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Seattle and King County to combine efforts in new regional homelessness authority

Tents under an overpass in Seattle
Parker Miles Blohm

Seattle and King County leaders are taking a big step toward combining their response to homelessness. The mayor and county executive on Wednesday put forward legislation to create a new regional homelessness authority.

The city and county often talk about working together to address the region’s problems. But the proposed legislation for a completely new legal body overseeing shelters and services represents a significant shift.

"This is the right way to run government," King County Executive Dow Constantine told media during a press conference announcing the move.

Constantine, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and other local leaders began talking about a regional response to homelessness in 2017 with the One Table initiative. Out of that process, officials announced late last year that Seattle and King County would move toward a new regional agency.

The new authority would oversee outreach, shelters and services such as case management, addiction treatment and mental health services. Affordable housing construction and Seattle’s Navigation Team would remain in their respective jurisdictions.

King County would put up about $55 million toward the new authority, while Seattle would dedicate about $73 million. That money comes out of their existing budgets and accounts for nearly all of the current spending on homelessness.

"This new structure will allow us to marshal all of our resources in the region to be more effective in addressing homelessness," Constantine said. "We're going to be able to get more for the funds we have to move the needle."

By combining forces, the goal is to be more efficient in getting people out of homelessness and into housing. The new authority would be responsible for negotiating contracts with service providers, many of whom serve both the city and county separately. It also would be responsible for about $40 million in federal funds currently overseen by a different agency, All Home.

"We will, for the first time, have the behavioral health dollars...unified with the shelter dollars," Durkan said.

The new authority would be governed by a board of experts, including people who have experienced homelessness. The board would create budgets and issue contracts. An oversight committee that includes elected officials would appoint the board and approve those budgets.

Constantine and Durkan say the eventual goal is to fold other King County cities into this regional homelessness authority.

"Every unit of housing built in any town in this region helps Seattle," Durkan said. "And any services provided to people experiencing homelessness in their own communities helps us."

There’s still a long way to go before a new agency is up and running. Both the Seattle and King County councils have to approve the creation of the authority. They’re also responsible for allocating funds to the new agency.

County Council member Reagan Dunn, who represents Southeast King County, has already come out against the idea.

"This new layer of government would be undemocratically structured, lack representation of suburban cities, and be yet another expense on taxpayers," Dunn said in a statement released before the plan was formally announced Wednesday. "The homelessness crisis won’t be solved by pushing Seattle’s failed policies to the surrounding region."

King County Council member Jeanne Kohl-Welles, who chairs the council's human services committee, says she’s still optimistic the council will eventually pass the legislation. Kohl-Welles’ counterpart on the Seattle City Council, Sally Bagshaw, also appeared optimistic.

"I have not heard any other council member come up and say, 'I'm opposed to this,'" Kohl-Welles said. "It's more, 'I'd like to learn more about it.'"

Durkan and Constantine hope the councils can finish their legislative process this fall, so they can begin staffing the authority’s board and getting it up and running in 2020.

A Seattle native and former KNKX intern, Simone Alicea spent four years as a producer and reporter at KNKX. She earned her Bachelor's of Journalism from Northwestern University and covered breaking news for the Chicago Sun-Times. During her undergraduate career, she spent time in Cape Town, South Africa, covering metro news for the Cape Times.