Consolidate homelessness response systems under one regional authority.


These actions are informed by four months of primary and secondary research conducted by our team. Our team analyzed national best practices and global innovations as well as the policies, organizational structures, regulatory authorities, and performance reports of local stakeholder agencies to understand the systems-level structures that drive performance. We consulted with more than 100 local and national public officials, system administrators, and technical experts to understand the challenges and opportunities at hand.

Our ability to develop these actions also required an understanding of the current state of services derived from the experiences of frontline staff and people experiencing homelessness. Our research team leveraged a mix of design workshops, interviews, and site visits across King County. Our lines of inquiry identified the most pressing challenges for accessing and delivering services and the dynamics between service providers, customers, and the system.

Read about our methodology and process


Fragmentation across programs and systems is a critical weakness of the homeless service systems in Seattle and King County. This is reinforced by providers, public officials, and previous work in the region.123 Customers’4 accounts of their experiences of homelessness reflected this fragmentation: stories of geographically—and administratively—disconnected services, duplicative data collection, and unnavigable systems produce dead ends rather than meaningful assistance.

Consolidating policy-making and funding activities into a new, joint regional authority is necessary to overcome this fragmentation and respond to the emergency at hand.

It is critical to note the actions outlined here are interdependent. Consolidation is vital to the transformational shift toward streamlined services and supports that center customers’ needs and experiences and prioritize equity.

  1. McKinsey. Booming cities’ unintended consequences: Homelessness and congestion

  2. Anderson, J., Ko, M., Zadeh, K., & Thompson, B. (May 2018). Homeless crisis demands unified, accountable, dynamic regional response. King County Auditor’s Office. 

  3. Barbara Poppe and Associates. (August 2016). Recommendations for the city of Seattle’s homeless investment policy: the path forward – act now, act strategically, and act decisively

  4. Please note that this team refers to “people with lived experience” or “people experiencing homelessness” as “customers” to accurately reflect their status placement within the system. 


The scope of homelessness in the King County region is a public emergency. Driven by the dramatic decrease in affordable housing, Seattle has the third highest number of people experiencing homelessness in any city in the country.1 This growing crisis has had an outsized impact on marginalized communities.2 Though people of color only make up 33% of the total population of King County, more than half of those counted as experiencing homelessness on a single night in January were people of color.3

Without substantial investments in affordable housing, the region will not end this crisis. However, these investments will be inadequately leveraged if programs and systems across the county maintain their current state of fragmentation. Auditors and technical experts have offered proposals and feedback to improve system performance to rise to the challenge of the region’s crisis, but each assessment pointed to system-wide fragmentation as a barrier to progress.

Earlier this year, the King County Auditor’s Office found that despite increased system performance, “diffuse authority still hinders regional homeless response.”4 This echoes the 2016 findings from Focus Strategies and Barbara Poppe and Associates that cited the need to break down silos and reduce fragmentation.5 In our own interviews with system administrators, six organizations and agencies asserted that they held major or even primary responsibility for ending homelessness in the region. Six agencies cannot hold primary responsibility for the same thing.

This fragmentation was clear in interviews and workshops with customers. Customers’ perspectives on the disconnected nature of services illustrate the consequences of disparate structures governing disconnected systems. These dynamics led many to a dead end, the “not sweet spot,”, where increases in income disqualified customers from certain services and supports, even though that income was already insufficient to maintain housing stability. This dead end directly drives bounceback into the homeless service system.

Aligning funders, providers, and public officials in a common vision, as outlined in the community-wide theory of change, would rectify some of these dynamics. The current state of distributed authority, however, leaves the region without an entity to implement that theory of change across the necessary systems and partners. None of the six agencies or offices noted above are jurisdictionally positioned to uphold a community-wide agreement.

Many agencies and offices play critical roles in the functions of the homeless service system: emergency response, service provision, housing, contracting, strategic planning, community engagement, and attempting to respond to racial and ethnic inequities.6 The challenge is that each of these offices manage all of these functions. This lack of role clarity for an agency impacts staff morale, as they are unable to efficiently and simultaneously manage crisis response and strategic planning tasks. Beyond this, many of these functions also exist outside of those offices and in sub-regional agencies, furthering inefficiency. This functional confusion has minimized efficacy across systems and stunted progress toward ending homelessness in the region.

There are a number of solutions to these challenges modeled in other communities, but few would adequately meet the region’s needs.

One model, often used in large cities, would be to appoint an individual lead for homelessness initiatives. While this would consolidate authority, it is impractical given the county’s large population, which covers 39 cities and towns. The number of offices whose priorities, policies, and procedures would need to be managed by that lead would make the model untenable. In this region, such an office would likely only further duplicate functions and fragmentation.

Alternatively, simply aligning those offices and agencies could address concerns around functional confusion. However, in large regions this leads to partnerships that are personality-driven and fragile, with alignment relying on individual and political priorities. This is the current state of affairs, with collaboration functioning through ad hoc meetings and without formal arrangements or unified authority to meaningfully shift priorities or efficiently attend to pressing challenges.

In order to address the crisis at hand, Seattle and King County must consolidate the systems’ command and control functions into a regional authority. The intensity of need in the region requires this crisis be managed as such. Universally-accepted frameworks for crisis response call for swift decision making that is informed by feedback from the front lines;7 information symmetry that is isolated from threat rigidity;8 and sharing situational awareness9 through coherent messaging to the public.10 A single authority avoids the need to coordinate across the current patchwork of regional authorities, thereby enabling faster coordination with front-line staff and more awareness among both responders and the public.

Without consolidated authority, the region will not be able to simultaneously manage emergency response functions, deploy the necessary services and supports for customers, and build a housing pipeline designed to meet the needs of those experiencing homelessness. This dynamic is demonstrated by the status quo. These functions are necessary and critical; they cannot be prioritized against each other.

Similarly, public engagement and public/private partnerships are currently managed by a wide array of system administrators, public officials, and providers in a manner that leads to repeated miscommunication and poor messaging about the scope of the crisis and the work necessary and underway to address it. Consolidating these functions will allow for messaging and partnerships to be informed by real-time data, policy priorities, and direct access to system administrators.

Diffuse responsibility for data collection has constricted the region’s ability to improve data quality and leverage data to inform priorities and policy-making. It is essential to consolidate all of the core functions of the homeless services system in order to appropriately identify and scale solutions, target resources based on emergent needs, and meaningfully leverage private funding against public investments.

Consolidation also allows the region to fully integrate equity as a core component of its goals and shape system-wide priorities that are tailored to those most often affected by homelessness. The regional homeless services system should perform in such a way that facilitates comprehensive care for anyone who comes into contact with it, rather than specialized or homogenized service options. An example of this is the lack of well-funded services that use traditional Native approaches to healing and care, which are among the most in-demand services for members of indigenous communities. Rather than piecemeal funding for such services, a transformed system could prioritize and scale culturally-specific services across the system. A joint entity would create the opportunity to institutionalize mechanisms for customer accountability and ensure the system is centering customers’ needs and measuring performance accordingly.

A new regional authority established by King County and the City of Seattle would serve as the necessary and sufficient gate to all of the other opportunities identified here. Without consolidated authority, these interdependent actions will be impossible.

  1. McKinsey. Booming cities’ unintended consequences: Homelessness and congestion

  2. Homelessness has been disproportionately prevalent among black and African American, Hispanic and Latino, American Indian and Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities, as well as among people who identify by multiple races. These local dynamics track against national trends. Olivet, J., Dones, M., Richard, M., Wilkey, C., Yampolskaya, S., Beit-Arie, M., & Joseph, L. (March 2018). Phase One Study Findings. Supporting Partnerships for Anti-Racist Communities (SPARC). 

  3. All Home King County. (2018). 2018 King County Point-In-Time Count Results

  4. Anderson, J., Ko, M., Zadeh, K., & Thompson, B. (May 2018). Homeless crisis demands unified, accountable, dynamic regional response. King County Auditor’s Office. 

  5. Barbara Poppe and Associates. (August 2016). Recommendations for the city of Seattle’s homeless investment policy: the path forward – act now, act strategically, and act decisively

  6. More than half of people identified as experiencing homelessness on a single in January indicated that they had a disability. One-third (33%) of unaccompanied youth and young adults under 25 years old identified as LGBTQ+, compared to 16% of all other survey respondents. AllHome (2018). Seattle/King County point-in-time count of people experiencing homelessness 2018 (Count Us In). King County, Washington. Nearly two thirds of people experiencing homelessness in the region are people of color: Native Americans and Alaskan Natives experience homelessness at seven times the rate of white people, while black people experience homelessness at five times the rate of white people, and Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders experience homelessness at three times the rate of white people. King County Department of Community and Human Services, Performance Measurement and Evaluation Unit, City of Seattle Human Services Department, Data, Performance, and Evaluation Unit (2018). CEA Interim Single Adult Prioritization Formula Proposal: Results from Workgroup. Seattle, WA: CEA Policy Advisory Committee. 

  7. Turoff, M., Chumer, M., de Walle, B. V., & Yao, X. (2004). The design of a dynamic emergency response management information system (DERMIS). Journal of Information Technology Theory and Application (JITTA), 5(4), 3. 

  8. Comfort, L. K. (2007). Crisis management in hindsight: Cognition, communication, coordination, and control. Public Administration Review, 67, 189-197. 

  9. Baubion, C. (2013). OECD Risk Management: Strategic Crisis Management. Paris: OECD Publishing, 18-24. 

  10. Reynolds, B., & Seeger, M. W. (2014). Crisis and emergency risk communication. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 


Establish a regional authority that consolidates distributed functions of the homeless services system:

Decision-making and funding flows informing the proposed consolidated authority.

Decision-making and funding flows informing the proposed consolidated authority.

1. Consolidate all of the core functions of the homeless services system.

In order to effectively streamline policy-making, funding, and program management, the region must consolidate the core functions of the homeless services system into one joint, regional authority. To ensure customers have unfettered access to other services and supports, this regional authority must also oversee alignment with adjacent systems.

Looking across our data we have identified the core functions that should be consolidated:


The region must center equity as a core component of the principles governing homeless services by operationalizing it at the systems level. Under a new regional authority, this can be achieved by establishing a team to shape system- and agency-wide priorities and policies designed to target and improve access for marginalized groups; ensure fair treatment; eliminate barriers to services and supports; and create new services and supports tailored specifically to marginalized communities and those most affected by homelessness in the region. To be effective, oversight for equity functions must include responsibilities to inform and shape contracting processes, funding priorities, and program policies. It must also be closely linked to customer accountability.

Hear the community speak to inequity in the homelessness response system.

Emergency Response

Oversight of all emergency services for people experiencing homelessness—including shelter, permitted encampments, day centers, health services, diversion, and outreach—must be consolidated in order to ensure they are managed under the same data-driven principles and evidence-based best practices. This will also enable emergency services administrators to systematically identify resource gaps and thereby offer the spectrum of services and approaches customers need. Under a new regional authority, emergency services would inform system planning in real time and allow administrators to calibrate investments based on need and customers’ outcomes.

Customer Accountability

Responsibility for customer accountability must be consolidated in order to be operationalized. These responsibilities should include customer service, reporting and investigating violations, and managing the process to convey customer feedback to policy-making across the system. Certification, licensure, and continuous quality improvement should also be managed as functions of customer accountability. An Office of the Ombudsperson should be established to build customer decision-making power and to facilitate ongoing community engagement. This engagement should be leveraged to systematically integrate the daily lived experiences of customers and their perspectives into system policies and priorities.

System Performance

Consolidating system performance functions, including data collection and improvement, Homeless Management Information System management and cross-system data integration, performance and contract management, technical assistance, and research and planning, will allow the homeless services system to be truly data-driven, seamlessly integrating data collection and analysis, system improvement, and policy-making.


Oversight of permanent supportive housing, transitional housing, and rapid re-housing programs for people experiencing homelessness should also be consolidated. These oversight functions should include maintenance as well as efforts to improve and streamline access to those housing models. This degree of oversight would allow the regional authority to project and plan all housing development for people experiencing homelessness. This should be closely tied to collaboration with regional and state officials on related matters, particularly zoning, land use, and affordable housing development. This should include robust partnership with Public Housing Authorities through strong mechanisms of institutional alignment.

Community Impact

In order to ensure key stakeholders, including the public, have consistent access to information about the scope of homelessness and efforts to address the crisis in the region, community and cross-system engagement functions should be centralized. These functions should include Continuum of Care (CoC) governance, reflecting the integral role of CoC stakeholders. Cross-system alignment, sub-regional coordination, and integration with economic mobility initiatives and prevention programs should also be tethered to this community impact work in order to solidify those partnerships and ensure that those programs are informed by homeless service system data and policy priorities. Community engagement should also encompass all functions related to public/private partnerships and communications.

Hear a case manager discuss sub-regional demographic differences.

Sub-regional coordination is a particularly critical function of a new regional authority. King County faces unique challenges in meeting the needs of people experiencing homelessness. As the 13th largest county in the country, there is often a substantial distance between service points and each municipality has a different level of resources to support customers. There are also demographic differences across sub-regions. The new regional authority should identify mechanisms, similar to the Los Angeles County Councils of Government model, that enable sub-regional areas to identify their own priorities and plans and funding streams around homelessness in alignment with system-wide policies and goals.


Finally, to ensure the homeless service system is able to leverage the value that design and technology can bring to serving people experiencing homelessness, oversight for innovation should be centralized with access to each of the aforementioned functions. Innovation experts should be leveraged to apply human-centered design methods to evolve and iterate on core processes across the system. Innovation initiatives should be driven by public/private partnerships that would allow the system to leverage private investments to test promising practices and demonstrate the need for public funding to scale those innovations.

2. Establish a board that is representative of key stakeholders and has the technical expertise necessary to drive decision-making

As a regional authority that is responsible for a large geography and a full spectrum of consolidated functions, it is critical for the board of the entity to be representative of key local stakeholders who, together, have the technical expertise, decision-making authority, and resource control necessary to execute quickly. Expeditious decision-making requires the board to be as small as possible while maintaining fidelity to stakeholder representation.

In forming the Board, the community should consider representation from the following entities: the Office of the Mayor of Seattle, the Office of the King County Executive, the King County Council, the Seattle City Council, Sound Cities Association, the Continuum of Care, a health care provider, a representative of the Public Housing Authorities, the philanthropic community, and the business community.

Board composition should also include a meaningful number of customers of the homeless service system. In their role on the board, customers should not be tokenized. At a minimum, one-quarter of the board seats should be reserved for customers. The regional authority should engage technical assistance providers to support all members of the Board to ensure a shared understanding of roles, responsibilities, effective operating procedures, and to ensure that all members of the Board are well-positioned to participate as decision-makers. While the list above provides initial thoughts on who to include the most important question should be: who has the expertise necessary to accomplish the task at hand?

Additionally, it is critical the board be kept to a small number. In our work across the region, we found processes regarding homelessness consistently lacked agility and responsiveness to rapidly changing conditions due to cumbersome multi-stakeholder approval processes. For a new regional authority to be effective, its Executive Director must be able to reach decisions, get approvals or necessary input, and move forward to implementation quickly.

3. Redesign Continuum of Care (CoC) governance bodies to align with the consolidated homeless services system.

The Continuum of Care (CoC) is a group of homeless assistance stakeholders, represented by a CoC Board, that is responsible for meeting the US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) program requirements and for ensuring that the funding it controls is allocated and used in the most effective way possible. The CoC controls approximately one quarter of the public homeless funding in the King County region, which it receives through an annual grant competition administered by HUD. Currently, All Home carries out most of the operating functions of the CoC.

By regulation, the CoC is responsible for specific local activities, including implementation and operation of HMIS and Coordinated Entry as well as developing written standards for the operation of programs that receive funding to serve people experiencing homelessness.

Through discussions with CoC Board members and stakeholders it is clear that the CoC—as it is currently operating—lacks substantive connection to the broader systems working to make homelessness rare, brief and one-time in King County. This isolation creates challenges in making adequately-informed decisions that are best for the community as a whole, and it perpetuates fragmentation. It also presents challenges for the implementation of system-wide practices to promote racial equity—one of the stated values of the CoC Board.

CoC leaders and homeless service system stakeholders have begun to redesign their governance processes in close collaboration with this initiative, in partnership with CSH. Overarching recommendations from that process include the following:

  • The staff functions currently carried out by All Home should be absorbed into a new consolidated authority.
  • The CoC Board should be re-formed and take on an additional advisory role to the board of the new consolidated authority, as detailed in the proposed operational flow. A new governance charter should be created to specify roles within the new structure and ensure compliance with federal requirements.
  • The board of the new consolidated authority should include CoC leadership in order to represent and operationalize the integration of CoC resources and governance into the new structure.
  • Current committees/workgroups should be evaluated and re-formed to address system-level -rather than CoC-specific - community priorities and needs while also meeting federal requirements.

The desired end result would be a strong connection between the funding and policy priorities of the federally-required CoC and broader regional efforts on homelessness.

In order to complete the CoC governance redesign process, the CoC will review case studies on other city/county CoCs to identify promising practices, and will work to answer specific operational questions.