King County Regional Homelessness Authority CEO Marc Dones announced Tuesday morning they will resign next month. In a joint statement, County Executive Dow Constantine and Mayor Bruce Harrell thanked Dones for their work, but in the days leading up to the announcement, sources close to the action told The Stranger that Harrell would be ecstatic if Dones stepped down, and they were surprised the departure did not happen sooner. (The Mayor’s spokesperson denied those widespread rumors, linking to his statement.)
Those sources also say Dones came under fire for not playing nicely with others, criticizing the tiny shelter model, failing to manage contracts, proposing an unrealistic budget, and wearing jeans instead of slacks.
Deputy CEO Helen Howell will step up to fill the role as officials conduct a nationwide search for a new leader, a process that will take a minimum of six months. Council Member Andrew Lewis worries the interim will be tumultuous for the Authority, the nonprofits with whom it contracts, and the people those nonprofits aim to serve.
As a member of the KCRHA governing board, Lewis will bring forward a resolution next month calling for performance metrics, deadlines, and “articulable, achievable goals” from the Authority. Lewis commended Dones’s work at what is pretty much an impossible job but sees their departure as an opportunity to reset and improve.
One Seattle for Everyone but Marc Dones
The KCRHA and elected officials did not give specifics as to why Dones left, but, according to sources close to the situation, the decision comes after a long history of unpopularity.
Coming into the role in 2021, the Seattle Times reported that Dones broke the mold for leaders in local government. As Scott Greenstone wrote: “When Marc Dones walks through the door, it’s not just their unconventional role that makes them stand out. It’s the black skinny jeans, earrings and a rainbow-striped tank top, showing muscular arms tattooed with bees, peace signs and flowers.”
While it's one of the petty reasons for Dones’s unpopularity, style definitely played a role, sources said. They recalled Dones showing up to meetings wearing jeans, T-shirts, and even tank-tops. The suits in Seattle just haven’t caught on to the fact that the way someone dresses does not determine their ability to do any job.
More seriously, sources accused Dones of “antagonizing” the people they worked with. One source said they “pissed on any idea that was not their own.” This was especially true for tiny shelters, which are otherwise popular among City officials if not state advisory councils.
In 2021, Dones told Publicola that the “proliferation” of tiny shelters must come to an end because every dollar spent on short-term shelter should really go toward building and acquiring permanent housing. Tiny shelter advocates felt that hill was a weird one to die on in a region strapped for temporary housing options and with unhoused people expressing preferences for tiny shelter units over less private shelter options. That said, the KCRHA definitely still used hundreds of thousands of City dollars to fund tiny shelters in its most recent budget.
Dones also made a point to draw a distinction between the Authority’s slower approach to removals and the City’s sweeps.
The biggest concern of all appeared to be results. The Seattle Times reported that nonprofits had lost confidence in the KCRHA because of funding delays, a situation they had not experienced when the City and the County held their contracts. The bottleneck caused YouthCare to max out its credit cards just to pay its workers. Nonprofits made similar complaints last year.
Considering its struggles with the fundamentals, the KCRHA shocked local leaders with the $25.5 billion price tag on its 5-year budget request at the beginning of the year. This request blew the 2020 McKinsey report out of the water, which estimated that the County needed to spend more than $1 billion every year for ten years to solve homelessness. The Authority's high-level draft budget read like a “weird, unfunded dream that was thought of in a college dorm room or something at two in the morning,” said a source in a leadership role at a local nonprofit.
When asked about these criticisms, the spokesperson for the KCRHA said the joint statement with the Mayor and the County Executive covered everything.
Big Structural Changes
While Dones served as the face of the KCRHA, Lewis noted some structural issues in the Authority he would like to address. The KCRHA has two boards with unique powers overseeing it. Lewis said he’s unsure if this bicameral model can hold the Authority to account effectively or efficiently because it takes so much back-and-forth between the two boards to get anything done.
Dones’s departure also gives the Authority a chance to rethink the former CEO’s controversial pet project, the peer navigators. The Authority marketed peer navigators as best friends who would help unhoused people along each step of the way toward obtaining permanent housing. Some thought the role was redundant since the KCRHA already contracts nonprofits for case management. Plus, KCRHA offered salaries above the going-rate at nonprofits such as REACH and YouthCare, which some worried would exacerbate the current staffing crisis as the program grew.
Regardless of the changes the KCRHA makes post-Dones, Lewis called for quick action to drill into the fundamentals and get money out the door.
“We can't just skip a beat and pause doing stuff on homelessness while we look for a new director,” Lewis said. “That hurts the people that we're trying to serve more than anybody else.”