Photo of tiny houses in Seattle

Homeless Advocates Challenge ‘Compassion Seattle’ Initiative

by Erica C. Barnett

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


Advocates for people experiencing homelessness challenged the ballot title for the “Compassion Seattle” initiative in King County Superior Court on Thursday, arguing that the short description of the proposal — which is what City of Seattle voters would see on their ballots in November — is inaccurate and “prejudicial” because it implies that the measure would guarantee new funding for housing and homeless services when it does not, among other reasons.

The petition, filed by Real Change, the Transit Riders Union, Nickelsville, and Be:Seattle, makes several key points. First, the groups argue that the ballot language — which says the measure would require the City to “dedicate minimum 12% of the annual general fund revenue to homelessness and human services” — inaccurately implies an increase in funding for homelessness, when in fact the 12% percent would go to human services in general, which currently make up about 11% of the city’s general-fund budget.

“Requiring twelve percent of the general fund to be placed in [a new] ‘Human Services Fund may not add any funding to homelessness services,” the petition says.

Second, they argue that language saying the charter amendment “concerns actions to address homelessness and keep areas clear of encampments” is misleading because it implies that the initiative will keep the City clear of encampments, when the measure actually says the city will balance homeless residents’ interests against the City’s interest in having encampment-free parks and public spaces.

“To put [encampment removals] in the statement of subject, which is those first ten words [of the ballot title], is inflammatory, which is prejudicial,” said Knoll Lowney, the attorney for the advocates.

Compassion Seattle has consistently argued that the initiative, which began as a sweeps-focused measure that evolved to include aspirational language about ensuring that people have access to shelter or housing, does not require sweeps. By taking proponents at their word — that is, by conceding their point that the proposal is actually designed to house people so no one will need to live in public — advocates are essentially arguing that the proponents of the initiative are relying on prejudice against homeless people to sell the measure.

The advocates also argue that the ballot title is misleading in another way: Rather than requiring “action” as the short description implies, its primary impact would be imposing new policies and performance standards on programs, which could end up having a bigger impact than aspirational language about encampments or vague funding promises. For example, the proposed amendment says it would make it official City “policy to make available emergency and permanent housing to those living unsheltered.”

Reading the ballot summary, Lowney said, “You wouldn’t think that the majority of the text is about [new] policy. We don’t know going forward how these policies will be enforced, but they will be policies that are superior to anything that the city council or mayor can do [because] it’s in the constitution of the City of Seattle.”

The policies may be aspirational at this point, Lowney added, but they could have a major impact, especially if someone decides to challenge the City for failing to fulfill their promise; “Take a look at a similar policy in our state constitution, which says it’s our ‘paramount duty’ to provide K-12 education — well, that became pretty important,” Lowney said. In a case known as McCleary v. Washington, the State Supreme Court found that the state had failed to meet its duty to fully fund public education, eventually forcing state legislators to pour billions into the state’s K-12 education system.

Finally, the petition argues that the ballot language promises several things the charter amendment doesn’t actually deliver, including funding for addiction treatment and behavioral health services, public spaces that are “open and clear of encampments,” and funding for “services to improve the lives of all residents of the City.” The promise of 2,000 new “housing” units, as we’ve noted previously, is especially misleading; as the petition points out, “the term ‘housing units’ suggests permanent housing” when in reality, “these units may be hotel/motel rooms, tiny houses, or shelter beds.”

Lowney says that even proponents of the measure seem to understand that there’s no way the city is going to build 2,000 new permanent housing units in a year. “It provides no time to do it and no money to do it and no enforcement mechanism to ensure it gets done,” he said. Nonetheless, the ballot language implies that the initiative would not only require a huge new investment in housing, but fund it.

After hearing from both sides, the court can either reject the ballot challenge, accept alternative language from the advocates, or come up with compromise language. The deadline to finalize the ballot language is August 3, the date of the primary election. If proponents gather enough valid signatures from Seattle voters — around 33,000 — the measure will go on the general-election ballot in November.


Erica C. Barnett has covered local politics for more than two decades. You can read her latest at PubliCola.com.

Featured Image: Seattle Tiny Village for those without shelter. Photo courtesy of Seattle City Council via Flickr under a Creative Commons CC BY SA 2.0 license

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