Marc Dones helped conceive the King County Regional Homelessness Authority as a consultant living in Ohio. Then, a long formation process began and prioritized finding the right CEO. That tract was circuitous and ended with Dones accepting the job after a first candidate turned it down. Dones spoke with Real Change at the end of their first month on the job. They were still in Ohio during this Zoom interview. They are originally from Michigan, spent 17 years between Boston and New York and are moving to Seattle for the job. Here they discuss this new, regional perspective against homelessness.
Nacozy: Was it a hard decision to take this job?
Dones: Yes and no, as with most decisions that are big decisions — they’re always a little mixed, right? I think the “no” part is I care deeply about this community. I’ve done work in this region for over five years. I helped design the Authority. I helped work with some of the folks who launched the Lived Experience Coalition. All of this is really, really, really important work and it’s work that I feel personally called to do. And I have developed a real love for the region. It feels magical, literally magical to me, like sometimes to, you know, step outside and be like, that’s a whole mountain! It’s right there! So, I feel very grateful to be able to engage with the implementation of work that the community entrusted me to design.
The “yes” part — the part that’s hard — is the part that’s hard about any big job, which is like, “What if it’s a disaster? What if I’m not good enough?” Particularly as a Black person, a person who has my own history of mental health stuff — and those are things, right, that float around with you.
I’m really trying to lean into the reality, which is, I’m not doing it alone. I already am beginning to have an exceptional team. It will become more exceptional. And at the end of the day, homelessness has always been a whole community problem, so the whole community will have to step up in order to make it end. And so in that way, I come back around to “OK, I can do this because it’s actually not about me. It’s about our community and a decision that we’re about to make that it is unacceptable that people have to live outside.”
What is unique about King County regional homelessness?
I think the two most striking dimensions of the King County issues are, one, the number of people who are unsheltered, and in that, I’m including folks who are living in vehicles. I think that we don’t really have a solid understanding of what that number is. We just know that it’s up there. And that is a very — from a community perspective — unique position, even nationally.
I think the other thing that is quite striking is the resources we have. To sort of link that to the previous question, another thing that made me say yes to this job is I think it’s doable. I was looking at a posting —if you work for government, you get on these lists that send you all the government jobs that are being posted — and I saw a position similar to mine being posted for a very large city. The expectations were detailed, and the anticipated budget was something like, gosh, I want to say it was maybe $20 million, and the expectation was to have a staff team of around 10. Our expectation for our annualized budget is closer to $140 million, and I’m vectoring towards a staff of between 35 and 40. So we’re just resourced in a way that is totally different from a lot of communities around the country. And I believe that the consolidation of those resources inside the Authority is actually gonna make a significant impact on what we see and what is possible.
I want to caveat that, just to say I’ve always been clear that we’re still gonna need more money. I don’t want anyone to think we don’t need more money. I say it as loud as I can in every meeting that I’m in. But, it is a real different situation to be stepping into that than, say, “Oh, I have to grow the budget from $10 million to $50 million to a hundred.”
I think those are the two most striking differences. A third, and one that we all experience, is our region has seen incredible pressure put on the housing market — just astronomical pressure. And again, there are only a few other communities in the country that are able to really say anything similar like what we’ve seen in terms of the escalation of rent, what we see in terms of what the home ownership market looks like. When we start to look at that from a housing stock perspective and like, truly, where can people go? I think that’s a significant difference and also why it’s really important that through all of this, we take a justice-oriented approach and say look, this is about a whole community.
It doesn’t matter to me who you are or where you live — I already know your rent is too high. Because all of our rent is too high. That’s a market dynamic. It’s not about personal choices. It’s not about questions of access to care. And we have to decide as a community that that market dynamic is not one we’re going to just live under forever. And we do need to think about how we increase the production of housing in the zero-30% AMI bracket and continue to drive towards inclusive zoning.
Because you’re someone who helped conceive the Regional Homeless Authority, can you tell me the rationale for high expenditures — like your salary as CEO, the starting range was $200,000 to $250,000 without benefits — in relation to the no-income and low-income people you’ll serve?
Yeah, I think that’s a really good question. I think that people should get paid for the work they do in relationship to how hard it is. I think I have a hard job. Again, as a queer Black person, this is the first time I’ve ever come near this — that’s a lot of money, and you know what? I actually am OK with that because it means I can support people that I previously haven’t been able to help out. And in my community, we take the opportunity. We’re like, “Oh, at least for a little while, I got it — so who needs something?”
But what we need to be aiming towards is a world where either one of two things happens: Either having that amount of money as income is not necessary to survive, or we make sure that people have access to those resources.
Just because you do this kind of work, I think there’s an expectation that you live like a monk or a saint or something like that. I don’t think that’s appropriate. It’s particularly not appropriate when you look at who makes up the bulk of the workforce in the homelessness sector, which is predominantly women, predominantly queer folks and predominantly folks of color. I think we need to be asking ourselves really conscientiously why do we think it’s OK for software engineers — I’m not denigrating software engineers, but I’m saying it is OK for a software engineer to make $400,000 a year, but a social worker is making $25,000 a year.
From my perspective, what we’re going to have to start asking ourselves is what actually is pay equity here in relationship to the work that we do, which is vital work. And how do we actually begin to, frankly, take the steps forward as a community — as a system — to ensure that people are being fairly compensated for the incredibly complicated jobs that they have and the work that they try to do on behalf of people every day.
I think that is a conversation which is inclusive to staffing the Authority and the salary bands that we set as an agency and ultimately, also, as we think about salaries for providers. If we’re going to avoid burnout, if we’re going to keep consistency, if we’re going to make sure people are really able to develop skills and stay in this work, that is a question of whether or not they can live doing it.
And, if we’re just sort of on a run, I think the same thing is true when we talk about people experiencing homelessness, where it’s like, I want to ensure that the system that we stand up is prioritizing the material reality of being unhoused, of experiencing poverty. Again, it’s not a question of whether or not there’s an inherent worth. I just want to make sure that if what’s missing is money, then that’s what I want to prioritize being able to provide. If what’s missing is housing, that’s what I want to prioritize being able to provide. So, that’s just going to be our orientation.
Many of our current regional homeless service providers have been working extremely hard against homelessness for 20-plus years under many names. What exactly are you going to do differently?
A lot and a little. I get this question in every interview. I think one of the things that should be said — at least once for the good of the order — is we know how to end homelessness. It is not actually a mystery, right? It’s always been a question of resourcing and scaling and like, can we really get the investment to calibrate to the level of need? So from a budget perspective, that’s going to be my most significant effort, is to identify clearly how many people need help, what kind of help it is, say this is how much that costs and then advocate to get that amount of money into the system.
But the other significant — in the space of departures, I think we will have a system that actively prioritizes listening to people about what they say they need and what works or what doesn’t work. It’s embedded in our design; it’s embedded in our legislative requirements; we will be focused on hearing from people experiencing homelessness about what do you need, what’s working, what doesn’t work. I think that actually will be quite different, not necessarily in what we do, but how we do it will be significantly changing.
What do you think is the role of employment in getting a person housed?
In getting a person housed, employment doesn’t play a role. In ensuring that a person can sustain housing, employment may play a role depending on what that person’s situation is. I think that, again, depending on the person, there may be important elements of both job as an opportunity for community and job as a way to pay bills. But labor does not define your worthiness, nor is it a requirement that you be doing labor in order to be housed. This is — to be very clear and straightforward — this is a housing first job — that will stay the policy. What we will look to do, though, and I think this is one of those places where working with people who are experiencing homelessness or have experienced poverty is going to be really critical, is I think we do want to have a much more dynamic understanding of what the workforce and labor connection is.
I’ve heard from many people experiencing homelessness over the course of my time in this field, “Hey, we would love to staff the stuff that is supposed to be helping us.” I think we’re already beginning to look at what are ways that the system itself can really become more of a driver in employment and labor-market connection for them folks who are speaking to utilize it. And how does that become a strategy as we talk about workforce development, etc., etc. But just to be super, super clear, housing first — it is not a requirement to work to be housed.
Why do you think there are so few low-barrier employment opportunities and employment supports designed for people experiencing homelessness?
Oh, that’s a great question. I think we don’t have a — this is a really good question. I don’t think we have a good understanding of — and this gets back to pay and pay scale and pay equity — the purpose of work. I think to some degree, some of those future-of-work conversations and some of the conversations that have been accelerated by COVID about, like, does anyone need to live anywhere or work or go to a thing anymore? Those kinds of things are part of this, but I understand work, first and foremost, as an opportunity for — for me, just for me as a person — as an opportunity to feel like I’m contributing and to feel like I am a part of my community; that’s what I want work to be for me. When we look at work that way, it becomes easier for it to have fewer barriers, and to be much more shaped around “OK, so, if that’s the purpose, then what makes sense for you, Lee, and for me, Marc?” That can look different on all of us. So, that to me is how I would want to approach the discussion around workforce connection and the idea of low-barrier work broadly. I feel like it is an opportunity to be engaged in community. And that’s important for us, for most of us anyway — not for all of us, and I respect that — but for most of us as social mammals. I think that’s part of the reason why we are drawn to the sort of organizations of labor that we are drawn to is because it’s literally built into us in some ways.
But if we stayed there, say on that basal level of “it’s about community and the opportunity to feel connected to things,” not extrapolating into all these questions about worth and things that I think are ultimately detrimental, I think it will allow us to create very different opportunities for that kind of connection, inclusive of some of the stuff that you all do.
I think about — I talk about this all the time, but do you know about care farms? …
So care farms … are non-working farms typically for folks who have experienced housing instability, significant mental or behavioral health issues, sometimes other forms of developmental disability, etc. You can be outside and hang out with animals, and you don’t have to make the farm work. This isn’t like, “Hey, you can only live here if you’re bringing in enough wheat today.” But you can, if you so choose, participate in making cheeses or learning how to make butter. So a number of them have farmer’s markets and ways they make stuff and then engage with the community through selling that stuff. And, again, you don’t have to sell enough to make a profit, but it’s a way that you engage with the community, that you provide something you made, that you really care about, that you think other people will love. That’s the kind of stuff I really want us to be able to think about when you think about what that workforce connection.
Please answer yes or no. Will you stop the sweeps of homeless encampments?
Ha, this is not fair — the answer is yes. I want to open up that a little bit, though, and just say — I am not pro-sweep; I have been on record about that for many years; it would be weird if I suddenly changed my position now — I do think that we need to have a conversation about solutions.
What I have been really, really, really clear about in my almost — I think this is the end of my fourth week — what I’ve been really clear about is that outside is not inside. And as an agency, we are looking for solutions for people that are inside. And so I want to say, yes, I’m not going to enforce sweeps, but what I am going to do is work real hard to stand up — real fast — inside options. And I want to be super clear when I say this: I’m not going to stand up giant congregate shelters and say, like, “go inside” — no, we’re going to look to create housing or housing-like options for people where it’s like, “OK, this is an option, right?” And again, in consultation with people who are experiencing homelessness with the Lived Experience Coalition, so that we are being really clear-eyed about what we are developing as being something people want and then able to say to folks, “Look, this is the option,” because I do think what we also have to be clear about is that the unsheltered situation in our community is unacceptable. It is not acceptable. It is not an acceptable policy solution to say people just live outside. It’s just not.
I know I’m sort of breaking the “yes or no” rule, but I just really think it’s important to contextualize that yes, no more sweeping, but because: options. And we’re going to have to do that fast. That’s a top priority for us: getting to a place where we can launch new structures in that housing or housing-like space truly within six, seven months because I need new stuff online by the time winter hits. We just don’t have an option there.
The other thing that I would add to that is I — we will also be working hopefully with police to unwind what is a public safety issue versus what is a mental health or behavioral health issue. I hope to partner with police to say, “You are the public safety response; I understand that. But these other things need different response algorithms. And some of those are our responsibility.” So we need to be able to create a way of disentangling that in partnership that allows us to say, OK, so when the thing falls into that non-public-safety space, that there is a non-public-safety response that can help someone, that can deescalate, that could help connect people with a thing that would be the appropriate support.
How will the Authority work against the racism that contributes to homelessness?
I’m going to restart history — ha, OK, I do have a response. There are things that my agency doesn’t oversee, like I can’t do inclusive zoning. I can’t undo redlining. I can advocate really passionately for it at every opportunity, so you will see that. When there is an opportunity to show up and be like, “This will be great; inclusive zoning here will be fantastic,” we will be there.
In our system specifically, what I want to be able to do is think about a couple things: one, the disproportionality. I really do want to have some fine-tuned analysis of where there is disproportionate inflow into the system, and then start partnering with those systems that folks are coming from, say we need to — we gotta work this out.
Then the other thing that I want to do, which I think is beyond the disproportionality question, is I want our systems to be dignity based and healing centered because I think that the opposite of racism is not — we’ve talked about this on my team — the opposite of disproportionality is not proportional suffering — that actually is a broken way of looking at it, right? The opposite of the racism that leads to the disproportionality is healing, community healing. And that starts in how we engage with individuals. And it starts with really saying, no matter who you are, no matter which door you will walk through, what you will be greeted by is a system that wants to work with you to engage in whatever healing may be necessary.
I say that because I’ve been having a lot of conversations the last couple of weeks about how do you build a system that is competent for all survivors of trauma, for all survivors of abuse, for all folks who have any kind of behavioral or mental health stuff? And I think about my own experience, and all the doors that I’ve walked through as a person with PTSD and bipolar, and trying to make something work for me and instead been actively retraumatized, or it’s just been so bad. So I really want the system that we oversee— we have a defined scope and we have limited powers, but within it, I want to make sure that we are healing-focused and that when people encounter the things that we work on, that they really feel centered, cared for, listened to and empowered.
One of the things LaMont Green says all the time that I really, really have tried to internalize is what we are not looking for is a complicated service array. What we need is our power back. Our personal ability to self-determine. Frankly, that is a statement that is not just nice to say but is supported by the literature. If you look at the literature around trauma and how trauma is best ameliorated, it actually is saying, make choices about your life, get your personal power back. So that’s what I want us to be focused on. Oh! And proliferation of our capacity to provide culturally appropriate services. I hate the term “culturally competent,” but I will say that one of the things I hear all the time from folks who are either immigrant friends or a lot from our Native community is, this stuff does not make sense to me and does not work for me. And that can’t be a thing that is the narrative anymore. If we’re running a system that is rooted in justice, rooted in racial justice, then that means you can find more than one thing, right, to be clear, that is competent in and fluent in the language that — not literal language, but the language you speak.
Read more of the June 2-8, 2021 issue.