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Can Marc Dones Solve Seattle’s Homelessness Crisis?

The CEO of the new King County Regional Homelessness Authority knows there’s no silver bullet.

By Allison Williams November 5, 2021 Published in the Winter 2021 issue of Seattle Met

Marc Dones will tackle homelessness with 50-plus staff and a $120 million budget.

Does Marc Dones hold the single hardest job in Seattle? As the inaugural CEO of the newly formed King County Regional Homelessness Authority, Dones faces a crisis so pervasive that it’s come to define twenty-first-century Seattle. But Dones, a Midwestern activist and policy strategist who helped design the Authority as a consultant, won’t be daunted by the scope or complexity of finding shelter for King County’s 15,000-plus unhoused residents. Born into a family of lawyers—“litigating your point is common for me and not necessarily a sign of dysfunction”—Dones’s personal history interweaves education and experience. Besides earning a psychiatric anthropology degree, they’ve experienced their own housing instability and manage mental health conditions. When not at work, Dones walks their lab-pit mix and holds tight to their Midwestern roots by searching out “all things fried and all things dipped in ranch.” Known for a big smile and gregarious demeanor, Dones mixes an agenda of modest, concrete initiatives with an overarching optimism. “If we could solve our homelessness crisis, it would be a domino effect,” says Dones. “We could fundamentally transform the fabric of American society.”

The first thing I would love for people to understand is there is no silver bullet. Please stop yelling for one, that’s not going to happen.

I consider our housing market in a form of collapse. When people say market collapse, they are thinking, like, Oh, the bottom falls out.

To me, a form of market collapse is when nobody can afford it. Like, that is another way a market can malfunction, right?

I do not know anything about you. But I know you’ve paid too much for your housing.

There have been a couple of moments where people were like, "Well, what do you know about all this?"

I have been fully institutionalized. I have couch surfed, I have eaten by taking food that I saw people leave behind at outdoor restaurants.

I try to make sure that we spend time with folks who are experiencing homelessness. If you do not go outside [in this field], you will become weird. Your ideas will become theory and disconnected.

I think there’s been a tremendous erosion of public trust in government to be able to respond effectively to homelessness.

Our job is to do what we can and make every dollar work as hard as we can. But also be very honest about, like, this amount of money isn’t gonna get you to a total solve.

You solve big problems by taking bites, not by boiling the ocean. Mixed metaphor!

For 2022, we are focused on a couple core things. We identify a bite and take it.

We think that there are between 500 and 800 people living semi-stably in and around downtown in unsheltered positions. We really want to house those folks and get them inside.

Then we will move on to the next group and the next group.

We have massive service deserts. We really need to make sure that we are building infrastructure around the region, instead of continuing to just funnel all of it into downtown.

We’re so in this binary, we’re so in need of heroes and villains. That’s the most troubling thing to me—we have to let that go.

I have grace for the people who are like, "I don’t know how to handle that someone is having a schizophrenic episode on my doorstep." I also have grace for the person who’s having that episode.

The only way through this crisis is with actual compassion. We don’t solve an essentially humanitarian crisis with a lack of humanity.

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