Homelessness is such a daunting and seemingly intractable crisis in our region that it’s easy to forget there are literally thousands of people and hundreds of nonprofit organizations working to solve it.
Day after day, outreach workers, case managers, substance abuse counselors, mutual aid volunteers, and many, many others provide food, shelter, and services to support those who can’t afford to live anywhere but on the streets – and to keep others from losing their homes in the first place.
But the reality – widely acknowledged – is that we all work within a system that’s fractured, under-resourced, ineffective, and largely led by people who don’t reflect the diversity of those who experience homelessness. While we each do vital, life-changing work on our own, there’s no doubt that as a system, we’ve failed to turn back the flood of homelessness in King County.
That’s why, here at Solid Ground, we hope the year 2022 will prove to be a turning point.
Starting on January 1, nearly all contracts related to homelessness across Seattle and King County – including Solid Ground’s – will come under the control of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority (KCRHA). This is a brand-new regional agency, being built from the ground up, that’s been explicitly tasked with developing a better-coordinated, more-effective response to homelessness.
KCRHA is meant to be centered in racial equity and guided by the experiences of people who’ve actually lived through homelessness. And it’s intended to approach homelessness as the regional crises that it is, while still recognizing that King County is home to communities with vastly different needs and available resources.
This isn’t about business as usual anymore,” says Tamara Bauman, a Solid Ground Rapid Rehousing advocate who serves on the KCRHA’s Continuum of Care Board. “This is about innovation and change and really reinforcing the idea that housing is a human right – that no matter who you are or where you are, everybody has a right to housing and safety.”
Of course, KCRHA’s potential won’t be realized overnight, and progress at the agency has already been frustratingly slow – both because of the massive scale of the project and the many barriers created by the pandemic. In a region where people are desperate to see some kind of concrete action on homelessness, it’s easy to feel like the KCRHA is just another layer of bureaucracy – or worse, an excuse for complacency.
“It’s a massive undertaking, so we have to be a little patient,” Tamara says. “But not too patient, because we need to move things along too.”
The truth is that the KCRHA has made real progress in the eight months since its first employee, CEO Marc Dones (they/them), was hired in April. While building the agency from scratch (there are now about 25 employees, on the way to 70 staff members), Dones has articulated a vision for a true transformation in how we respond to homelessness, one that centers anti-racism and removes barriers that keep people from getting the support they need. And they’ve shown a willingness to work with and listen to the many organizations whose work the authority will soon oversee, including Solid Ground.
“What KCRHA is saying is, ‘We want to invite you into this process, to help design this system, because we recognize the expertise that you all bring in,’” says Dee Hillis, Solid Ground’s Residential Services Director.
“This isn’t about business as usual anymore. This is about innovation and change and really reinforcing the idea that housing is a human right – that no matter who you are or where you are, everybody has a right to housing and safety.” ~Tamara Bauman, Solid Ground Rapid Rehousing advocate and member of the KCRHA’s Continuum of Care Board
To be successful, KCRHA must continue to empower as decisionmakers people who’ve experienced homelessness – and assure true accountability to those it’s intended to serve by building authentic relationships, cooperation, and trust.
It must embrace the leadership of people of color who are overrepresented in homeless communities but often left out of decisions about how those communities are best served.
Kirk McClain, a Solid Ground residential case manager who’s experienced homelessness himself and now serves on the KCRHA’s Governing Committee, says that agency isn’t there yet – but he’s hopeful.
“You have to start somewhere,” says Kirk, who’s one of three members of the Lived Experience Coalition serving on the committee. “We can’t skip to somewhere down the road. We have to do the work to get there.”
And KCRHA can’t do it alone. As an agency, it can’t raise money through taxes, so it must rely on elected officials in Seattle and King County governments to provide adequate funding and embrace regional solutions. Finding the needed money and gaining regional alignment, especially on issues related to housing and homelessness, is no easy feat.
In the last year alone, we’ve seen cities in King County opt out of taxation structures dedicated to building permanent supportive housing¹ and push back on plans to provide housing for unsheltered people in their jurisdictions². Overcoming the fractious politics of the county isn’t part of the KCRHA’s job, but it’s critical to the success of any solution to this regional crisis.
No matter how effective it proves to be, the KCRHA can’t by itself solve the true cause of homelessness in King County: a staggering shortage of housing that people here can actually afford. That’s why Solid Ground has called for a massive, regional effort to develop new housing options on an unprecedented scale, truly making King County a place where everyone has a home. (See our blog post, Compassion Seattle was a distraction. Here’s a solution.)
The King County Regional Homelessness Authority is not a panacea, and it won’t solve homelessness overnight. But with sufficient resources and political support, we’re hopeful it will finally put us on the right track.
- Eight Cities Have Opted Out of County Measure to House Homeless, The Urbanist, 10/14/2020
- Homeless people at hotel must move out, Renton City Council decides, The Seattle Times, 12/14/2020
Featured image above: KCRHA CEO Marc Dones visits with a service provider (provided by KCRHA).