Q&A With Marc Dones, CEO of King County Regional Homelessness Authority
The King County Regional Homeless Authority was launched in 2019 to place all efforts to eradicate homelessness under one umbrella, coalescing policy, funding, resources and services with an equity and social justice lens. Marc Dones was subsequently placed at its helm and charged with leading the county toward lasting solutions to one of its most-talked-about issues. United Way of King County recently conducted a Q&A interview with Dones, who gave insight on themself as RHA’s leader, the homelessness crisis and RHA’s efforts to end it.
United Way: Tell us about Marc Dones, what makes you tick, what excited you about this work, and why did you take this position?
Dones: I’m here to end homelessness. As a queer, Black, non-binary person who has been institutionalized, experienced housing instability, and studied psychiatric anthropology and racial equity, my life path has put me in a position that allows both empathy for people experiencing homelessness and an understanding of the systems change necessary to turn homelessness response into something that works for people.
United Way: How is the King County Regional Homelessness Authority different from the city’s past approaches to the homelessness crisis? What is the biggest reason why this can, and will, succeed where other attempts have not?
Dones: The City and County hired my former consulting firm, National Innovation Service, to do a full audit of the previous system in 2018, and after a months-long community engagement process, we put forth 10 recommendations. Those recommendations guide the RHA’s implementation plan—and include major changes, such as consolidation and coordination, an orientation toward action and rapid iteration, and centering people with lived experience in our decision making. To be clear, this is not an easy task, but it’s not a mystery either—we don’t need another study, commission or report, we just need to get to work. We continue to review every aspect of the system, looking for both immediate and long-term improvements, but it will take some time—because we want to do this right. We can and will succeed if our community comes through with the necessary funding and resources, political will, public support and some trust in the process.
United Way: What is the most accurate count of how many people are currently experiencing homelessness in King County? How does that number fluctuate during the year?
Dones: The most recent cross-systems analysis found over 40,000 people experiencing homelessness in King County in 2020—that’s over three times what the last Point In Time Count found. The analysis includes not just people in the Homeless Management Information System, but also those who have interacted with King County’s public health and behavioral health care systems—making it a more informative number than from any single source.
United Way: What is the biggest misconception people have about homelessness in King County?
Dones: Two things that are important to clarify. The first is the mischaracterization of the deserving or undeserving poor, a binary misconception that goes back to Victorian England, which relieves community responsibility by blaming the individual. The truth is that individuals become homeless for a wide variety of reasons, but structural barriers like racism, housing and zoning policy, economic inequality, and lack of access to medical care are the societal factors that drive homelessness.
It’s also important to disentangle crime from homelessness. It’s easy for people to assume that the two are linked, but the truth is that people experiencing homelessness are often the victims of both property crime and violent crime, and there are also organized criminals who use the cover of encampments as camouflage. In our view, public safety must include safety for people who are currently forced to live outside.
United Way: When do you believe we will see results from KCRHA’s work?
Dones: We are already seeing results based on changes in how we work together, and you should be able to see visible results by the end of 2022. We have already been coordinating actions that fit our communities through sub-regional planning and technical assistance. Our work on Emergency Housing Vouchers prioritized people living unsheltered and used a racial equity lens—operating differently from anywhere else in the country. We are making significant progress on improving our data capabilities with the help of the local tech community. The Partnership for Zero plan earned $10 million in private funds for peer navigators and a focus on ending unsheltered homelessness in Downtown Seattle and another regional communities. And we are working toward a full-system redesign to be released later this year.
Like I said at the beginning, I want to end homelessness, so seeing visible results is as important to me and my team as it is to any of you, and we will keep working, keep learning, keep adjusting and keep going until people are housed.