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KCRHA makes its case amid homelessness crisis, increased spending

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(The Center Square) – With hundreds of millions of tax dollars spent, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority is facing calls for accountability from city officials who look to the semi-governmental organization to get the area’s chronic homelessness crisis under control. A senior KCRHA policy director says their efforts are working.

KCRHA has served as the organization responsible for coordinating funding and services for unhoused people across all of King County since 2019.

The agency’s funding for nonprofit organizations increased from approximately $134.7 million in 2022 to $169 million in 2023, a 25% increase. The agency’s funding for 60 organizations in the 2024 budget is $167.8 million, according to documents obtained by The Center Square.

The majority of the agency’s funding stems from a partnership between both the City of Seattle and King County, with Seattle providing 42% ($104.67 million) towards the agency’s 2024 budget.

In February, Seattle informed the King County Regional Homelessness Authority that it was pulling $11.7 million in annual funding from the agency starting in 2024 and through 2025 in order to examine how its outreach funding aligns to the changing needs of the city and ensure effective use of city funding in meeting desired outcomes.

Meanwhile, the Washington Department of Commerce lists approximately 53,532 people who have experienced homelessness in King County on an annual basis. The last point-in-time count conducted by the county in 2022 found 13,368 homeless people in King County, a 13.8% increase over the 2020 count of 11,751 homeless people.

Jeff Simms, senior director for policy at the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, said the agency’s metric of success when distributing funding to nonprofits varies by project. From providing shelter to “permanent supportive housing” in which tenants with high needs are given housing and services with the goal of stabilizing them.

Simms blames inflation and new programs for the increased distribution of funds to the nonprofit organizations to help the unhoused people in the region. He told The Center Square that the new programs showcase the Homelessness Authority investing in the strategies that the agency knows work, with evidence of the best practices behind them.

“Some people forget that we are paying the rent [of an unhoused person], but we are also paying for the services’ cost, and so both of those are essential and both have a price tag associated with them,” Simms told The Center Square.

Burien Mayor Kevin Schilling is one of King County’s city leaders who has spoken out against county officials and the Homelessness Authority for not addressing the chronic homelessness problem. The City of Burien is currently in the midst of a legal battle with the King County Sheriff’s Office over a recent amendment to the city’s public camping ban.

King County Sheriff Patti Cole-Tindall ordered deputies to not enforce the city’s law. Since Cole-Tindall issued that order in March, Schilling said there have been four overdoses and two deaths within Burien homeless encampments.

Burien, nor any other South King County cities, contract with the King County Regional Homelessness Authority to distribute funding.

“It’s the homelessness authority and they’re not even actually responsible for doing much besides allocating hundreds of millions of dollars to nonprofits who, by the way, end up not doing their job,” Schilling said to The Center Square in a phone call. “No matter what, we’re having an accountability crisis with KCRHA.”

Simms notes that, despite not controlling non-contracted cities’ funds, that does not stop the agency from wanting to partner with those jurisdictions.

He added that the agency oversees funding and uses a competitive process for funding various nonprofits to ensure the most efficient use of services. While the Homelessness Authority manages contracts with nonprofits, it has program staff work with the funded organizations to ensure positive work is being done, as well as conducting annual auditing of contracted organizations.

The King County Regional Homelessness Authority has a unique government structure that Schilling described as a “quasi-government agency that is not run by the government, but in an independent manner.”

In a Seattle City Council committee meeting last March, Seattle City Councilmember Rob Saka described the agency’s structure as “somewhat confusing and clunky.”

The agency has three separate boards that have oversight authority: the governing committee, the implementation board, and the Seattle King County Continuum of Care Board, which is in charge of applying for federal funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for homelessness assistance. That board has had some internal issues in the past.

Seattle City Council Chair Sara Nelson had concerns over the agency’s implementation board, which are responsible for providing direction and oversight to the agency. Board members are required to have experience in the housing and homelessness fields, but are not elected officials.

“These are non-elected people who are not accountable for their constituents for the use of resources that are making the budget,” Nelson said in the March committee meeting. “That really does need to be cleaned up.”

Simms argued that the King County Regional Homelessness Authority was created by a legislative agreement between the City of Seattle and King County and does not have control of how it was created.

“As an entity, we only exist, because of the things they did,” Simms said. “So government structure can only be changed by the two parties revising the document that created the King County Regional Homelessness Authority.”

Simms added that representatives from Seattle, King County, and other stakeholders have been conveyed to look at how to simplify the agency’s structure.

With a pending contract renewal with the King County Regional Homelessness Authority next year, Seattle and King County officials will pay close attention to the 2024 Point-in-Time count of homeless people in King County, which will be released on May 15.

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