankly more old models of governing into 2023 and ask questions about how do complex problems get solved? What are those structures? And they are not often the structures that traditional governance is locked into.
[00:13:07] Crystal Fincher: So you covered a lot there, a lot valid - I really appreciate the point that you make about what is failure and really what is effectiveness. And the ability to continually evaluate what is going on, how things are performing, and to say that is not performing up to expectations - what are the challenges? Can we make a change? And then to make that change is a sign of effectiveness. That's a great thing to be responsive to challenges that you face. So I guess overall, you've talked about how you had to build this plane as it was flying. You're walking into this position in the middle of a crisis, a legitimate crisis, where we have thousands and thousands of people living outside who are in danger, who are facing threats from a variety of places. This is not an optimal situation for anyone - on the top of residents' minds, certainly. And people saying, Okay, there is an authority that exists. Here is some money - not all of the money that you asked for - but here's some money. All right, so where are the results? Not quite an overnight thing. It has taken a while, but where do we stand in terms of getting to zero? Where do we stand from where we were at to where we are now in terms of comprehensively addressing this issue?
[00:14:26] Marc Dones: I think we - we're not where we need to be. And I think that one of the things that I would say about that is - when I say that, it's not because - again, the team working here is not doing their best work. It's because we are trying to claw our way out of a crisis that is like 30 years in the making. And so the overnightness of some of the expectations or even the way that we frame what can be done, I think, needs to always be inside that reality. And Mayor Harrell recently was saying that he's not happy with things and said something along the lines of, I'm not happy, and I won't be happy until everybody's housed, and I'm pretty sure Marc thinks the same thing. I'm like, Yes, I do. So I think that there is a alignment amongst a number of regional leaders that our situation is unacceptable. But we have to be really clear that it's unacceptable because of 30 years of policy failure, at a minimum. We could, frankly, extend that timeline and say it's more like 50. And if we add the racial dynamics, it's hundreds. So there is no fix to that depth of failure that takes a year, or two years even.
And instead, we have to start, I think - our perspective is that we need to be able to meet complex problems with complexity, both in our action and in how we message and talk about it. And so this sort of - Where is the light switch we can flip? - those are, in all candor, those kinds of problems have largely been solved by the society that is this technologically advanced. We've solved our light switch problems. What remains are deeply ingrained, frankly, societal failures that we now have to turn the course on - and that is not a light switch problem. And we must maintain a fierce urgency about the fixes. And so I think that when we have this discussion and when I think through - okay, so what might we talk about in terms of the next steps of fixing - to me, it is being really clear that through these three program centers and also looking across a number of our other funded programs that we've inherited, the seeds of success are there. And so the idea that there's just nothing that we can use, that's not quite correct. And many of the frontline staff across the funded agencies would say - I know how to do this thing. I just can't do it at the volume that I need to be able to do it at. And so much of the discussion is about how do we eliminate the things that we know don't work, either because of evidence or because what we hear from the people being asked to do them. How do we consolidate and amplify the things that do work and then scale them? And so much of what the authority is discussing in our draft five-year plan is a question of scale and is about what is necessary, both technically and from a funding perspective, to scale a crisis response that is able to meet the needs of the tens of thousands of people who are experiencing unsheltered homelessness every year.
[00:17:45] Crystal Fincher: So how many people remain outside that need to be housed, and what are the biggest challenges they're facing right now?
[00:17:54] Marc Dones: I would say that on - just the number - our estimate is that there is a rough 23,000 people who experience unsheltered homelessness every year, and that about 60,000 people experience homelessness of some type over the course of the year. What we are going to tighten our focus on is that 23,000 - we want to make a reality in this region where no one sleeps outside. We just can't continue in this. It is, from I think my personal perspective, one of the greatest human rights crises of our time - that we have allowed, in the wealthiest nation on the planet, this many people to have to endure living outside. When I woke up this morning, it was 30 degrees. The authority is currently running severe weather. I've lost count of how many severe weather operations we've ran since I've come on board, but that's lethal cold and we just can't accept that people are being forced to live outside. So that's where that sort of numbers are right now.
And so what we need to generate is a system that can match that. So what I'm saying here - okay, so in the last six-ish months, we've been able to get about 1,600 households inside. What I need to be able to say is that in the last six months, we've been able to get about 10,000 households inside - in order to be on track then to bring in 20,000 over the course of a year. So we're far away from that, in candor. And where I think we need to focus is acknowledging that how we have constructed our shelter system in the past is not producing the - frankly - durability of stay that we need to see. So that when someone goes into some of our old-style congregate shelters - in a lot of instances, they're not staying for a whole host of reasons. They're returning to unsheltered homelessness. We need to make sure that the system is able to, for lack of a better term, hold on to people and to make sure that they are getting to that permanent housing destination. So that I think is where we have to be laser focused in the next little bit.
And then to your sort of second part of that question of what are the risks out there? Obviously the weather at any point in time during the year, if you live outside, could kill you - that is just a reality. But increasingly, I think we are - or at least again, I will speak just for myself, I won't drag the rest of the agency behind me on this one - I'm really concerned about public safety. And I'm really concerned about an increasing prevalence of organized criminal elements that my field teams are running across in - hiding in encampments. And it is not uncommon - in the last week, for example, we had two structures identified in one of the resolutions we're currently running. One had a small meth lab in it that actually caught fire, it was also full of guns and money. And then another was just a bunch of guns. These are not structures where people are living. These are drug-running and gun-running structures that organized crime is using, because they know that they're not going to get found out if they're inside an encampment, because the discussion has become - all people experiencing homelessness are the root of crime, instead of what we know statistically to be true, which is people experiencing homelessness are more likely to be the victims of violent crime than the perpetrators.
And so if we cannot create a clear path to safety - that is for everybody housed and unhoused - I have really significant concerns. And the authority's role in that safety would really be from a public health perspective. And we are absolutely pursuing that. And we are also looking at what partnerships we need to stand up with law enforcement agencies or anybody, frankly, who can do the tight focus on those organized criminal elements. And I would just lift up for listeners that - imagine if you lived next door to a active meth lab where there were lots of guns, and you did not feel there was anyone you could reach out to for help. That is a terrifying situation.
[00:22:13] Crystal Fincher: I really appreciate you bringing this up. And I just want to highlight - these organized criminal elements - they're not part of the unhoused community. These are not low-level people trying to do this to get necessities that they need - these, we do have organized crime, these are organized crime elements. And they're preying upon this very vulnerable community - as we see in other situations - we see people prey upon the undocumented community because they recognize that they have fewer rights in this country and may be less likely to turn to law enforcement or others for help. So it's basically an area they know they can get away with operating. In terms of the rhetoric and vitriol that we've seen aimed at our unhoused community, and to your point, they are statistically much more likely to be victims of crime. But so much rhetoric, especially from certain elements of our community, saying that they're responsible for crime, calling for them to be swept, people looking at an encampment and immediately associating it with crime or drugs or something else - when it's not like there aren't issues that people deal with, as they do in all of society. But to be much more likely to be victims, and then to have something happen that is endangering your safety, and to be blamed for it by the surrounding community, by oftentimes law enforcement, and then to be punished for it through being swept, losing your belongings, being surveilled more, often is really challenging. How do we shift this focus, or what kind of partnerships would you look towards that could positively impact this situation to make the entire community safer?
[00:24:05] Marc Dones: I think that what we need to do on the authority side with our provider partners is really start having safety discussions with our unhoused neighbors, and using the trust that our incredible outreach workers and field teams have developed to say, I want to, I notice - and again, I've been doing this for a long time, I'm very grown up - I know that not everyone that we serve is an angel, and I also know that if I was living next to a gun-running meth lab, I might also want a weapon, right? And I didn't feel like I was being protected. And so what we need to do is have the discussions with our unhoused neighbors that say, Hey, I notice you've got a weapon - talk to me about what safety concerns you have, right? What are you mitigating by having this? And then we need to figure out a way to act on that information collectively. And I don't know actually what that looks like yet. But I do know that we need to hear from our unhoused population - what is leading you to feel so unsafe? And how do we manage that the same way that we would look to our housed population and say, Hey, what are you seeing? What can we do? And really using data to drive these discussions, both quantitative and qualitative, we can look at things like where shots are fired, where they cluster - use that data to drive discussions about - it seems like there's an active threat to our housed and unhoused neighbors here, let's find out what it is.
And then the other thing that I think that the authority directly needs to be more involved in, and we are stepping up our operation on this front - is increasing from a public health perspective, the safety in encampments on a number of fronts. And so from our perspective, that is around the weapons front - again, it's having safety discussions, why do you need this weapon? How can we have a discussion that would lead you to feeling safe enough that you could surrender the weapon? On a fires front, which I know has - there's been a lot of fires lately, as people have tried to keep warm - again, it's when I woke up, it was 30 degrees, people are trying to stay warm. And so we are expanding a body of work that is promoting fire safety. And then also working with encampments that we are very active in to collect and dispose of propane tanks, flammable materials, etc - so that as folks are again - doing the life saving thing they need to do, we are helping them dispose properly of the refuse that still has some risk attached to it.
And then the third thing from a public health perspective that we're going to be really focused on is hygiene and folks' ability to maintain some level of sanitary living condition to reduce the risk of infection and reduce the risk of a disease, reduce rat infestations - these are the things that really, really harm both our unhoused neighbors and our housed communities, and that is a place where the authority needs to directly play a role.
[00:27:11] Crystal Fincher: I really appreciate that and a focus on public health. And I was stunned - I'm trying to remember right now - but I was reading an article and it was talking about the average lifespan of an unhoused person and it was under 50. That is rough and just really goes to underscore how vulnerable this population is. And safety and health are two absolutely crucial elements that have to be addressed.
I do have kind of a related question - when it comes to issues, whether it's public safety, whether it's substance abuse, and are society's problem - that certainly is not a problem limited to any particular community. But we are collectively facing a shortage of services across the board to address that - to help people out of addiction, substance use disorder, issues related to that. We also have an affordability crisis overall, which is number one underlying cause of homelessness. And we are exiting pandemic mitigations which have prevented people from being evicted - those are starting again in an area that has become really unaffordable for the majority of people in the region. How effectively can you impact this problem if we have these other mitigating factors in society? Are we effectively trying to mop up the ocean here? Are we throwing more people out onto the street from these various causes and people just unable to afford to live in the area? How are we doing on that front and are we putting more people out on the street than we are moving into housing? Do you have a sense for where we stand on that?
[00:28:56] Marc Dones: I don't have updated numbers on inflow. I think we'll see the impact, frankly, over this year - as some of those COVID-centric protections more completely unwind and what the rates of evictions, for example, et cetera look like. I do think again, in keeping with what I said earlier, that homelessness is a policy problem 50 to 100 years in the making that we as a nation - so this isn't on the region. As a nation, we have to look at what we have done to the social safety net. As a nation, we have to look at how we have not protected people's access to housing. Some of that - in particular, I look at things like the constitutionally enshrined right of the federal government to regulate interstate commerce and then look at how that interstate commerce and international commerce impacts housing markets and housing speculation. And say that is for the federal government to intervene in and to have a very clear stance on - Hey, speculate, but our people got to get in first - which I think would be a very reasonable position for the federal government to take. But every administration has been silent. There's not even an administration to point to on what needs to be done in this space in order to more adequately protect and enshrine access to housing for folks who are living in the United States.
I will also say that in terms of the ability of us to effectively get people out of the experience of homelessness, I think so long as we stay with the data and stay with what is the number, how do we scale to meet that number, and then use as much as possible housing-style interventions, we set ourselves up for success. So one of the reasons why the authority is very interested in pursuing models of shelter that are non-congregate is that from an infrastructure perspective, if we get out of the crisis, we can convert a lot of that infrastructure into housing. And we've seen that with Executive Constantine's Health Through Housing initiative that has taken hotels and motels, turned them at times in a temporary shelter, and then retrofitted them into permanent supportive housing at some point in their life. That is a smart and effective way to use public money because you get two uses out of it. And so we really have to be clear that inside our scarcity of resources, we can still be smarter and it is the responsibility of this agency to be smarter wherever possible.
[00:31:38] Crystal Fincher: For those who are unaware, why is it important to move away from congregate shelter towards non-congregate shelter?
[00:31:45] Marc Dones: I think that the two biggest reasons are - one, just that congregate shelter has been reported by people who are experiencing homelessness as really, really traumatizing. And again, I think that if we're going to name what's in front of us as the human rights crisis that it is, as the tragedy that it is - how we respond to that tragedy also matters. And I find it difficult to articulate a response to a trauma that is in and of itself traumatizing, and feel as if that is the correct policy decision. And what we have heard from folks who have experienced homelessness and are experiencing homelessness is that - again, in congregate shelter, there's often a lot of safety concern. Folks do not feel like they are stabilizing, right?
Which in turn feeds into the second big point from our perspective, which is that when you look at the utilization rates of congregate shelter, they are significantly lower than the rates of utilization of non-congregate shelter - which functionally means people are voting with their feet. And so if what we want is a system - one, we can't be wasting money like that, let's just call that out. We can't be out here saying, We don't have the resources, we don't have the resources. And we have a system that has lots of unutilized space in it. That doesn't make any sense. And so we have to have some focus on what I've started calling the durability of the placements, which is to say that if we assist someone in getting into an interim housing solution, we need to make sure that they stay there and that they're not going to return to homelessness in relatively short order, so that we then have to figure out how to help them get back inside again and again and again and again. That's again, a waste of public resources, it's not the smart thing to do. And I was actually just looking at data from 2022 and the overall difference across the congregate and non-congregate portions of the shelter system is about a 10-point jump. And so across the year, we saw an average utilization of the congregate system of about 80% and an average utilization of non-congregate spaces of about 90%.
So again, I wear two hats - there's the part of me that is charged via legislation, via my own life experience with housing instability to say - We just got to be person-centered. And sometimes that has to be a good enough answer that - I don't know - this is not good for people and this is good for people. But with my public administrator hat on, I would also say, Do you want me to waste this money or not? Because there is a way that it continues to be poured into settings that are not going to be optimal. And then there is a way that we get the utilization out of the beds that we have and get the utilization of the money, the public money, that we are spending.
[00:34:45] Crystal Fincher: That makes sense. And certainly I think the move towards non-congregate shelter, oftentimes utilizing current or former hotel spaces, people that can - you have a room that locks, that you feel secure in - as any of us would - is really important in the journey to stable permanent housing. There has been some feedback and I don't know that this is a result of the homelessness authority or just issues across the board that - particularly in South King County - hearing from regional leaders that there have been challenges with communication and getting on the same page sometimes. Have heard feedback that for different cities and looking at shelter space that is available in cities - that they want to see more of their own unhoused population placed in those local spaces and are not feeling that that's happening to the degree that it should be. How would you address that?
[00:35:49] Marc Dones: I think one of the things that our communities across the county can look forward to as we continue to modernize coordinated entry is some specific attention on, for lack of a better term, what I'll call local control. And I do believe - a lot of the policy that the authority is implementing is place-based and tries to pay attention to where people feel community, what people's sort of natural space for healing is. I think we do want to make sure that, where possible, we are not jettisoning someone across the county because that's the available thing. When, if they're saying, Hey, like I'm from Kent, I want to live in Kent, like that's where I'm from - then yeah, I support that. And the agency has really leaned into that through our sub-regional planning team led by our director there, Alexis. Our coordinated entry system led by Alex Ebrahimi is undergoing some pretty significant shifts as well. And one of the things that we're going to introduce in the near term is going to be some clarity about apportionment, for lack of a better term. And from my perspective, we have to make - it's a balancing act - we need to allow a certain amount of space to have a right of first refusal, so to speak, for the local jurisdiction to say - Oh, here's a person who is from our community who wants to stay here and so can we use this unit? And the answer should be yes. And then we also still have to continue to act as a region and to say, If I have someone in Bellevue who needs a place to stay and there is a place that is open in Auburn - and it may be a bed that is right of first refusal for the jurisdiction, but it's not, it hasn't been filled - we need to be able to move that person from Bellevue to that space - with their permission, of course - so that they can be inside. And so we have to figure that out. I think some of that will be complicated discussion, but I think it's fundamentally doable. There are other systems that we can look to that have tackled similar things before and looked at, okay, so what is the right sort of percentage of bed, so to speak, that should be allotted to each thing? And then what is the time limit that a local jurisdiction might have to fill those beds before they are activated inside the regional pool - those are things that I think are just very answerable from a policy perspective.
[00:38:16] Crystal Fincher: One thing that we spoke about in our last conversation on the show was the challenge, frankly, with staffing with frontline workers - and that challenge being caused by insufficient compensation. Asking people who are tasked with hard work and especially those with lived expertise and homelessness, which to your point earlier, absolutely helps streamline the response because you're dealing with people who are familiar with how things work in practice and not just in theory and having to get familiar with the tangled web of navigating through all of that. How are we making progress with that? Has that been a conversation that we have contended with throughout the region? And do we have the kind of staffing to scale up in the way that you referenced earlier so that we can move 10,000 people into housing and launch that to 20,000 people?
[00:39:15] Marc Dones: Yeah, I think we are continuing to make progress on having the discussion and that - that's not necessarily money in people's pockets, but it's something. And we're seeing that at the local level, the Seattle Human Services Coalition is putting together wage equity analysis work. The authority continued to look at wage equity - it's embedded in our five-year plan at the state level, through stipends and et cetera. That has also continued to be a discussion. I think that - what I feel, and this was actually said in a meeting I was in yesterday by one of our provider partners - it's maybe not what I feel, but what I'm stealing from someone who said it better than I did, is that we don't have a talent problem. We do have a pay problem. So we are able to source talent - that's a thing that's doable. But I think to the point that you made, Crystal, people are burning out in those jobs after a year, two years max - because they are starting to look at - it's incredibly complex work. It's very hard. The work that they are doing oftentimes in other systems would be classed as high-grade clinical. But for some reason in our system, it is understood as frontline, whatever - entry level - and paid as such. And I don't think, again, what I hear from our provider partners is that everyone understands that this doesn't make sense, but the question is - How are we going to modernize our payment rates so that they are able to compensate people appropriately?
And this is another space where I will say - with all candor - there's a role here for the federal dollar. And when we talk about paying people - if I look at just some of the modeling necessary to expand the services infrastructure, we're talking about a lot of money. B's, right? Not M's. And to that point, we have to think more - I won't even say creatively - I think it really is modernly, about how we are accessing certain entitlement funding streams that should be supporting services for our population. And I think that there is a way to do that. And I think that the authority needs to help everybody get to that.
[00:41:33] Crystal Fincher: Certainly, in my opinion, the progressive revenue conversation across the board at local and the state level is very important in addressing this and has been referenced as such. I do want to talk about, though, your funding - reported and well known that you had put together the homelessness authority, that the entire team had put together. And other people looked at it and said, Yeah, it's a good plan, a plan to be able to address this with a funding request for what would be necessary to do it. And that funding request was not granted in full - It was okay, we'll give you part of it. I don't know that the expectations were tempered at all for what you were supposed to accomplish, but the budget certainly was. So where do you stand in terms of having the resources that you need to address the problem? Because really - funding is to get those resources. We know that we have a shortage of them. We have shortages all over the place, really. This is no exception. So this is not a unique problem. This is not a problem that just exists with homelessness. We know in other areas - certainly we have had lots of conversations when it came to - Hey, we need - Bruce Harrell is saying we need more police. They're throwing signing bonuses and different things and addressing that issue head on. This conversation has been different. So as you look to be able to scale, as you look to the funding that you have received, do you have the funding to be able to make the impact that is expected - to be able to get 10,000 people housed and to really continue the progress that you are now making, now that you've built out the infrastructure to be able to do that? Do you have what you need and if not, what do you need?
[00:43:16] Marc Dones: Straightforwardly, no - we do not have what we need. I think it would be - the draft five-year plan really clearly lays out some of the cost models necessary in order to do the things that are operating at the tens of thousands numbers instead of in the "just the thousands" - and that's in air quotes for people who can't see me. Because the "just the thousands" is still an incredible feat, right? That is - I never want to come across as denigrating the incredible work that happens inside the system, particularly now that we have built some of the integrations that are necessary to really drive some of that throughput. However, again, going back to what I was saying previously, it's this question of the seeds of the solution are here. It's are we going to water them? And to that point, I do think that we don't have a path that does not involve better utilization of federal funding streams. We do not. And I say that because I think that - when I look, for example, at the various revenue forecasts that are coming out, revenue looks like it's trending down for a lot of things. And so there isn't a local revenue stream that is going to meet this need.
I'm really heartened to continue to see the state contemplate big, bold housing-related action. The other thing about the authority modeling that is true is that it's based on assumptions about what is happening in the housing production side of things. And so if that accelerates, we will need a lot less. And I think that that's always really important to be clear about. However, if we're going to be sustainable and scale what we are currently doing, we do need to think very strategically about how we hook portions of the system to, again, the entitlement dollars. And when I'm talking about that, I'm thinking about SNAP and WIC and various CMS funding streams that fund services and supports, whether it's housing navigation or tenancy support. Some of that is available currently under the 1115 waiver the state has - spokane has done an incredible job of utilizing that resource. And so we just we have to head in that direction.
And the last thing that I'll say about that is just - you mentioned earlier that some of the COVID protections are unwinding. I think it's also important that we acknowledge that the COVID money is unwinding. And so currently, this system has about $55 million in what is functionally one-time money. It was multi-year, but it's one-time money that does not have a renewed revenue source at the federal level, likely will not - given sort of the state of play. And so we have to be incredibly smart about, again, not just talking about the scale we got to go to, but how do we replace the funding for what we're currently doing? Because that is paying for real services, real people's salaries - real people supports into housing are being paid for with that money. And so if we're not being - not just clever, but profoundly innovative about how we move the homelessness system more completely into, I think, the broader public health and health infrastructure, then we are leaving money on the table that we simply cannot afford not to have.
[00:46:43] Crystal Fincher: That's a really important point. And thank you for making it - a lot to consider there. So for people who are considering that - and we're in 2023 now, and especially this year where there are so many local elected official positions up for election - candidates are making their cases to voters. Some candidates aren't saying much, others are. But what would you say both to candidates and to voters considering those candidates, who across the board acknowledge that addressing homelessness is near the top of the list, if not at the top of the list of priorities that they need to have. What action can they take or should they take? What should we be looking for? What will be most impactful? And where should the conversation be throughout this year for the people who have the power to dictate this policy locally?
[00:47:43] Marc Dones: I think from our perspective, the more the discussion can center on the core fact that housing is the solution to homelessness, the better we all will be. I am really disheartened by the amount of sort of media that comes across my screen that is framing homelessness as everything but a housing problem. And the simple fact is that at the core, the problem is in the name. You don't have a home and that is the thing we need to be focused on fixing. And so what I would offer is that we as a region, as a nation, do have to fundamentally consider, wrestle with, and answer questions about affordable housing, about density, about how we are addressing some of those core issues that drive the need. And the authority is legislatively - it's one of the reasons why I feel very comfortable saying what I'm saying here - we are legislatively required to advocate for housing with a focus on permanent supportive. So we got to have it, it is the solution.
The other thing that I would say is that - and this is important, I think, particularly for the general public - is that no one, least of all me, a person who was psychiatrically hospitalized twice, is saying that services or care is not necessary. What I think we need to be focused on, though, is that you can't deliver that care literally under a bridge. That's just not how that works. And when I think about my own mental health management, I do telehealth visits with my psychiatrist, and then there's a lot of stuff that goes into keeping me healthy and whole. And I am able to accomplish all of that because I know where I'm going to sleep. And I'm not worrying about that too. And I have access to the things that I need in order to access those people who are going to help me. So yes, we need services. But the reason Housing First is called Housing First is - it's not absence of services - it is literally, but you need to house people first. And so that focus has to be really, really clear in how we articulate our path out of a hundred years of failure.
[00:50:19] Crystal Fincher: Thank you so much for that focus. It's not housing only, but it is Housing First. Absolutely necessary in these conversations that we have about who our leaders are going to be and what they're going to do. I thank you so much for taking the time to share so much with us. Thank you for all the work that you and the entire team and your partners are doing to address this crisis and get people housed. Thank you so much.
[00:50:46] Marc Dones: Thanks for having me.
[00:50:47] Crystal Fincher: Thank you for listening to Hacks & Wonks, which is co-produced by Shannon Cheng and Bryce Cannatelli. You can follow Hacks & Wonks on Twitter @HacksWonks. You can catch Hacks & Wonks on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts - just type "Hacks and Wonks" into the search bar. Be sure to subscribe to the podcast to get the full versions of our Friday almost-live shows and our midweek show delivered to your podcast feed. If you like us, leave a review wherever you listen. 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.
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