Shift’s Newsmaker Interview is with Caitlyn Axe, the author of a new must-read report from the Discovery Institute’s Fix Homelessness project. The report revealed that the King County Regional Housing Authority’s (KCRHA) collaboration with local companies called “Partnership for Zero” not only dramatically failed in its mission to remove homeless individuals from Downtown Seattle, but it cost taxpayers nearly 10 times the amount to house individuals than what it cost non-profits to perform the same task. On the day the report was released, Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell announced that the “partnership” was terminated.
The report then exposed a disturbing lack of accountability by the politicians who govern the KCRHA. While the authority distributes millions in taxpayer funds to local homeless organizations, it does not require the recipients to report how many people it actually helped.
In her interview, Axe described her findings in the report. She also provided her thoughts on the disastrous “housing first” policy which has resulted in more homeless individuals in nearly all major West Coast cities. Finally she predicted the future of the controversial KCRHA and what Shift readers can do to maintain pressure on the troubled authority.
First, please tell our readers about Discovery institute’s Fix Homelessness Initiative. What is its mission and who is involved in the effort?
Discovery’s Fix Homelessness initiative exists to provide real, compassionate solutions to homelessness that address root causes like addiction, mental illness, and broken relationships. Our team produces a unique blend of traditional think tank scholarship and independent video journalism, and we’re successfully changing the conversation on homelessness in Washington and across the nation. Check out fixhomelessness.org!
You authored a very interesting report last week regarding the King County Regional Homelessness Authority. What were the key findings of your report?
I spent months digging into the spending and outcomes of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority’s outreach program — “Partnership for Zero.” The government run program collapsed last week, and our report shows that it was a very expensive failure. The program began in 2022 with $10 million in investments and claimed it could reduce the number of people experiencing homelessness downtown to 30 people in one year. One year later, the program had only permanently housed 115 people at a price tag of $26,000 per person. There are at least 13,368 homeless people in King County!
Why does it cost so much more for KCRHA to provide housing than it does for private organizations?
For reference, it costs nonprofits like Salvation Army and the Union Gospel Mission $2,000-$6,000 to permanently house someone. A fraction of the government cost! The vast majority of Partnership for Zero spending went towards the salaries of their outreach worker team. Starting at $80,000 a year, the salaries were double what other nonprofits offer.
I support paying outreach workers well, but the outcomes of their work need to justify that level of spending. Salvation Army housed almost 6 times as many people last year. That’s the kind of outcome we want to support!
It is very troubling that KCRHA does not require accountability for the millions in taxpayer dollars they hand out to non-profit organizations. How big of a problem is this? Who is responsible for this lack of transparency? What can be done to fix this so taxpayers can see if their money is being spent effectively?
In 2022, KCRHA gave out $107 million in contracts to nonprofits addressing homelessness in King County. I reached out to the top recipients — getting multi-million-dollar contracts — and only half were willing to tell me or show on their website how many people they housed last year. This is a huge problem, because it prevents us from knowing which organizations are doing effective work. We need to stop funding the ones that don’t work and pour our support behind the ones that do.
This is public money, so the public absolutely deserves to know how it’s being used. The responsibility is on KCRHA to require data from nonprofits in order to renew their contracts. It’s also on these organizations to tell the public how they’re using their money — they should be proud to share good results. And finally, it’s on members of the public to hold government agencies like KCRHA accountable and demand transparency. That’s what we aim to do with this report and with Jonathan Choe’s work!
Like most progressive West Coast communities, the extremely controversial “housing first” philosophy drives the homeless policy decisions in Seattle and King County. Is this the best philosophy to help the thousands of people who continue to suffer from homelessness?
The failure of Partnership for Zero reflects the larger failure of our federal housing policy, “Housing First.” Housing First has effectively become “housing only.” It insists that more money for more free housing will solve the problem. It won’t. We need to be addressing the root causes of homelessness and helping the whole person, not leaving them isolated in free housing. Efforts in Seattle and King County need to start focusing on the role of addiction and mental illness. That is the truly compassionate solution!
This is the latest bad report for the King County Regional Housing Authority. The new bureaucratic organization seems to have failed at nearly everything it does while more and more people continue to suffer on the streets and more of them are tragically dying. At the same time its leaders have demanded that the taxpayers give them BILLIONS to fund their wasteful and ineffective efforts. In your opinion, what should be done with KCRHA? Is it time to pull the plug?
While Mayor Bruce Harrell and other Seattle leaders have expressed disappointment in the collapse and failure of this government program, it doesn’t sound like KCRHA will be ending anytime soon. The outreach workers from Partnership for Zero are losing their jobs, but the people at the top will continue to make decisions that impact our city and, most importantly, the people suffering on its streets every day.