Photo through a chain-link gate of a homeless tent under an overpass.

Compassion Seattle Amendment Faces Scrutiny From Democratic Group and Homeless Advocates

by Chetanya Robinson

During a June 16 town hall discussion organized by the 43rd District Democrats concerning Compassion Seattle’s proposed charter amendment on homelessness, critics who have personally experienced homelessness decried the details and general approach of the proposal. 

As the South Seattle Emerald previously reported, if Compassion Seattle’s amendment passes in November, it would force the City of Seattle to carve a new approach to homelessness directly into its charter. Compassion Seattle is a coalition of nonprofit, business, and community leaders. 

Under Compassion Seattle’s proposed amendment, the City would be required to spend a minimum of 12% of its general fund on human services and would have to offer shelter, housing, and behavioral health services for homeless people, including making available 2,000 new units of emergency shelter or permanent housing within a year.

The amendment also requires the City to “take actions to ensure that City parks, playgrounds, sports fields, public spaces and sidewalks and streets remain open and clear of encampments as the programs and services defined by the amendment are made available.”

Under the amendment, the City can break up encampments “that create problems related to public health or safety or interferes with the use of the public spaces by others.” In doing so, however, the City should not just disperse people to other areas outdoors, and should “avoid any possible harm to individuals caused by closing encampments,” according to the amendment’s language.

In order to get on the November ballot, the campaign is seeking the signatures of 33,060 registered voters in Seattle. 

In the first half of the discussion, Jon Scholes, president and CEO of the Downtown Seattle Association and supporter of the amendment, fielded questions about the proposal from Jessi Murray of the 43rd District Democrats and from the audience, including people with experience being homeless. 

Briefly introducing the proposal, Scholes said it would build on the tactics of the JustCARE program, which has relocated people living outside, many in Pioneer Square and the Chinatown-International District, mostly into hotel rooms since summer 2020. Unlike previous approaches, like the Navigation Team, this approach doesn’t disperse people around the city and doesn’t require police. “This is the effort and the approach that this charter amendment seeks to scale,” Scholes said.

The reason Compassion Seattle is seeking an amendment to the City charter, rather than an initiative, is that an initiative could be modified by City Council, while a charter amendment cannot, said Scholes. “Bickering” at City Hall has stymied action on homelessness for too long, he said. 

When Murray asked Scholes about concerns regarding Compassion Seattle from people who have experienced homelessness, Scholes said the campaign hadn’t heard concerns from this group and that it had consulted dozens of organizations, including people with lived experience.

While requiring certain actions from the City, the amendment does not include a funding mechanism. Murray raised the concern that without a funding plan to accomplish its goals, the amendment does not provide positive rights to people living outdoors, such as a right to housing. Instead, it’s framed as a methodology for how people can be cleared out of parks.

Scholes said that because the amendment requires the City to provide treatment services and build housing, “in every sense of the word, this is a mandate.” 

When Murray noted that the Downtown Seattle Association and others have opposed new business taxes like the JumpStart Seattle tax, Scholes said Seattle should prioritize spending hundreds of millions in relief funds from the Biden administration on homelessness. “I don’t think we should tell the people that are suffering the most that they get the last dollar, that they have to wait in the parks and sleep out there until we raise the next tax,” he said.

Scholes defended the amendment’s language allowing encampment removals in certain circumstances, saying it would force the City to provide appropriate housing and services, like permanent and temporary housing, and a shift away from placing people in overnight shelters without offering further treatment, which is not an acceptable option for many people.

The amendment requires the City make available at least 2,000 units of housing or shelter within a year, without specifying a ratio of shelter to housing. This is because “we wanted to allow for flexibility for the City in how they implemented that goal, recognizing that it’s unlikely that they’re going to go build brand new housing within this next year to meet the requirements,” Scholes said. But the City could acquire existing buildings to meet this goal, he said. 

Audience members who have experienced homelessness asked Scholes about encampment removals, saying they are harmful for people who experience them. Amy Madden, who serves on the board of the 43rd District Democrats and experienced homelessness as a child, said that her family stayed in tents, which allowed her mother to save for the family to get stable housing. If they had been “swept” in an encampment removal, “it would have made our situation significantly worse,” she said.

Scholes said it’s important to balance the interests of all Seattleites when it comes to encampments that block sidewalks, public spaces and transit access. He stressed that the amendment is not primarily about sweeps. “The real intent of this amendment is to bring people inside. Not to move them around.”

Scholes added that the amendment doesn’t prevent Seattle from building more housing, including micro apartments. He said that future plans to add more housing and end land use restrictions would help make more housing affordable.

Responding to a question from an audience member about whether Compassion Seattle supports a tax on businesses, Scholes said “the business community is paying more taxes today than ever before in the City of Seattle,” and the City should spend revenue from the federal government on human services and bringing people indoors.

In the second half of the town hall, Dee Powers, board president of Be:Seattle, spoke against Compassion Seattle’s amendment. Be:Seattle is a nonprofit focused on empowering renters and people experiencing homelessness to increase access to affordable housing. Be:Seattle, along with Real Change News, Transit Riders Union, and Nickelsville filed a legal challenge against Compassion Seattle in May, arguing that the language that would appear on the ballot describing the amendment implied it would raise new funding for homelessness and was therefore inaccurate. 

Powers lives in an RV after they were priced out of their downtown apartment in 2015.

“We can’t be fooled by Compassion Seattle’s flowery language,” Powers said. “Yes, we need a solution, but this ain’t it.”

Powers said that the amendment wouldn’t do enough for the working poor, or people who are homeless and live in vehicles or in other precarious situations. The proposed amendment doesn’t reference vehicle residents at all.

“Their advertising is really about, ‘Hey let’s clean up the parks and put these people that are highly visible in these 2,000 units,’” they said. “I will end up still out here once those 2,000 units are full.” 

Powers also criticized the amendment for its lack of funding mechanism. The federal government’s money won’t be enough to pay for needed permanent affordable and supportive housing, they said. “We can’t pretend that we don’t need more money for this.”

The City needs RV parks with wraparound services, thousands more deeply affordable permanent housing units, and units affordable for the working poor to truly address the homelessness crisis, Powers noted. 

Powers urged people to reject the amendment. If it does pass, people should push Seattle and King County to expand the services Compassion Seattle would provide, and demand the City stop sweeps, they said.

Those interested have until Friday, June 25, to sign the Compassion Seattle amendment. It will need 33,060 signatures to get on the November ballot. Those who want to remove their signature from the initiative can follow instructions here from the Secretary of State.

Chetanya Robinson is a freelance journalist and interim editor-in-chief at the International Examiner. He enjoys reporting on the rich variety of life in Seattle, including the hyper-local stories of individual communities and neighborhoods. His work has also appeared in Real Change News, Crosscut, Seattle Weekly, and more. Find him on Twitter at @chetanyarobins.

📸 Featured Image: Attributed to David Lee (under a Creative Commons, CC BY 2.0 license).

Before you move on to the next story …
Please consider that the article you just read was made possible by the generous financial support of donors and sponsors. The Emerald is a BIPOC-led nonprofit news outlet with the mission of offering a wider lens of our region’s most diverse, least affluent, and woefully under-reported communities. Please consider making a one-time gift or, better yet, joining our Rainmaker Family by becoming a monthly donor. Your support will help provide fair pay for our journalists and enable them to continue writing the important stories that offer relevant news, information, and analysis. Support the Emerald!