Photo of a homeless individual's belongings of food and cardboard in front of the steps of the U.S. District Court in Seattle.

OPINION: Don’t Be Fooled by ‘Compassion’ Seattle

by Tiffani McCoy and Jacob Schear

Throughout June, many Seattle voters have likely come into contact with paid signature gatherers wearing badges with purple and magenta rainbows stationed outside of grocery stores, farmers markets, and restaurants. They will ask you to sign their petition to “solve the homelessness crisis.”

These paid signature gatherers are working to get the “Compassion Seattle” charter amendment on the November ballot. If Compassion Seattle passes, this amendment would be added to our city’s charter.

The City charter is Seattle’s foundational governing document, meaning that City government is mandated to comply with it. Compassion Seattle (hereafter “CS”) is a group made up of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce, the Downtown Seattle Association, real estate firms like Weyerhaeuser and Clise Properties, Vulcan, Mariners owner Christopher Larson, and anti-panhandling advocate Tim Burgess and seeks to amend the City charter to address homelessness on their terms, forcing the City to respond to homelessness in ways that meet their corporate interests. While CS has deceptively co-opted the language of social justice and “compassion” for those living unsheltered in our city, their charter amendment would in fact be incredibly harmful for our neighbors experiencing homelessness and could have long-lasting, deeply damaging implications for Seattle’s ability to respond to its housing and homelessness crisis. 

Sweeps Are Not Compassion

While CS bills itself as a bold, new solution to ending homelessness, the proposed charter amendment would enshrine encampment sweeps — the most shameful, damaging, and ineffective practice our City currently employs to respond to homelessness — into the city charter, mandating that the City continue this practice for years to come. Sweeps are brazenly cruel; they displace and traumatize our neighbors living outdoors who are struggling to create stability and find a safe place to live. People lose the tents and structures they rely on for protection from the elements, as well as their belongings, including life sustaining medication, legal documents, and other means of survival.

As thousands of sweeps have been carried out by the City over the past several years, homelessness has only continued to increase. Sweeps do nothing to address root causes of homelessness and only exacerbate suffering and trauma. By advocating for a pro-sweeps approach to homelessness, CS has made it clear they are only concerned with moving homelessness out of sight. 

People are not trash to be swept, and we unequivocally stand against CS’s proposal to incorporate this inhumane practice in our City’s charter. 

2,000 Shelter Beds Are Not Enough 

CS attempts to justify their desire to sweep people from their homes by offering incomplete, piecemeal housing solutions. As the charter language states: “It 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.” Yet CS would only mandate the City “make available” up to 2,000 vaguely defined “units of emergency or permanent housing,” built over the course of two years.

With close to 4,000 people officially recorded as experiencing homelessness in Seattle , the math simply does not add up: 2,000 units does not comprehensively address our crisis and will not somehow magically end the need for people to seek shelter in our parks and on our sidewalks. Furthermore, given the short two-year time frame that CS is proposing to build this housing within, it is extremely likely that the majority of this housing would be emergency shelter — not the permanent, deeply affordable and social housing that research consistently shows is the true solution to bringing and keeping people indoors and that takes time to build. Forcing those living outdoors to accept emergency shelter in order to not be swept is not a solution to our homelessness crisis and cannot be used as justification for the unilateral ability of the City to sweep those who do not accept shelter.

Our neighbors living outdoors need housing and services that take into account their specific needs and situations, not coercive one-size-fits-all emergency shelter offered under the threat of being swept.

We Need Funding, Not Austerity

Not only are the housing solutions CS proposes insufficient to meet the scale of our crisis, the mandate to build the housing and fund the services CS proposes would be carried out without a dedicated funding source. While CS technically calls for a 1% increase in the human services budget from the City’s general fund, the vast majority of the funding for this plan would be taken from the existing human services budget. Without a new revenue source, the City would then be forced to divert funds away from existing social and human services that low-income and unhoused people rely upon including health services, food security programs, and utility assistance in order to comply with the charter amendment. 

Tellingly, the Chamber of Commerce — one of the primary architects of this charter amendment — recently filed an unsuccessful legal challenge against the Jumpstart tax, which the Seattle City Council passed in 2020 to tax large corporations to build deeply affordable housing. The corporate interests aligning behind CS do not want to spend their own money to help solve this crisis and are fighting tooth and nail to abdicate themselves of any responsibility. We need new, sustainable, progressive revenue, not austerity and budget cuts that come at the expense of the unhoused and low-income folks CS claims to want to help.

We Need to Address Root Causes of Homelessness, Not Symptoms

CS chooses to focus on behavioral health, mental illness, and substance abuse as the main drivers of homelessness — a framing that shifts the blame for our homelessness crisis away from root causes and on to the personal behavior of those experiencing homelessness. People are homeless because of the lack of affordable housing, gentrification, historic disinvestment in Communities of Color, racist housing discrimination, and a gutted social safety net, among many other interconnected structural causes. Yet CS prioritizes mental health and substance abuse support services over creating housing — in fact, it is only “in combination” with these services that the incomplete housing solutions CS proposes are mentioned. 

We need a housing-first approach. We know that the danger and trauma of being homeless leads to and compounds mental health issues. It is unrealistic and foolish to expect the tenacious problems of behavioral health, mental illness, and substance abuse to diminish without offering permanent housing solutions which create safety and security. Addressing homelessness must begin by bringing people inside, not by focusing on the symptoms our neighbors largely experience as a result of being homeless.

Logo of the House Our Neighbors! coalition, comprising currently homeless folks, residents who have experienced homelessness, and advocates dedicated to ending the homelessness crisis in Seattle.

House Our Neighbors!

Real Change is a proud member of the House Our Neighbors! coalition comprised of currently homeless folks, residents who have experienced homelessness, and advocates dedicated to ending the homelessness crisis in Seattle who are organizing to challenge the deceptive misinformation campaign of Compassion Seattle. The members of our coalition have years of experience pushing for structural solutions to address homelessness in Seattle, including affordable and social housing, tiny house villages, rent control, RV safelots, eviction protection, and so much more. We recognize the Compassion Seattle charter amendment as a dangerous step backward for our city’s homelessness response. We call on Seattle voters to reject Compassion Seattle’s deceptive charter amendment, and join us in fighting for real solutions to our crisis.

Tiffani McCoy and Jacob Schear are writing on behalf of Real Change Advocacy.

📸 Featured image is attributed to Mitchell Haindfield (under a Creative Commons, CC BY 2.0 license).

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