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CEO of new Seattle-area homelessness agency shares progress, opportunities for tech support

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Marc Dones, CEO of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority (KCHRA), and Neal Myrick, global head for the Tableau Foundation, discuss the region’s homelessness crisis. (Screenshot from WTIA event)

It’s been a year since Marc Dones was hired to lead King County Regional Homelessness Authority (KCHRA), a newly created government agency that is bringing together multiple disparate programs and departments working to address homelessness.

In that time, Dones has built a 57-person team; took charge of the $10 million “Partnership for Zero” initiative funded by Seattle corporations and philanthropies to tackle homelessness in the city’s downtown area; and is working to collect meaningful data to guide solutions for the region’s homelessness crisis. They’re also partnering with the Seattle mayor’s office and advocating for policy to address the challenge.

On Wednesday, Dones sat down with Neal Myrick, global head for the Tableau Foundation, for a live-streamed discussion about KCHRA’s efforts. The event was hosted by the Washington Technology Industry Association (WTIA).

Keep reading for some key takeaways from that conversation.

On homelessness counts and funding: While some estimate that roughly 11,000 people are experiencing homelessness in King County, which includes Seattle, Bellevue and Redmond, Dones said the real number is much larger.

“If we were dealing with 11,000 people who needed us, we actually could do that easily,” Dones said. “We wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t have this job. But it is because it is a scale of four times magnitude and we’re not resourced appropriately that we just keep sliding deeper and deeper into that hole.”

On talking about policies to increase available, affordable housing:

“If we’re going to transform the housing market, that’s going to require very different investments in multi-family [housing], in density, in transit, in the things that we know support having enough spaces for people to live in at the right costs. And that has to be the conversation that we’re having,” Dones said.

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“And yes, there are some people who are experiencing homelessness right now who have behavioral health or substance use issues. They are not the majority of people. The majority of people just don’t have enough money to access housing in our market.”

Philanthropy is terrific, Dones said, but tends to focus on families and kids while chronically homeless single adults need assistance, too:

“If we’re really gonna get out from behind this eight ball, we also have to be able to generate the revenue and the love and the compassion for people who are not cuddly, so to speak,” Dones said, later adding: “This system has to believe in the basic dignity of everyone, full stop.”

KCHRA is exploring with Microsoft the idea of developing a digital platform for people experiencing homelessness that is akin to the MyChart software that many people use to track their healthcare treatment:

With MyChart, “you can message all kinds of providers. You can move your records across multiple providers. And what you may not even realize is that you are providing administrators of those hospital systems with a lot of data about what does or does not work for you,” Dones said. “They are using that to tailor better services and support and you don’t even feel like you’re giving up a lot of information because it’s being used to support you.”

They imagine a similar system for the people he’s serving, a “really an expansive data ecosystem that has at its core a customer-centricity that is focused on dignity and the idea that people know what they need and our work should be to support them in activating that.”

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Dones offered four suggestions for people who want to engage in this issue:

  • Attend public meetings and make your thoughts and opinions heard. The events are often dominated by more extreme voices, they said.
  • Push back against narrative “that there are heroes and villains” in the homelessness crisis.
  • Build relationships with people experiencing homelessness, like volunteering with organizations that provide services to the community. That can help folks understand who the people are and reduce mischaracterization. “People aren’t scary,” Dones said. “They just don’t have money.”
  • Volunteer your technology skills for building some of the digital tools that KCHRA needs to do its job better and more efficiently. “If you’ve got tech time,” said Dones, “we’ve got tech stuff.”

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