One of the most interesting developments in the campaign for Charter Amendment Measure 29, known as “Compassion Seattle,” is widespread support from business groups.
Among them: the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Seattle Association, the Ballard Alliance and Sodo Business Improvement Area.
The amendment doesn’t directly address the economy or competitiveness, nor does it revive the scores of street-level businesses permanently closed because of the pandemic and crime. Rather, a big chunk of the business community is putting its shoulder to the wheel of addressing homelessness.
Compassion Seattle’s elevator speech is that it would require 2,000 new housing units for the unsheltered within the first year. Outreach workers would establish relationships and then nudge unhoused people into accepting housing and services. The City Council would set aside at least 12% of the general fund for the problem, which would include treatment for addiction and mental illness. When other measures are met, encampments on sidewalks and in parks could be carefully removed. And the amendment would expire after 2027 unless renewed.
Petitions are in the field or available on the Compassion Seattle website. At least 33,060 verified signatures are required by June 25 to place the amendment on the November ballot.
You can read the proposed charter amendment here.
“As we rebuild our region and our economy, I am hearing from my members almost every day about the connection between making progress on homelessness and our recovery,” Rachel Smith, president of the Metropolitan Seattle Chamber of Commerce, told me.
“The Chamber’s Executive Committee voted unanimously to support the Compassion Seattle Charter Amendment because it is a clear, person-centered plan to help individuals experiencing homelessness in our city, informed by the service providers who are getting results with their programs.”
The proliferation of sidewalk tents and encampments and attendant crime is bad for business. Yet the Seattle City Council, unlike the leaders in cities such as Bellevue, won’t enforce existing laws. Hundreds of millions of dollars, spent largely without unaccountability, have only made the problem worse here.
So, consider Compassion Seattle a workaround with teeth — and a cry for help. Changing the ideological composition of the council seems a reach.
It’s saying to city leaders, get your act together and use these methods to clean up this mess.
But given Seattle’s natural liberalism, the amendment must be larded with language to protect the unsheltered and encampments before any tougher measures are possible.
For example, it calls for “culturally competent” services. Translation: making sure outreach teams speak different languages, or if you are working with an Indigenous or Somali person, for example, work with them in a way that is reflective of that community’s norms.
If an encampment poses a public health or safety risk, it can be closed with or without housing or services. Immediate closure happens if the encampment is blocking or obstructing access to a public space, such as a sidewalk or playground.
Meanwhile, in a Seattle Times op-ed, Jean Godden, Margaret Pageler and Sue Donaldson argued it won’t work as advertised. All are former city council members, from the days when Seattle was pragmatically liberal, before the hard-tilt left.
Among their points: The amendment “makes it harder to remove encampments from public spaces. It creates a new legal process that requires ‘balancing’ the ‘possible harm’ to each camper against the public’s ‘strong interest in keeping public spaces clear.’ ”
In other words, all carrots and few sticks.
It’s true all the amendment’s aspirations won’t happen overnight. No quick fix is available here, but at least the voters will have created a plan of action that can be implemented. If it doesn’t pass, supporters argue, we will be saying the status quo is acceptable.
The amendment deserves a vote of the people. But I’m as uncomfortable with promises of a “solution” as I am with the term “homeless.”
Few really difficult problems can be solved. The measure is whether the amendment is constructive.
And “homeless” implies that all these suffering souls need is a home. In fact, many are drug addicts or alcoholics, others are mentally ill. Yet others are enjoying the footloose, fancy-free life. Of course some merely need housing, something easily remedied compared with the spectrum of needs by the others.
A report last year from McKinsey & Co. said “Economic growth in the region is a leading cause of homelessness. While the region is racking up impressive numbers in terms of job creation and economic growth, its housing growth has not kept pace.”
The consulting firm’s reputation has been tarnished by a number of scandals and allegations. Thus the reader should beware of its conclusions. Economic growth here has also generated enormous tax revenues, including those spent lavishly on the unsheltered, no matter the results.
Which brings me to uncomfortable, even incendiary, points.
The cities with large unsheltered populations have common denominators: Temperate weather, tolerant populations and generous handouts. San Diego, Los Angeles, the Bay Area, Portland and Seattle are leaders. Here, a stood-down police force, legal pot and easy attitudes toward shoplifting and possession of harder drugs act as added incentives.
With no wall around these places, it’s impossible to know with certainty how many of the homeless are actually from there. I’m suspicious of self-serving surveys by social-service providers who want to push the narrative that this is mostly a homegrown problem.
Would you rather be in that situation in 115-degree, minimal-services Southwestern cities or here? I learned the term “Freeattle” from unsheltered individuals on Third Avenue, not “privileged” critics of the city’s policies.
Given all this, I don’t see an easy way out. But maybe the amendment is a start, or at least a worthwhile experiment.