SPD officers look into a tent while clearing Cal Anderson Park.
SPD officers look into a tent while clearing Cal Anderson Park. NATHALIE GRAHAM

This year, voters might see “Compassion Seattle” on the November ballot. Despite the misleading name, there is no compassion in this proposed City Charter amendment, which attempts to justify the sweeps of homeless encampments while providing no funds for housing and homeless services. Not surprisingly, “Compassion Seattle” is funded by a handful of wealthy donors tied to corporate real estate, and is led by conservative Democrat Tim Burgess, a mainstay of Seattle’s corporate-controlled political establishment.

The wording in Compassion Seattle’s charter amendment is intentionally vague, so to understand how it will be used if passed, we should start by looking at who is funding it. To date, the initiative has raised over $600,000 from just 226 donors—and of them, 39 have donated more than $5,000. The campaign’s main fundraising source is from major commercial real estate companies, including a whopping $50,000 donation from Martin Smith Inc, $25,000 from Vulcan Inc, and $15,000 from Clise Properties – alongside other massive corporate donations like $20,000 from Fourth Avenue Associates LP and $10,000 from Five Point Capital. The Downtown Seattle Association has chipped in $18,000, and they’ve also netted $25,000 from Seattle millionaire and part-owner of the Mariners, Christopher Larson.

In fact, Seattle’s corporate class are eagerly gifting all sorts of resources to the charter amendment initiative. According to their most recent report, Compassion Seattle has received thousands of dollars in in-kind donations in the form of free rent, free staff services, and free consulting from the Vance Corporation, the SoDo Business Improvement Area, and CBE Strategic.

Why would large, profitable corporations throw in significant resources for a charter amendment allegedly about helping the homeless? After all, Martin Smith Inc’s website openly displays that they’re “in the business of creating extraordinary long term value” for rich investors, calling it their “single-minded pursuit.” Translated: they won’t throw money around unless they’re sure of a return on their investment.

And predictably, Compassion Seattle promises to be quite useful for the city’s real estate giants, though not for the homeless or working people.

The charter amendment is in essence a big business propaganda offensive, based on empty rhetoric while providing zero new dollars for affordable housing or homelessness services. It is designed to reinforce business-as-usual policies, particularly around the cruel homeless sweeps. For the first time ever, if this charter amendment passes, the sweeps of homeless encampments would be enshrined into the city’s most foundational legal document with the explicit declaration that there is “no right to camp in any particular public space."

Earlier drafts of the charter amendment were even more blatant in their attempt to embolden homeless sweeps, stating that encampments could be shut down “even if not all individuals can be placed in safe and secure lodging.”

After public outcry at the blatant lack of compassion in the original proposal, the big business authors have been forced to be somewhat more circumspect in their language about sweeps. The latest draft includes the qualifier: “It is City policy to avoid, as much as possible, dispersing people, except to safe and secure housing, unless remaining in place poses particular problems related to public health or safety or interferes with the use of the public spaces by others.”

The fact that the corporate forces behind Compassion Seattle were forced to amend their language demonstrates that most working people in Seattle understand that sweeps of homeless neighbors are inhumane and ineffective. However, we cannot be fooled by these minor changes. Corporations and the political establishment have already exposed how they intend to use this charter amendment to reinforce business-as-usual policies, and in particular to continue ruthlessly sweeping homeless people out of their sight.

This is not the first time that Burgess and the Downtown Seattle Association have tried to use misleading language to criminalize homelessness and the increasing numbers of working people lacking affordable housing. Burgess, formerly a police officer himself, was the city’s councilmember-cop throughout his tenure since first taking office as Seattle City Councilmember in 2008. Aiming to “address crime and street disorder,” Burgess proposed a five-point plan in 2010 that included more police patrols and a new $50 civil penalty on people cited for “aggressive solicitation,” also known as existing while homeless. The plan, which was wrapped in “housing-first” language, relied primarily on using police and fines to chase the homeless off the streets, rendering Seattle’s downtown businesses more shiny and profitable as a result. Parts of the plan went through, including increased patrols, but Burgess’s anti-panhandling measure was vetoed by Seattle’s then-mayor Mike McGinn. (Two years later, Burgess ran for mayor calling himself “progressive,” in an apparent attempt to empty that term of all remaining meaning.)

Just like Burgess’s plan from ten years ago, Compassion Seattle essentially masks its inhumane approach in the specious and Orwellian ‘housing-first, people-first’ language. It says it mandates culturally competent services, targets ending racial disparity in homelessness, and would fund substance use disorder treatment. These are important goals, and my socialist city council office has fought hard for them. But this charter amendment in fact is a big business propaganda offensive that includes zero dollars in new funding for these services. The homeless-friendly language is, in reality, empty rhetoric intended to deceive voters into supporting business-as-usual policies while enshrining homeless sweeps.

The section of the charter amendment with “requirements” for housing and homeless services is so vague as to be virtually meaningless. For example, the charter amendment requires 12% of the city’s “general fund” to be spent on “human services and homeless programs and services.” Depending on how you define those terms, the city could already be doing that. The amendment’s language gives the political establishment all the room they need to maintain the business-as-usual underfunding of housing and homeless services, but worse, with an additional mandate to continue the cruel sweeps. In fact, money from the general fund identified in the amendment, allegedly to help the homelessness, could be used for sweeps.

The charter amendment “requires” the city to provide for 2,000 units of permanent or emergency housing within one year, but says nothing about how it will be funded. The reality is, the hard work of winning this funding was already done by the Tax Amazon movement led by socialists, union workers, progressive organizations, and our council office in 2020 over the fierce opposition of these very corporate interests. Aside from legally entrenching homeless sweeps, these corporate interests will use this unfunded charter amendment to try to pose as champions of the affordable housing funding that they fiercely opposed only last year. The Amazon Tax that our movement won is projected to raise over $130 million each year specifically for affordable social housing, starting in 2022. This is the funding that will develop those 2,000 units, with or without this charter amendment. It required an all-out mass movement to overcome the opposition of big business and the Democrats to win the Amazon Tax, and we cannot allow this charter amendment to erase those lessons at the same time that it tries to enshrine homeless sweeps.

Our movement needs to fight to increase the Amazon Tax. In this deeply unaffordable city, we need billions, not just hundreds of millions of dollars, every year to build the housing and supportive services necessary to provide affordable housing for all. Only a serious redistributive agenda, taxing the corporations like Vulcan who have profited from causing Seattle’s intense gentrification and affordability crisis, will be capable of raising such funds. And only democratically organized movements such as Tax Amazon, where the movement leadership is accountable to the rank-and-file and is clear about not trusting big business or pro-corporate Democratic politicians, can win such gains for working people.

The lesson we must learn from Compassion Seattle is that when it comes to the diametrically opposed interests of Seattle’s corporate elite vs. those of ordinary people, there can be no happy compromise. There’s no measure that will both stop the acceleration of the affordability crisis and satisfy the endless greed of big business. There’s a reason why corporations and individuals who opposed virtually all the progressive gains we have won – from the $15 minimum wage to the Amazon Tax to renters’ rights – have thrown tens of thousands of dollars into this charter amendment. Compassion Seattle will not be a step in the right direction, as some have claimed; it will increase legal cover for increased oppression of homeless people and relentless corporate profiteering.

Taking a serious approach to the crisis of homelessness – which is a symptom of a broad affordability crisis – must include halting the rapid rise of rents, which have long climbed beyond Seattleites’ average wages. On May 5, I held a press conference announcing a re-invigorated fight for rent control without loopholes, which would cap rent rises at inflation, and protect renters from skyrocketing rents. Other measures in our Renters’ Bill of Rights include a required 180-day notice on rent increases and economic evictions assistance. These measures would help bring serious relief to Seattle’s working class and prevent people from losing their housing.

Defeating big business and its Compassion Seattle pro-sweeps initiative will require a united movement of working people, and a serious fight for rent control and expanding the Amazon Tax to fund affordable housing and homeless services. Last week, the Transit Riders Union, Real Change, Nicklesville, and Be:Seattle filed a petition challenging the language that would reflect Compassion Seattle on the ballot, on the grounds that the language is misleading. Compassion Seattle should not be allowed to use language that implies their charter amendment would definitely create new housing, and this challenge launched by some of Seattle’s most active housing organizations is important. But we shouldn’t think that the courts will be on our side. If this big business effort is to be defeated, it will be by building a grassroots movement, not through legalistic procedure.

Compassion Seattle is presenting the billionaire’s way to “fight homelessness”: keep raking in record profits from a wildly unaffordable housing market, and push the homeless out of sight. Their bottomless resources will ensure they can hire the signature gatherers to put the charter amendment on the ballot.

To win a city with homes for all, we need a unified housing movement to go on the offensive – to win rent control, a strong renters’ bill of rights, and taxing the real estate giants to build publicly-owned affordable housing. In the face of mountains of corporate money that will only grow in the coming months, our only option is to get organized.