Last week, angry parents at John Stanford International School in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood unloaded on the CEO of King County Regional Homelessness Authority, Marc Dones.
The parents accused Dones and other state agencies of failing to remove the notorious ship canal homeless encampment on Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) property.
During the virtual meeting, Dones acknowledged the dire situation: “I don’t think anyone is happy with where we are as a community.”
But when asked why it’s taking so long to clear encampments along state highways in the region, he claimed, “the budget proviso is very specific that you have to be able to offer someone housing.”
Dones took his statement a step further saying that, “without access to a permanent housing solution or something similar, it really does limit the engagement that the team can take.”
As Dones conveyed to members of the meeting, only motels, tiny houses, or apartments are acceptable housing options to offer homeless people living in encampments.
Outreach workers rarely, if ever, refer any homeless individuals into what is commonly called “congregate shelters” — shared spaces with bunk beds or cots.
Democratic state representative Jake Fey is chair of the House Transportation Committee and supported the nearly 50 million dollar Right-of-Way bill that is funding KCRHA.
“This proposition he’s bringing up is news to me,” said Fey. “My perspective was it didn’t have to be permanent, you just couldn’t ask somebody to leave without a place to go. Shelter would be a place to go.”
Republican State Representative Andrew Barkis is on the same committee.
I sat down with Barkis in his Olympia office to go over the exact language in this bill. “I can’t see where this is tying anybody’s hands” stated Barkis, “and nowhere does it say permanent housing is required before moving homeless people off WSDOT property.”
Barkis continued, “we need to utilize every bit of resources we can to have shelters. It doesn’t matter what kind. We need to get the people out of these deplorable situations.”
Since the Right-of-Way Initiative was announced last year, only seven homeless encampments have been cleared and hundreds are still scattered across the state with no end in sight.
In King County, where KCRHA deploys its resources, a mere four encampments have been removed so far.
I reached out to Dones, asking if he planned to correct course. But I got no response. Instead, a KCRHA spokesperson sent me a statement that reads, “we’re keeping our focus on the primary goal of moving people inside.”
While the agency says more than 200 hundred homeless people who used to live on state right of ways are now in some form of housing, critics say that number should have been even higher if Dones had carried out the intent of the bill and used available shelters.
Governor Jay Inslee’s office tried to defend Dones, saying that KCRHA’s work is consistent with the spirit of what legislators wanted.
But a spokesperson also admitted, “emergency congregate shelters are always an option for encampment residents as well.”
Who is supposed to hold Dones accountable? That is the question we face now.
KCRHA’s governing board, made up of elected officials like Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell and King County Executive Dow Constantine, could potentially hold Dones accountable. But so far no one is talking about next steps.
What is evident is that the current approach is not working for neighbors, parents, business owners, and especially the homeless who remain vulnerable on the streets.
Hear more from Andrew Barkis below: