A new coalition called Compassion Seattle, led by former short-term Mayor Tim Burgess, unveiled a charter amendment last week that carves into the city's constitution several policies designed to "end the homelessness crisis."
The amendment lays out broad goals for Seattle's response to homelessness, such as creating at least 2,000 units of emergency shelter or permanent supportive housing no later than one year after the measure's passage, funding behavioral health services, and creating a "behavioral health rapid-response" team.
Homelessness providers have called on the city to implement some of these polices for years. With a swift path toward more shelter and more services, the Chief Seattle Club, the Public Defender Association, Evergreen Treatment Services, United Way King County, and the Housing Development Consortium have already signaled their support of the amendment. They join backers like the Downtown Seattle Association, which already donated $15,000 to the cause.
But some other homelessness advocates aren't on board because of red flags they see in the language. The measure, for instance, mandates spending without naming a funding source, and one provision miiiight just codify encampment sweeps into the charter.
The amendment can only be passed via popular vote, so the coalition will need to gather around 30,000 signatures to place it on November's ballot. If voters pass the measure, the amendment will be permanently baked into Seattle's city charter unless it's changed by another citywide vote.
As PubliCola reported Monday, this would be the first-ever city charter amendment to mandate legislative policy. And these policies don't come cheap.
"We have studied this issue to death," said Tiffani McCoy, advocacy director at Real Change, as she rattled off Seattle's homelessness workgroups and studies, such as the McKinsey reports, which the firm delivered to the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce in 2018 and 2020.
Those studies concluded that affordable housing, permanent supportive housing, mental health facilities, and public hygiene services could ameliorate King County's homelessness crisis, but investing in all of that would cost the city and county $450 million to $1.1 billion annually for a decade—and that's in addition to current expenses, the consulting firm estimated.
"We know we have a major resource issue," McCoy said. "This charter amendment does nothing to address [it]."
To that effect, Burgess said the city council and the next mayor will decide how to fund the charter amendment.
"They have multiple choices," Burgess told The Stranger in an email. He said the mayor and the council could redirect existing revenues, or they could use "the new JumpStart tax revenue that will begin flowing next year if the tax survives the legal challenge."
The JumpStart tax on high earners' payrolls could bring in around $200 million annually. Funnily enough, Burgess spoke out against the JumpStart tax. He also works with the Chamber of Commerce, which is the sole plaintiff in the lawsuit against the tax.
McCoy said thinking of JumpStart revenues as sufficient to fund the amendment was a "bad faith argument."
Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who chairs the council's committee on homelessness strategies & investments, joked on Twitter that maybe this amendment will make "these guys drop their lawsuit" against JumpStart.
Burgess also cited "federal Covid relief money" and "new revenues the state legislature is currently debating" as other potential funding sources.
The only funding the amendment actually requires comes from Seattle's general fund, which totals up to about $1.6 billion. Under the amendment, Seattle would need to allocate 12% of that to a new "Human Services Fund." That's not exactly a short order. According to Lewis, "the only way to do that is to take from other city departments" and trim budgets that have already been thinned during COVID-19, except for the Parks and Recreation Department's budget, which the amendment specifically preserves to keep the parks clear of encampments.
"I’m sure the boosters of that initiative don’t want to hear this," Lewis told The Stranger, "but the only place you can get that money is the police department." Wait, did Burgess accidentally provide an argument for the defund movement?
Without new revenues, Dr. LaMont Green, the co-chair of the Lived Experience Coalition, doesn't think the amendment will be enough to help Seattle's "extremely large unsheltered population." A count in pre-COVID-19 2020 estimated 11,751 people experiencing homelessness in King County with roughly 2,000 people sleeping outside or in a tent (though that number in the last few years was around 3,000). Organizers canceled the annual count in 2021 during the pandemic.
Green was highly critical of the amendment because none of its drafters asked for input from people who had actually experienced homelessness. He feared the language was just a way to "criminalize homelessness."
"You know this is all setting the stage for aggressive encampment sweeping," Green said.
At the end of last year, the council cut funding for the city's Navigation Team, which swept encampments. Green said that the Compassion Seattle amendment was a way to sneak sweeps not only back into the city's homelessness response toolkit, but directly in the city's founding document.
This is a legitimate concern, since Burgess hasn't exactly been coy about his stance on encampments. Back in January, he went off in the Seattle Times about removing "illegal tent encampments." He pretty much wrote the same thing in an op-ed for the Capitol Hill Seattle Blog in February, when he urged the city to "quickly respond" to these encampments.
The language of the measure reads: "As emergency and permanent housing are available, the City shall ensure that City parks, playgrounds, sports fields, public spaces and sidewalks and streets ('public spaces') remain open and clear of encampments." That sure sounds like a long way of saying "the City shall sweep encampments" if shelter options are available.
In the past, this strategy hasn't worked effectively to bring people inside. A 2019 council memo said "that only about 6 percent of the people the Navigation Team contacted during sweeps actually ended up in a shelter," PubliCola reported.
Even though the city moved away from the Navigation Team model, sweeps occurred and mostly displaced people during COVID-19 despite a Centers for Disease Control recommending against the practice. The city only confirmed that two people from a 16-tent encampment accepted shelter after the Denny Park sweep last month. When the city swept Cal Anderson Park in the depths of winter last year, many of those campers moved to Miller Park or Williams Place even though shelter space was available.
Green explained that people don't always want to uproot where they're living to move into a shelter, since shelters aren't a one-size-fits-all solution; some won't allow substance users inside, others don't allow pets, or they don't let couples room together. "People may not want to choose those options," Green said.
He called the amendment's language "a tricky workaround" because it states that the city is offering "services and temporary solutions" while greenlighting encampment sweeps without ensuring people have somewhere else to go.
"It’s really insulting and dehumanizing," Green said. "We should be ashamed of such a proposal."