Protest sign raised in front of night sky and traffic lights that reads "Stop the Sweeps."

Lived Experience Coalition Says No One Asked Them About Homelessness Initiative

by Erica C. Barnett

(This article originally appeared on PubliCola and has been reprinted under an  agreement.)

Proponents of a proposed amendment to the Seattle City Charter that would mandate (but not fund) spending on shelter and enshrine encampment sweeps in the city’s constitution have argued repeatedly that the proposal isn’t about sweeps.

In fact, business leaders and homeless service providers who are supporting the initiative argue the proposal — the brainchild of former Seattle City Councilmember Tim Burgess — is designed to spur the City to finally prioritize a crisis that has been growing for more than a decade by forcing local leaders to spend money on shelter and housing until the problem is solved.

And the plan has some backing from institutional players outside the business community, including housing and shelter providers. Downtown Emergency Center Director Daniel Malone, for example, told PubliCola he thinks the initiative is “a step in the right direction because it acknowledges people need care and support, which seems to be in contrast the view espoused by some that people living outside should be treated punitively.”

But drafts of the measure show that from its inception to the latest incarnation, the plan has been centered on removing encampments, not ensuring that unsheltered people have permanent, stable places to go. (A new version of the measure includes a relatively minor but somewhat perplexing change: The constitutional amendment would sunset at the end of 2027, suggesting perhaps that homelessness will be solved by then.)

PubliCola has reviewed multiple early, unpublished drafts of the measure. They heavily emphasized encampment removals and gave no information about where funding for new shelter or housing would come from. And even the latest version provides no new funding to pay for the thousands of shelter beds it would require, prompting some Seattle leaders, including Seattle City Council President Lorena González, to call the measure an “unfunded mandate.”

Additionally, advocates for people experiencing homelessness, as opposed to providers who arguably stand to benefit from additional city funding for their programs, say they were not consulted on the measure at any point and have major misgivings about how the proposal will work in practice.

Tiffani McCoy, the lead organizer for Real Change, told PubliCola it’s “obvious” that the charter amendment — first proposed by former City Councilmember Tim Burgess, who has a history of trying to influence local elections — “is politically motivated to influence the [mayoral] election. That’s why it’s happening right now, and if [advocacy] groups don’t respond to this in a coherent fashion, they’re going to dominate the narrative.”

Although the charter amendment would require the City to create 2,000 new “emergency or permanent housing” beds in 2022, it provides no additional funds to do so, instead mandating that the City spend a minimum of 12% of its general fund budget on human services. “It’s being rolled out as the holy grail, and it’s just not,” McCoy said. “There’s no way we can do this without more funding.”

Members of the Lived Experience Coalition (LEC), a group of homeless and formerly homeless people who advise the King County Regional Homelessness Authority and are represented on its governing board, told PubliCola that no one from the campaign has ever reached out to them for input or feedback or responded to their requests to weigh in on the proposal. Had they been asked, they say, they would have told Compassion Seattle that homeless people need housing, not vague commitments that will be tough to fulfill without funding.

“They’ve definitely spoken to the business community, but not to those with lived experience or people on the ground when they came up with this ‘solution,’” LEC member Zaneta Reid said. LEC member LaMont Green added, “If you want substantive expertise, if you want to solve this problem, the most obvious experts are not being asked to come to the table.”

“If you look at this from the 10,000-foot view, what you see here is a group of people that have a lot of money and they think that because they have a lot of money and because they’re successful they can fix this homelessness issue — they can fix us,” said LEC member Kirk McClain, “even though they have absolutely no experience successfully doing this in the past. … They didn’t consult with us, and I believe they did it on purpose. Why consult the people you don’t agree with?”

LEC members said they don’t support the initiative because it focuses too much on removing encampments and not enough on actually funding and building the housing that would enable people to move inside. Harold Odom, another LEC member who currently lives in a tiny house village, called the charter amendment “an insult, because it says ‘as emergency and permanent housing are available,’” the City must keep public spaces “open and clear.”

“We know there’s not enough permanent housing, and we know there’s not enough emergency housing,” Odom said. “There are many things that need to be done on several fronts. But you don’t know this when you don’t ask people on the street.”

Drafts of the amendment and campaign finance reports show that the campaign was taking advice instead from Seattle political consultant Tim Ceis, whose recent clients include Burgess’s left-baiting People for Seattle PAC (which attempted to smear council candidates by literally equating them with “extremist Kshama Sawant”), perpetually “concerned” former Burgess council aide Alex Pedersen, “Seattle Is Dying” star Scott Lindsay, and CASE, the political arm of the Seattle Chamber.

The early drafts focused heavily on sweeps over services and were filled with vague, noncommittal language about the need for housing, shelter, and services. For example, one early version said that “the Department of Human Services shall develop, publish, and implement a plan to provide services to individuals experiencing homelessness” without defining the cost of or a funding source for this theoretical “plan.”

Meanwhile, early versions of the amendment were specific and dramatic about the need for punitive measures against people living outdoors. One early draft specified that “encampments in public spaces that pose a public health or safety risk may be immediately removed” and added that any plan to provide services to people living unsheltered “shall require the cleaning and removal of unauthorized encampments in public spaces as these services are available,” whether or not people living in encampments want or accept the services that are on offer. This is a longstanding issue with sweeps — one that came up just this week, when the City removed an encampment at Miller Park on Capitol Hill.

Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office sent a statement to reporters Wednesday emphasizing that “the city had multiple openings” at three enhanced shelters, but that many people had refused these offers — a fact that should surprise no one at this point in the pandemic, when it’s clear that people strongly prefer individual rooms to mass shelter, including “enhanced” 24/7 shelters.

A subsequent draft got even more specific, stipulating (in a since-deleted section) that even if there are no services, shelter, or housing available,

“individuals may be asked to shift their belongings and any structures to address accessibility issues, to accommodate others’ use of public space, and to relocate from private property. Encampments in public spaces that pose a particular public health or safety risk, beyond that inherent in individuals living in public in informal housing, may be promptly closed down even if not all individuals can be placed in safe and secure lodging, consistent with constitutional law limitations on notice and seizure of property.” [Emphasis added]

Early drafts also suggested that people who commit low-level nonviolent crimes be diverted into “treatment programs”  as an alternative to jail — an approach that is neither specific to homelessness nor evidence-based — and would have required all unsheltered people to have “written service plans” designed to set up goals and accountability checkpoints to get them on the path to stable housing. Treatment is not a substitute for housing (nor is forced treatment generally effective), and mandatory service plans do not substitute for affordable housing and can be intrusive and paternalistic.

Subsequent drafts removed the sections about treatment and accountability plans and softened the sweeps language to the point of un-parsability. (The most recent version says, somewhat bewilderingly, that “[i]t is the City’s policy to make available emergency and permanent housing to those living unsheltered so that the City may take actions to ensure that parks, playgrounds, sports fields, public spaces and sidewalks and streets (‘public spaces’) remain open and clear of unauthorized encampments.”) But the commitment to keeping public places “open and clear of encampments” have remained consistent from version to version.

Nor have later drafts of the amendment specified how setting aside 12% of the general fund (about $180 million a year, split between homelessness and all other human services) would accomplish the lofty goals laid out in the more aspirational sections of the measure. There’s a big difference, legally speaking, between nonbinding statements that “it is city policy to” do something (say, “end chronic homelessness”) and binding statements that the City “shall” take specific action (for example, place 12% of its budget in a human services fund or “develop policies and procedures to address those individuals who remain in public spaces.”) “Shall” is a mandate; “it is city policy” is more like a suggestion.

Members of the LEC and other homeless advocates aren’t the only ones raising questions about the charter proposal. Councilmember Lorena González, who’s running for mayor, told PubliCola she still doesn’t understand whether the new spending mandate will be in addition to the City’s ongoing commitment to fund the King County Regional Homelessness Authority and whether committing to address homelessness at the city level represents an abdication of the regional approach.

“In concept, I agree with coming up with some sort of baseline to invest in homelessness, but it’s unclear to me whether the proponents of this charter amendment intend for that to be funneled to the regional homelessness authority or if it’s in addition to what we have committed to fund,” González said.

Breanne Schuster, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Washington, said the ACLU hasn’t taken a position on the amendment yet because it’s still unclear what its impact would be, and whether the unfunded spending mandate would require cutting other needed services, such as programs to address public safety outside the police department. However, Schuster said, the ACLU is against any proposal that criminalizes homelessness.

“We know that not only is criminalizing people who are homeless for camping or other life-sustaining conduct on public property ineffective, but it’s also unconstitutional,” Schuster said. “And we know — and everyone knows — that the only long-term, effective solution to homelessness is permanent housing. For far too long, we’ve overinvested in punishing poor people by sweeping their homes and taking their belongings, and in temporary efforts like shelter that don’t solve the root causes of homelessness.”

The 9th District Circuit Court ruled in Martin v. Boise that cities can’t ban sleeping in public spaces unless “sufficient” shelter is available, and the U.S. Supreme Court let the ruling stand. 

LEC also pointed out that the City has already committed to a regional approach to homelessness, and to funding and participating in the King County Regional Homelessness Authority. By establishing in the city charter that it’s the city’s responsibility to deal with homelessness, LEC member Johnathan Hemphill said, the amendment “undermines the regional authority and signals to other cities that they shouldn’t invest in this regional authority — we should do it city by city.”

Green suggested that instead of adopting another rule to ensure that homeless people don’t take up space in public places, the City should “flip the script” and adopt a homeless bill of rights. “Instead of this language that really lays a foundation for sweeps,” Green said, “we should say that shelter as a temporary measure is a human right for people experiencing homelessness.”

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article misquoted Downtown Emergency Center Director Daniel Malone. The article has been updated with the correct quote.

Erica C. Barnett is a feminist, an urbanist, and an obsessive observer of politics, transportation, and the quotidian inner workings of City Hall.

📸 Featured image is attributed to David Geitgey Sierralupe (under a Creative Commons 2.0 license).

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