Sharon Lee, executive director of Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) says her organization has been in discussions with Seattle Public Schools about using either surplus school property or some other vacant land to create a tiny house village for at least some of those living along the shores of Bitter Lake.
The Low Income Housing Institute is in discussions with Seattle Public Schools about creating a tiny shelter village for at least some of those living along the shores of Bitter Lake. Andrew Engelson

On Friday King County Superior Court Judge Catherine Shaffer struck from the November ballot “Compassion Seattle," an Orwellian charter amendment aimed at addressing the city’s homeless crisis. In doing so she sided with the ACLU, the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, the Transit Riders Union and others who argued that Charter Amendment 29, as it was officially known, exceeded its ability to influence the city’s budgetary process. The proposal would have required the city to create 2,000 new beds and to keep city parks “open and clear of unauthorized encampments" without providing any funds to do so.

“We’re thrilled that the judge struck this off the ballot,” said Katie Wilson, the Transit Rider Union’s General Secretary. “We think that was the right decision to make. In addition to the legal issues that were at issue, we also have deep policy concerns with the charter amendment and we’re glad for that reason.”

“Real compassion requires action, and the voters want actions that will truly make a difference," said Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness executive director Alison Eisinger in a phone interview with The Stranger. "I’m relieved that we’re now able to focus 100% on the urgent and necessary work required.”

Eisinger noted that as the city council crafts a new budget in the fall and as voters select a new mayor, the city can now turn its attention to both short-term solutions and long-term investments in housing and supportive services.

In response to the ruling, on Monday Bruce Harrell’s mayoral campaign issued a statement conceding that the measure exceeded the authority of the initiative process but agreeing with its goals. Harrell urged the current council and mayor to "step up and adopt key provisions in the 2022 budget process so we can enter next year with the resources and tools for immediate action to help people out of tents and into supportive housing,” and said that the city should dedicate 12% of its budget toward the response to homlessness.

In contrast, City Council President and mayoral candidate Lorena González expressed opposition to the charter amendment and its aims, saying in a statement: "I opposed Charter Amendment 29 because, as last week’s court ruling confirmed – I believed it was unconstitutional. I also believe the amendment was a deeply flawed proposal with no funding mechanism that would have required drastic cuts to city services and would not have scaled the city's response to homelessness appropriately. I have instead proposed that we need to make large corporations pay their fair share of taxes so that we can improve our emergency crisis response system, build more temporary and permanent housing paired with individualized wrap-around services, and improve behavioral health services and substance use disorder treatment programs.”

Meanwhile, life for those without housing remains a tenuous, uncomfortable existence. At the encampment on a Seattle Public Schools property along the shores of Bitter Lake, around 60 people live in an assortment of tents in a well-organized and relatively tidy improvised community. It’s not a comfortable life, but it’s hardly the fear-inducing Next Door horror story KOMO News has tried to make it out to be. Resisting pressure from some pitchfork-wielding neighbors, Seattle Public Schools has taken a remarkably measured and patient approach with the camp, which is adjacent to Broadview Thomson K-8. After contentious community meetings, the School District is working with nonprofit partner Anything Helps to find a solution that doesn’t involve simply removing the camp.

(L-R) Anything Helps board chair Mark Garrett and executive director Mike Mathias.
(L-R) Anything Helps board chair Mark Garrett and executive director Mike Mathias. Andrew Engelson

“We wanted to show that there are other alternatives to sweeping,” said Mike Mathias, the founder and director of Anything Helps as he sat in a shelter helping address campers’ concerns. A former homelessness outreach coordinator for the city of Issaquah, Mathias is passionate about details, making sure that each of the people on the lake shore has a state ID and is enrolled on Medicare. Thanks to his volunteers’ efforts, 37 campers are now in the state’s Housing and Essential Needs (HEN) referral service, which could eventually qualify them for monthly housing vouchers. “People don’t care about what model or approach you take, they just want to get into housing,” Mathias says.

The district recently worked with Anything Helps to install fencing along a pathway through the property that leads to the school, with the goal of making kids feel more comfortable when they return on Wednesday. “The camp is unauthorized and unsanctioned and we are firm in our commitment to completely remove the encampment,” said SPS spokesperson Tim Robinson in an email. “But it is important to note that the pace of this removal operation is directly tied to the time it takes to fully [provide] service and support to those experiencing homelessness. Mike Mathias of Anything Helps has done extraordinary work in assisting campers with organizing and preparing for a future that allows them to leave the cycle of homelessness, and we are grateful for his commitment to continue doing so until our goal is reached.”

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Sharon Lee, executive director of Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) says her organization has been in discussions with Seattle Public Schools about using either surplus school property or some other vacant land to create a tiny house village for at least some of those living along the shores of Bitter Lake. “They’re looking at any land they could offer,” Lee said of her conversations with SPS. In addition, a new tiny shelter village at the corner of N 125th St and Aurora not far from Bitter Lake is under construction and slated to open in October—though its 55 beds will be in high demand as the city struggles to offer shelter each time it clears encampments.

Robinson confirmed in an email that a tiny house village is on the table as one solution.

That’s at least a somewhat compassionate approach to what will likely be a vivid teaching moment for students as they return to classrooms this week.