The Seattle Times: The effort to end downtown Seattle homelessness ended — now what?

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This editorial was originally published by The Seattle Times on Sept. 29, 2023

By The Seattle Times editorial board

Back in December, one of our colleagues called the King County Regional Homelessness Authority’s plan to end homelessness in downtown Seattle a “joint government and philanthropic moon shot.”

The Eagle didn’t land.

Earlier this month, the RHA announced that it was winding down the pilot project, called “Partnership for Zero.” Its goal was to house every person living unsheltered in the downtown core from West Denny Way to Edgar Martinez Drive South.

Perhaps the letdown wouldn’t feel so profound if the hype around the project had not been so frothy.

Under the leadership of the RHA’s then-CEO Marc Dones, Partnership for Zero heralded a new approach with new energy. Components included setting up a Command Center, hiring outreach workers, focusing on a defined geographic location, creating a by-name list of those living unsheltered, and working with private landlords to find housing that wasn’t shelters or tiny homes.

These may not have been groundbreaking strategies, but taken together, they formed the nucleus of a new way to tackle homelessness. The pilot project was intended as the first step to prove the concept, which, if successful, would then be taken to other areas of King County.

In the end, about 1,000 people were on the by-name list. The RHA reports that 231 people were housed. Philanthropic donors contributed $5.5 million through September 2023, and taxpayers footed $2.2 million.

The key problem was RHA’s direct hiring of outreach workers. That made RHA an employer at a time when it was struggling to accomplish its primary goal of consolidating contracts for regional homelessness services and paying them on time.

After Dones resigned in May, the RHA scaled back its ambitions, the philanthropic grant expired, and 38 people now face layoffs.

“Partnership for Zero was the right approach that was executed in all the wrong ways. The effort lacked sound management, oversight and focus,” stated the Downtown Seattle Association. “It’s unacceptable for the region’s homelessness response agency and local government to have no plan for the area with the most significant homelessness crisis.”

So what’s the way forward? First, while the former CEO may not have been perfect, Dones was a leader in a region desperate for leadership. The RHA is casting about for a new CEO. That person must be prepared to articulate a realistic vision that gives people hope while achieving noticeable goals.

Second, philanthropy must stay engaged. On that front, there is good news. We Are In — which is housed within Building Changes, a nonprofit supported by Ballmer Group, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Raikes Foundation, Symetra, Microsoft Philanthropies, Schultz Family Foundation and Campion Advocacy Fund — promised to take lessons learned and apply them to future efforts.

“We Are In remains committed to ensuring that the learning from Partnership for Zero is applied to create sustainable systems change and to continue working with government partners to design and implement the next phase of this critical work,” said Erik Houser of We Are In.

The demise of the audacious effort to end homelessness downtown comes as a disappointment to all. To regain trust and momentum, the RHA must hire its new leader quickly, fix its internal governing processes, and articulate a way forward.

At this point, residents have every right to express hopelessness about homelessness, and wonder about all the money spent.

The Seattle Times editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Melissa Davis, Josh Farley, Alex Fryer, Claudia Rowe, Carlton Winfrey and William K. Blethen (emeritus).