Photo of Marc Dones.

Marc Dones Believes King County Can Fix Its Homelessness Crisis

by Ashley Archibald

That Marc Dones believes the County can fix its homelessness crisis is probably good news coming from the first CEO of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority (KCRHA) — the organization that replaced All Home King County as the coordinating entity for homelessness response after a lengthy planning process.

This optimism comes against the backdrop of a humanitarian crisis on the streets of Seattle and King County, one that has become worse and more visible over the past two decades as various initiatives tried and failed to end it.

There were the 10-year plans to end homelessness that communities across the country adopted, states of emergency declared by governments up and down the West Coast, efforts to target specific segments of the houseless population. Voters may have the option of voting on a charter amendment for the City of Seattle that sets ambitious shelter goals — but critics say the measure enshrines sweeps into the city’s foundational document.

Dones isn’t unrealistic. They know the challenges that the area faces, having worked here for years as a primary architect of the KCRHA. And they know the policy arena into which they stepped when they started as CEO at the end of April. They also see an opportunity to gather the resources of one of the richest areas of the world to get people inside.

“For me, hope springs eternal when I see people aligning and coming to tables and saying we’re going to work together, we’re going to do the hard stuff,” Dones said. “Yes, we know that we’re going to be in disagreement at times, but that’s not going to move us off this table or off this path.”

Time will tell if they are right.

The interview that follows has been edited for length and clarity.

South Seattle Emerald: Why did you want this job?

Marc Dones: You know, I think that a couple of things are true. One, I’ve done work in this region for the last five years and so have really come to think of it as a home.

When I was doing the design work on the authority with [the National Innovation Service], I guess I was living halftime in Seattle. I would fly out every other week. I had an apartment downtown, like I lived there — I got mail at that apartment. And so, when I saw the process unfolding, the way that it was unfolding and the delays because of COVID and all the things that were happening, it wasn’t a question for me about what professionally makes sense.

It was like, I want this thing to work for a community that I have been fortunate enough to call a home of mine and have deep connections to people who live in the region and folks who I talked to, in some cases, every couple of days, if not sometimes daily. When you have an opportunity to do something for a community that has shown you grace, has taken you in, has provided important learning opportunities, I think that it was just an opportunity to sort of step up and be helpful.

I think the other reason that I wanted this job is I think that we do have a tremendous opportunity. I have said this repeatedly, but we can actually end homelessness. That’s a real thing we could do. Most communities who are dealing with homelessness crises anywhere close to our magnitude don’t have anywhere near our resources. We actually do have a lot of capacity, both public and private. And the opportunity to help coordinate and drive those resources towards centering the voices of people with lived experience on the path to ending homelessness felt like the right thing for me.

I don’t talk about this that often, but I’m a queer, nonbinary Black person who has significant mental health issues and also has experienced housing instability. So it was also a moment where I was like, I can finally take the things that I know from my life and start making them live inside a system.

SSE: Is it accurate to say that KCRHA will be taking over human services contracts for the City of Seattle? Will other cities follow suit?

MD: It’s kind of accurate. I would offer this slight correction that we will not be taking over contracts for the City of Seattle. The City will finish their contracts through the end of [2021], and we will then issue new contracts for [2022]. And I offer that correction only from a legal framework with which I want to make sure it is clear, particularly for our provider community. So as of right now, it is the County and the City of Seattle that are moving the majority of their work pertaining to folks experiencing homelessness over to the authority.

We’re beginning conversations with other jurisdictions in the region about properly joining the interlocal agreement and then migrating the work that they do. I ultimately am less concerned about the dollars or controls, the contracts. I really do think that the authority can be where we as a community do this work.

I want that to be what folks hear when they hear that the City of Seattle, or King County, or any jurisdiction that comes afterwards are putting their resources in [the interlocal agreement] and therefore into the authority.

I don’t want them to hear it as the authority is growing in terms of scope, or power, or budget. I want them to hear that we are doing effective organizing work, frankly. That we are building their relationships, building the trust, and that folks are saying, “You know what? We want to be part of the conversation that is happening here. We believe that conversation is our best hope for a true regional solution to homelessness and that we really can be successful if we all do this together.”

SSE: Are you concerned about local jurisdictions preempting the work of the authority by passing legislation as it gets up and running?

MD: I don’t actually see those things as preempting the authority in any way, shape, or form because a lot of them happened before I even was hired. I look at a lot of those activities and I say, look, in 2019 we passed legislation to create the authority. And the idea was that a human being would be in this job in March of 2020. And then we had a pandemic. And so all the while … a whole bunch of people worked really hard to keep the lights kind of on but also had to manage and rapidly redesign the system in order to respond to a pandemic. Right? And so, what I look at a lot is we are inside of a massive crisis and people don’t know what to do, but they know that something has to happen.

And so they’re there. They’re doing the things that they feel would be helpful for their communities. I think everyone knows that I have very specific policy stances on criminalization, on sweeps. These are things that I’ve been clear about for 10 years. They’re not going to change. But what I also said is my job is to be helpful to those jurisdictions who are trying to plan.

And I wasn’t here. And the team that I’m building out was not here. And so moving forward, what I hope is the norm is that as people are beginning to sort of feel under pressure, like we have to do something, that they ask for our help and then we’ll say, “OK, like, here’s what we can do right here. Here’s the resources we can deploy, here is the sort of support we can begin to offer.”

And if you’re considering legislative action or you’re considering some sort of policy shift, we would hope that you would talk to us about it, because one of the things that I think is true is policy toolkits are expansive and no one is an expert on everything. If you asked me very specific questions about — I don’t know — building codes, I’d be like, “I don’t know, that’s not my wheelhouse. Go ask someone who does that work.”

I have been fortunate enough to have a career that has led me to become an expert in housing and homelessness issues. And so, when people are sort of looking at particular policy responses, it may very well be that I can analyze that response and say, “OK, I see where you’re trying to get right. But that actually isn’t the best strategy. We have evidence that suggests that it will be not productive in X, Y, and Z ways. And so let me suggest a different policy approach that I think will get you to where you want to be.”

But that’s the other thing that I think is really important, is that inside all of these conversations, […] I think we should start from a place of what are you trying to do? What are you trying to accomplish? Because I have not yet met someone who I feel is like genuinely trying to just cause harm. Again, I think everyone is sort of looking at a crisis and saying we need to be responding and we need to be responding with urgency. And that I do agree with.

I’m an anthropologist by training; I’ve done a lot of organizing work. I think that the best approach to building relationships is to start from a position of listening. And so, in a lot of my initial engagements with folks, I’m just asking, “Hey, what’s up? What do you see? What’s working? What’s not working? What do you think would be really helpful in your jurisdiction? What do you think you’re very concerned about?” and trying to build that really granular understanding of what’s happening across the region in our various jurisdictions so that I’m not, and our agency is not, 50,000 feet in the air but that we are actively engaging with the community.

And when I say community, I mean [the] elected. I mean service providers. I mean people experiencing homelessness. I mean everybody. Engaging with the community in what I consider to be just democracy. We solve problems together. That’s the government that we signed up for. If we still want to do that, then the basics of democracy are we see a problem and we talk about the problem until we’ve agreed on a solution. If we decide we want to do a different government, I’m happy to have that conversation too. But like that’s what we’ve got.

I think that a lot of folks sort of assumed that the authority was going to be sort of, I don’t know why, but sort of like policy by fiat or like a lot of … I don’t know, like a lot of like just dictatorial styling — and like that’s just not my vibe.

If we’re not all bought in, like we’re not all rowing in the same direction, then it will fall apart. And so, I see my job less as like I’m in charge of all the things. I’m more like “chief cat herder.” Like that’s how I get to gently move a lot of things.

SSE: I think one of the reasons was that a chief complaint about All Home was that it didn’t have teeth. It had no ability to move resources. It was the cat herder without the prod. Is there any point you can see yourself saying, “OK we really need to do this?”

MD: You can’t have a cat herder who doesn’t actually have resources, so 100% there are some things that we are clear on as a policy direction. Right. That we’re going to drive in.

But the responsibility of being clear on a policy direction, having the resources to deploy, and still not running people over, to me, is the responsibility of running government in an equitable and just way. There is phenomenal power in government. Resource deployment is massive, particularly when you’re talking about folks who are incredibly vulnerable.

It is out of alignment with literally the language we wrote into the [interlocal agreement] to make unilateral motions or to do things in ways that are out of integrity with a genuine community process. I don’t think that conflict is a bad thing.

I think you can disagree, you can work your way through it and come out the other side, frankly, in a better relationship and move forward with whatever the aligned perspective is. But there are, as the old saying goes, many roads to Rome. And so, we have to figure out what is the pathway that’s going to make sense both regionally and then also for each community individually.

SSE: We have the Compassion Seattle charter amendment that says we need resources and have X, Y, Z policies. Does that work with your vision?

MD: We have a policy that we don’t specifically comment on any ballot initiatives or candidates, so I will say that. What I do think is true, again, going to democracy, is we will do our job in whatever atmosphere the voters create.

That’s our job. And I think that the larger question [is] do these initiatives work inside our vision? You know, I think broadly, yes. Because, again, I think it’s like it’s people trying to help. And I think that what we need to do now that we’re online, that we’re active, now that we have staff, is connect and pull things in and weave them into a direction that is comprehensive and coherent.

SSE: How will you support the Lived Experience Coalition (LEC) [a group of homeless and formerly homeless individuals that have representation in KCRHA leadership] and make sure people who have or are experiencing homelessness are represented?

MD: I’m super interested broadly — and I hope the Lived Experience Coalition would confirm this if asked — in ensuring that the authority properly supports and integrates their voices at all junctures. That’s something that we’re required to do. Our equity-based decision-making framework, which will be coming on in the next couple of months, will also detail out how we do that from a process perspective. But even in this moment, I will say, that like all of my chief appointments are — I call them appointments because they are going through a confirmation process.

And that confirmation process does include being interviewed by the Lived Experience Coalition, the leadership committee of the LEC, who then vote on moving those folks forward or not. And so, I think that what I am really keen to ensure as long as we are building, as we are staffing, that we are making sure that we’re living into those values even while the process delineation hasn’t all been neatly defined and buttoned up. But in short order, all the process delineation will also be defined.

SSE: What kind of policy changes were possible during the pandemic that you would like to keep, like non-congregate shelter, etc.?

MD: Non-congregate [shelter] is a huge one, right? I want us to prioritize things that are much more in the emergency housing space than they are in the emergency shelter space.

Where we do have local control and can continue to say, there’s no need for this to be an in-person [appointment]. There’s no need for us to require this paper copy of your documentation of X or Y. I want us to be looking carefully at where we made those transitions. And to the extent, again, that it’s local funding that is supporting it or that we have the continued waivers from the federal government where we need to, that we keep those things in place.

I’ve always been clear that how we interact with folks experiencing homelessness and broadly with folks experiencing poverty is it’s so process-heavy and so designed to be unhelpful. And we actually did a tremendous job transforming that during the pandemic. We, all of a sudden, had systems that really helped people in an efficient and organized way. And so, we really want to keep those things in place, if possible.

SSE: You mentioned that you felt the region can solve homelessness. Why are you hopeful?

MD: I’m hopeful because I think that one — because of the resources. I just think that resources matter and we have a lot of resources. Two, I’m hopeful because I feel like there’s a magic window moment that’s happening.

A lot of folks are aligning around the same strategies and saying, “This we have to address.” We can no longer pretend that something magical is going to happen. We, the community, are going to have to step into collectively working here to ensure that folks are housed. And that, I think, is magic.

For me, hope springs eternal when I see people aligning and coming to tables and saying we’re going to work together, we’re going to do the hard stuff. Yes, we know that we’re going to be in disagreement at times, but that’s not going to move us off this table or off this path. The times in my life where I’ve always been the most hopeful are when not when I have the job to do the thing in the mandate or whatever, but when a whole bunch of people are like, we’re going to do a thing together. Right. That’s actually what makes me have hope.

SSE: We’ve talked about collective action for a long time. What makes you think now is different?

MD: I remember when I started doing this work right in 2018 and people told me, “Whatever you do, don’t suggest some sort of regional authority because that will never happen.” And here we are. So, I think that is the thing that is different than some of the times before. And I want to acknowledge that we stand here on the work that was done all those times before.

It wasn’t that nothing happened. There were really critical conversations. There were, frankly, important lessons learned in some of the approaches that didn’t get us where we wanted to go, that have yielded the action and future action that we hope to see today.

And then the other thing I would say is we have a federal window here, too. I want to acknowledge that from a resourcing perspective, the administration has made it very clear they want to focus on housing, on housing stability. They’re putting a lot of resources out. We anticipate that they will probably put more resources out. And so that, I think, also gives us a significant booster shot right in our capacity to really make a difference.

Ashley Archibald is a freelance journalist with previous work in Real Change, the Santa Monica Daily Press and the Union Democrat. Her work focuses on policy and economic development.

📸 Featured Image: Photo of Marc Dones courtesy of King County Regional Homeless Authority.

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