Will we fund a solution to homelessness via taxes or asking the rich nicely?
Will we fund a solution to homelessness via taxes or asking the rich nicely? Anne Martens

On Thursday, King County and the City of Seattle announced a new “Partnership for Zero” plan to “dramatically reduce” unsheltered homelessness downtown. So far, the plan does not seem much different from other outreach programs that the city funds. The major difference is who plans to foot the bill.

Those funders include a list of billionaires and multinational corporations with connections to the Puget Sound region, and their plan is to toss the King County Regional Homelessness Authority (KCRHA) $10 million in one-time funding to decrease homelessness downtown.

With that money, KCRHA will hire 15 trained incident responders and “up to 30 peer navigators,” which are case managers who have experienced homelesness. These case workers will help move people from the streets into shelter and housing.

You’ll recognize the corporations and billionaires who shelled out for the cause: The Ballmer Group, Alaska Airlines, Amazon, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Boeing Commercial Airplanes, Campion Foundation, Costco, Expedia Group, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, JP Morgan Chase Pacific Northwest, Kaiser Permanente Washington, Madrona Venture Group, Microsoft Philanthropies, Nordstrom, PATH, Puget Sound Energy, Raikes Foundation, REI, Russell Investments, Schultz Family Foundation, Seattle Foundation, Starbucks, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, Symetra, T-Mobile, Weyerhaeuser, and Zillow Group.

In a Thursday press conference full of billionaire ass-kissing, Mayor Bruce Harrell reminded the viewing public that this kind of partnership is what he ran on. This is true. The Mayor has been a staunch advocate for solving homelessness with the generosity of private donors rather than with new taxes.

But to give you a sense of the scale of the crisis here, a well-known 2020 McKinsey report tells us that King County needs to spend $1 billion per year for the next ten years in addition to the money we’re already spending to adequately address homelessness. On the public funding side, the city council’s JumpStart tax generated $231 million in 2021, $31 million more than anticipated. And now these corporate donors, whose combined wealth greatly exceeds the city’s general fund budget, reached into their deep pockets and found $10 million in loose change.

City Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who chairs the Public Assets and Homelessness Committee, said the council is proud to have passed JumpStart, and he does not anticipate that corporate philanthropy will replace government action. Still, Lewis said he appreciated the work of the KCRHA and the support from big business.

“I welcome the involvement of any party, be it government, nonprofit, or business, to productively and proactively be part of what we're trying to build with the authority,” Lewis said. “It is certainly more helpful than having the business community advocate for sweeps.”

Besides, the council was amicable to the KCRHA’s peer navigator program last fall, when they introduced the idea during the budget process. The council did not fund the program due to concerns over how it would interact with existing programs such as REACH. Instead, the council wrote a statement of legislative intent to have the authority circle back to reconcile this concern. Lewis said Partnership to Zero’s Unified Command Center could mitigate that concern and prevent confusion that could lead to case managers from multiple agencies working with the same client.

Because the KCRHA and the city council have somewhat of a shared interest in this program, this year will serve as a pilot for the council.

“Basically, we were able to take risks that the government can't for a variety of reasons, and we hope to prove that the program’s successful, and, if it is, public funders can expand it to the rest of the region,” said a spokesperson for We Are In, an organization that advocates for a regional approach to ending homelessness.

It will be up to the city and the county to fund the program next year when the billionaires’ one-time donation dries up and leaves a $10 million hole behind.