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King County Auditor’s report details why homeless response is lacking

There are two main themes in a recent homeless report by the King County Auditor’s Office: the region’s leaders fail to communicate well enough to make any progress, and affordability continues to prevent people from overcoming homelessness.

“The low vacancy and high cost of private market housing have reduced the efficiency and flexibility of the system to house the growing number of people experiencing homelessness,” the report states. “…. Local funders … have worked to increase system consistency, but diffuse authority still hinders regional homeless response.”

Much of the King County Auditor’s report on the region’s homeless response is already known: affordable housing is scarce; lack of housing pushes people onto the streets and into cars; rapid rehousing often fails because of the lack of affordable housing; and the many groups working on the homelessness problem do not communicate effectively. It all adds up to more people experiencing homelessness in the county — 11,643 people according to region’s last homeless count in January.

RELATED: How Seattle spent $54 million on homelessness in 2017

The issue that the auditor frequently refers to in the report is “diffuse authority.” Essentially, none of the groups work in tandem. According to the report:

The city and county separately manage their funding and contracting processes, presenting administrative and operational burdens for homeless housing providers. Having many large organizations working independently also reduces the ability of the region to respond collectively to community needs, and creates roadblocks to change. All Home is a coordinating body meant to pull together local funders into a homeless response system, but it lacks the authority to do it.

The report notes that while All Home leads collection and management of performance data, it has no authority to compel the funders of services to address systematic gaps. Those funders are Seattle, King County, King County and Seattle Housing Authorities, and private foundations.

Seattle and King County’s new homeless approach

Amid heightened criticism about the region’s failed communication and poor performance addressing the homelessness crisis, the City of Seattle and King County have agreed to forge a new path forward. It is essentially part of the “one table” approach that the county and Seattle have championed under Mayor Jenny Durkan.

“We have to have a regional response to what is a regional crisis,” Durkan said last week. “We know that none of the problems are stopping at our city border.”

“We are unafraid to quit nibbling around the edges and actually do something that will change results,” she said. “To do that, we have to do it together.”

The homeless response throughout King County is scattered across 39 cities and the county itself, with duplicated services and gaps. But last week, Mayor Durkan and King County Executive Dow Constantine signed a legal agreement to bring the two governments’ in sync. Instead of separate systems working side-by-side, the two will begin to work in tandem under a centralized response — in other words, at one table.

RELATED: Seattle’s progressive attitude a challenge for homelessness crisis

“We have too many cooks in the stew,” Durkan told The Seattle Times. “At the end of the day, we want one consolidated system that has governance, authority, and resources to address this problem.”

The Seattle Times explains that:

Seattle funds and is home to more than 80 percent of the emergency-shelter beds in the county, with relatively little help from other cities. King County runs the mental-health, chemical-dependency and criminal-justice systems, all of which are drivers of homelessness. A third agency, All Home, receives federal money and coordinates policy but has no independent budget authority, leading to internal criticism that it is an “impotent” entity in the crisis.

The agreement states that Seattle and King County will decide on changes to the homeless system in December. It will then form a new unified system.

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