King County Executive Dow Constantine and Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan announced key details about a long-planned regional homelessness authority Wednesday morning, including how much funding the new entity will receive from the city and the county, how it will be governed, and which functions of the city's Human Services Department (HSD) will be shifting to the new authority and which ones will be staying at the city.
The regional authority will effectively consolidate most of the county and city's homelessness investments into a single agency, and replace existing agencies including All Home, the county's coordinating agency for homelessness, and the city's Homelessness Strategy and Investments division, which is part of the Human Services Department.
"We're not saying this is the solution or a panacea," Durkan said, "but we know what we've done before has not worked. What you see today is everybody joined in one cause, together." Standing behind Durkan and Constantine were retiring Position 7 city councilmember Sally Bagshaw, representatives from several suburban cities, King County councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles, and several formerly homeless individuals.
If the Seattle and King County Councils approve the legislation, the new authority will be funded by $73 million in city dollars and $55 million from the county (including a total of $42 million in federal grants to both). The agency will be charged with issuing and administering all contracts for homelessness services.
For Seattle, the biggest change will be the eventual dissolution of the city's Homelessness Strategy and Investment Division, which oversees the city's existing response to homelessness, including shelters, transitional housing, outreach, and services associated with permanent supportive housing. Both the Navigation Team (which removes homeless encampments from public spaces) and the actual construction of permanent supportive housing will remain with the city's Human Services Department.
The new authority will not come with any additional funding for homelessness. Both Durkan and Constantine said this morning that a regional organization will create "efficiencies" that will allow the region to use its limited homelessness dollars more effectively. This morning, Constantine said that he was "very optimistic that this new structure will allow us to marshal all of our resources in the region to be more effective in addressing homelessness" even in the absence of more money to solve the problem.
Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus, whose city is not yet a party to the agreement, added, "Hopefully the days of sitting in meetings and at the end of them, saying, 'How many people did we house during the meeting?' have come to an end. Working together is what’s going to make this happen."
In 2017, the city held a competitive bidding process for homelessness contracts for the first time in more than a decade, which city officials touted as a way to hold service providers accountable for moving people from homelessness to permanent housing. Asked whether the new authority would hold contractors to the same set of standards, Seattle Human Services Department interim director Jason Johnson said that the contract between the city and the regional authority "will say, 'Here’s $70 million, and here’s our expectation with those $70 million. [We're going to] make sure that the governing board is really clear about ... what the expectation will be."
As the city's homelessness division is phased out over the next year, starting as early as December, HSD and county employees will move their operations to the county-owned Yesler Building in Pioneer Square, as will All Home. Johnson said he would do his best to "offer as much information as possible to employees" who will be impacted by the changes announced Wednesday morning. The city's three-part transition plan for existing homelessness division workers shows employees being hired by the regional authority, transferred into other city jobs, or "transitioned" out of the department.
The legislation setting up the new regional authority must still be approved by both the Seattle City Council and King County Council. The latter, of course, includes Republicans and representatives of cities that are not being included in the plan who do not support the idea of a new regional bureaucracy overseeing homelessness. On Wednesday morning, King County Council member Reagan Dunn issued a statement opposing the plan, saying, “This new layer of government would be undemocratically structured, lack representation of suburban cities, and be yet another expense on taxpayers. The homelessness crisis won’t be solved by pushing Seattle’s failed policies to the surrounding region.”
Dunn's colleague Kohl-Welles said she hadn't heard widespread opposition on the council, but added "I don't know, standing here, that we'll have unanimity as a council. I think there likely will be amendments as the legislation goes through the deliberative process, [but] I have not heard any other council member come out and say, 'I am opposed to this.' It's more, 'I'd like to learn more about it. I have some concerns but I don't know the details yet.'"