The Lifeline promise

The ideal version of Lifeline WA looked something like this: Lifeline offered a “no-wrong-door access point” for case management, financial assistance and other support for youth who had gone through state systems, like foster care or juvenile detention. 

To request help, young people could call Lifeline or fill out a form on its website. Within 72 hours, Lifeline would help address their problem — the threat of eviction, a car repair — before it escalated into crisis. For anyone 18 to 25 years old, Lifeline could also provide “flex fund” cash support for short-term needs, such as a month or two of rent. Ultimately, Lifeline would prevent homelessness and foster independence. 

In reality, Lifeline turned out differently.

In December 2022, the Office of Homeless Youth selected SDMC, an Olympia lobbying firm that counted youth advocacy organizations among its clients, to build the pilot program and operate it. It granted the firm $672,500 for the first half of 2023, on a reimbursement basis. It soon renewed the contract with another $790,875 in funding through 2025. The firm had to pay its expenses up front, then invoice Commerce.

From the start, the program lagged, with delays in creating a phone line and updating its website to make services more accessible to young people. While tasked with serving youth across the state, Lifeline rolled out services centered in Spokane County alone, with promises to expand to other counties in the future. 

Martin acknowledged the slow pace, telling Cascade PBS, “Our approach to project launch was purposeful and deliberate.” He added, “We opted for a gradual start to proactively identify and address potential challenges.”

In one regard, however, SDMC moved quickly.

Shortly after signing its contract with Commerce, the firm sent Commerce monthly invoices that frequently exceeded $100,000. Those bills included tens of thousands of dollars per month earmarked for the needs of clients that Lifeline didn’t yet have. 

In March 2023, for instance, before Lifeline had a website or had helped a single person, the firm billed Commerce for $115,296. Of that, it requested $61,375 for “flexible funding” and “concrete goods” including “Bus passes, food, clothing vouchers etc.”

Records indicate Commerce signed off on these invoices despite its contract explicitly prohibiting “payments in advance or in anticipation of services or supplies to be provided.”

SDM Consulting’s initial Lifeline contract ended on June 30, 2023, and any unspent funds would expire along with it. By the end of June, SDMC had invoiced Commerce for every penny of the initial $672,500 grant, including $336,250 in flexible funds and gift cards. 

Martin, a former foster youth himself, told Cascade PBS last fall that he billed Commerce because he wanted to build up a nest egg of funding for Lifeline.

Martin called it “proactive efforts in financial planning,” telling Cascade PBS via email: “This foresight streamlined our processes and set the foundation for a post-launch phase that runs seamlessly.” Without this approach, he said, Lifeline would have lost the ability to support hundreds of young people.

At that point, Lifeline had likely helped just a handful of clients. The exact figure remains unclear, but receipts and spending records obtained through public records requests suggest that Lifeline had provided financial assistance to four people by the end of June. Commerce told Cascade PBS they could not provide documentation specifically showing how many people Lifeline had helped because SDMC had not submitted such records, despite a requirement to do so.

According to Martin, $226,250 went to a designated account in SDMC’s credit union, for flexible funding to cover future clients’ needs. He estimated the money could support 400 people if their requests averaged $500 each. 

Martin said he spent the remaining $100,000 at a gift-card company called Giftogram, under the firm’s name. 

But a representative from Giftogram told Cascade PBS via email this month that SDMC had “purchased a much smaller amount” than $100,000. The representative said they could not specify exactly how much, citing customer privacy.

Despite months of amassing hundreds of thousands of dollars to purportedly secure Lifeline’s financial future, SDMC started sending “intent to pay” notices – effectively IOUs – in the fall. Email records show Lifeline and SDMC employees referencing “intent to pay” practices as early as September. 

Martin began issuing these notices to vendors in lieu of large payments that he couldn’t immediately send, a former SDMC employee, who requested anonymity out of fear of retaliation, explained. If a client requested several thousand dollars in back rent to avoid eviction, for instance, Lifeline might first send the landlord an “intent to pay” instead of the payment itself. 

Elizabeth Whitman

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