Exterior of motel-presenting building with a sign that reads "Kings Inn."

Group Seeks Amendment to Charter Requiring Homeless Services and Clearing of Parks

by Ashley Archibald

A coalition of nonprofits, business organizations, and community leaders calling itself Compassion Seattle filed a charter amendment initiative Thursday, April 1, that they say would improve the existing response to homelessness in the City of Seattle. However, the measure does not specify the sources of funding for the ambitious package of housing and services it would offer. The measure will require a little over 33,000 signatures from Seattle voters to qualify for inclusion on the November ballot.

The amendment — which in its early stages was first reported on by Erica C. Barnett at PubliCola — would amend the City Charter, the foundational document of a city analogous to the U.S. Constitution at the federal level. The charter spells out the powers, functions, organization, and “essential procedures” of a city, according to the National League of Cities.

The heads of 11 organizations in Seattle’s business and nonprofit communities announced their  support of the measure, praising it as a valuable framework for addressing homelessness in the city.

“The root causes of homelessness are complex and many stem from deep systemic, social inequalities. The solutions must be collaborative, comprehensive and empathetic to better support our unsheltered neighbors. This amendment provides a pathway for our community partners to come together and bring about real change,” said Angela Dunleavy, CEO at FareStart.

Some homeless service providers, however, were wary of the measure because former Interim Mayor Tim Burgess, a supporter of the city’s controversial Navigation Team, discussed the precursor to the amendment at a meeting of the Queen Anne Community Council in March.  Critics are concerned that it would require mandatory mental health services for people living outside and the return of the Navigation Team, which the Seattle City Council ended in October 2020.

The language in the amendment does neither and generally enshrines in the charter activities that are already happening in Seattle, said Tiffani McCoy, advocacy director for Real Change. The timing of running an initiative in conjunction with mayoral and City Council elections is suspect, however.

“The initiative is as much about influencing the mayoral and citywide races as it is the initiative itself,” McCoy said, calling it a “wedge issue.”

She says the charter amendment also provides an opportunity.

“I look forward to bolstering this proposal with concrete policy options such as increased safe lots for vehicles, purchasing more hotels, opening more tiny-house villages, building more permanent supportive housing,” McCoy said. “Overall, it seems like we’re going to need to increase some progressive revenue that we’re going to pay for all of these things.”

The need for additional revenue is a point of debate even among those that fully support the amendment.

The amendment’s text would commit the City to fund 2,000 units of permanent or emergency housing within a year of passage, mental health services that are easy to access, and outreach teams. It aims to fund programs that divert people from the criminal justice system for crimes connected to a “lack of housing, income stability, or behavioral health issue.”

Seattle funds these types of programs already, spending roughly $150 million on homelessness services in 2020, a figure that included additional spending for coronavirus relief.

Funding is a conversation that may come later, said Lisa Daugaard, a supporter of the amendment, director of the Public Defender Association, and one of the architects of the city’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program. Daugaard won a MacArthur Genius Award for her work on LEAD, which sends social workers out into the field to meet with clients one-on-one and connect them to needed support.

“We have to cross this threshold of efficacy,” Daugaard said. “If that can be done within existing revenue, some people would be excited about that. If that requires additional revenue, other people would be glad to make that point.”

Jon Scholes, president and CEO of the Downtown Seattle Association (DSA), supports the amendment but believes that the City shouldn’t tax businesses more if it passes. Instead, the organization thinks that the City should prioritize existing dollars in addition to federal money and philanthropic funds, specifically around behavioral health and prevention.

“We’re not suggesting the City is off course, necessarily, on the record investments being made in permanent supportive housing or, of course, in standing up and formalizing the Regional Homelessness Authority. All of those things need to proceed,” Scholes said. “We just believe there’s not a level of urgency around treatment and other associated behavioral health services and crisis response that is called for.”

While services exist, they aren’t at the scale necessary to help people in need, leading to police interactions and involvement of the criminal justice system instead of proactive outreach and behavioral health services, Scholes said.

The inclusion of outreach teams was a key point in their support of the amendment for Daugaard and other service providers, she said. Behavioral health “treatment” is generally reimbursed by Medicaid, which means the City doesn’t need to pay for that, although they can be difficult for chronically homeless people to access.

However, some “services” — including outreach teams, care-and-support teams, and supports for people in emergency housing, which is also included in the amendment language — are not reimbursed through Medicaid. But they do meet people where they are rather than creating barriers between clients and care, and will require funding from sources other than Medicaid. 

Most controversially, the amendment also includes provisions for the City to remove people from public spaces such as parks and sidewalks “as emergency and permanent housing become available.” It says the City may require people to “shift” their belongings to clear those spaces, but does not elaborate on which agency would be performing this work.

In Seattle, though sweeps to clear parks and other public areas of encampments do periodically occur, the City has significantly scaled back removal of encampments during the coronavirus pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended early in the crisis that governments should allow people in encampments to stay where they were, acknowledging the danger of breaking connections with service providers.

The campaign has a long way to go before it appears on the ballot. 

Organizers will need at least 33,060 signatures from registered Seattle voters, although most campaigns aim higher in case some signatures are rejected by election officials. Petitions will begin circulating in April, and signature collection will end in early June, according to Compassion Seattle.

Ashley Archibald is the editor of Real Change News and a freelance journalist with previous work in the Santa Monica Daily Press and the Union Democrat. Her work focuses on policy and economic development, and you can find it in the South Seattle Emerald, KNKX, and the Urbanist.

Featured Image: King’s Inn, a former hotel converted to a 66-room shelter  serving unhoused American Indian and Alaskan Native people and operated by the City of Seattle and Chief Seattle Club. The city’s approach to the homeless crisis may change if an amendment to the City Charter, which would mandate homeless services and require clearing of encampments form parks, gathers enough signatures to get on the November ballot. (Photo: Alex Garland)

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