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Report: Data Was the Missing Piece of Costly Homeless Program

A recent report argued there was a need for greater data transparency to effectively measure the impact of a King County, Wash., program aimed at helping people experiencing homelessness gain access to housing.

Several tents set up in Seattle's Pioneer Square in July 2021.
Several tents set up in Seattle's Pioneer Square in July 2021.
An effort aimed at reducing homelessness in the Seattle area has come under fire, with one independent report suggesting that a lack of data caused the program’s “expensive failure.”

The Partnership for Zero (PfZ) program began in February 2022 as an effort to connect homeless individuals with housing and resources through a unified "housing command center." This work was overseen by the King County Regional Homelessness Authority (KCRHA) as a pilot program with support from the Lived Experience Coalition, the city of Seattle, King County, and a partnership with regional business and philanthropic organizations.

The program wound down in September 2023, and KCRHA underlined program accomplishments including improved data management, the resolution of six long-standing encampments and getting 231 people housed.

In a blog post, KCRHA said that the program is “an example of the collaboration necessary to our path forward in addressing unsheltered homelessness.”

And while the blog underlined that the pilot helped develop better data management to be integrated into KCRHA’s work, a recent study from the Fix Homelessness program of Discovery Institute argues that the data reveals funding was used ineffectively.

Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell said in a September 2023 statement that the pilot had “a disappointing end result.”

According to the study announcement, the $10 million program spent between $20,000-$26,000 for each person housed, noting that two private organizations with similar approaches were able to house between two and six times as many people for less money.

Caitlyn Axe, the Fix Homelessness program coordinator at Discovery Institute, told Government Technology in an email that the study was initiated to explore the claim of Marc Dones, KCRHA’s former CEO, that the program could reduce the number of people experiencing homelessness in downtown Seattle to 30 people in one year. The goal of the study was to understand how the millions in public and private funding were being used and if the outcomes met targets.

The report lays out data obtained via public records request and direct communication with KCRHA.

KCRHA distributed contracts totaling over $107 million to 56 nonprofit organizations in 2022. Of the top 18 organizations receiving funding, only 10 provided data on the number of people they housed, the report states.

The amount of funding given to private nonprofits, many of which are not providing public data, was surprising to Axe. She underlined the need for quality data and data transparency to effectively fund nonprofits in a way that positively impacts the community. More specifically, she said these organizations should provide data including the number of people it helped move into permanent housing and the funding used to do so.

“Nonprofits that receive funding from the government should absolutely provide data to the public on how it is being spent — those are public dollars!” Axe said.

As a KCRHA spokesperson told Government Technology in an email, nonprofit organizations do not always have sufficient staff for deep data capacity, adding that the agency has specific performance metrics that are used to measure impact. It was also noted that nonprofits go through a regular contract compliance monitoring process.

Finally, the spokesperson noted that KCRHA is working with local tech partners to upgrade platforms, implement updated data standards, and ensure data quality — “all of which requires resources.”

The blog details that although PfZ was an opportunity to implement a new approach to tackle homelessness, due to limited resources and urgent need, KCRHA must focus on its core functions: contracts, system administration, implementing its five-year plan, and supporting provider partners across the county.

It also underlines that lessons learned through the program will inform future work for KCRHA. The pilot helped develop infrastructure and knowledge that can be used across the homeless response system, emergency management protocol and a better data management approach.
Julia Edinger is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Toledo and has since worked in publishing and media. She's currently located in Southern California.