Believe the evidence before your eyes: Seattle has failed to solve the long-running homelessness crisis. Voters this fall will elect a third mayor since 2015, when leaders declared a citywide emergency to get people sheltered, and the situation has only grown worse. The tents lining sidewalks, encampments around parks and schools, and decrepit motor homes along urban streets tell no lies. The city needs better answers.
Voters should sign petitions to get the Compassion Seattle charter amendment on the November ballot, then vote for it. This important legislation would finally compel leaders to create new shelters and services for people experiencing chronic homelessness with the urgency that is needed. Its promise of significantly increasing shelter, behavioral-health and addiction treatment can help thousands of people struggling through long-term homelessness in Seattle rebuild their lives.
This year’s elections present voters with course-correcting opportunities to elect a new mayor, two at-large council members and a city attorney. Embedding Compassion Seattle in the city’s foundational law would send the successful candidates into office with a clear mandate to take urgent action.
Compassion Seattle needs 33,060 verified voter signatures by June 25 to qualify for the November ballot. That’s three weeks away, a time crunch caused by an obstructionist court challenge that resulted in minuscule editing.
Seek out the petitions — or download the form at compassionseattle.org — and ensure homelessness is the defining question of this year’s elections. Every candidate for city office should have to answer whether they support Compassion Seattle. If not, they must provide a detailed better plan. Anyone who says Seattle should just provide more of the same outreach services and slow increase of shelter is not fit to lead.
“If this doesn’t pass, what that means is the status quo is perpetuated,” said former council member and interim Mayor Tim Burgess, the plan’s architect. “And this problem … of unsheltered people living in our parks and our public spaces is not going to go away until we change our approach, because for whatever reason, what we’ve been doing doesn’t work. It has only gotten worse.”
People living on the streets urgently need housing and help. The charter amendment would mandate the city step up at providing both. It requires Seattle to provide 2,000 new places to live for people experiencing homelessness — within one year. That new emergency and permanent housing would come coupled to services to support transition out of homelessness for good, including behavioral-health providers.
The amendment also mandates a rapid-response behavioral-health intervention team to help people in crisis from mental-health issues or substance abuse. Such situations can lead to arrests or violence if a 911 call sends law enforcement instead of medical professionals. Burgess, a former Seattle Police officer, said the team is intended to replace dispatching police whenever possible.
Also importantly, the amendment would enshrine into city policy the importance of keeping public spaces open and accessible to all — without the brutal overreach of simply displacing encampments without helping people find real homes. Absolutist critics have emerged from opposite political corners to paint this element as, alternately, too forceful and too lenient. Both allegations are incorrect.
Compassion Seattle would not give the city more power to arbitrarily clear encampments. It bakes into official policy that people in tents who assert possession of public playgrounds and storefront sidewalks are bad for all involved. Encampments bring people in unstable circumstances into tight, lightly-policed areas with scant sanitation. Disputes and drug sales sometimes proliferate with tragic results, from addiction relapses to the deadly violence in a Ravenna encampment Monday. A stray bullet could have stuck a passerby. These situations influence lives far beyond encampments and make others not want to come to Seattle at all, a blow for retail businesses desperate to rebound from the pandemic.
The longer Seattle waits to recalculate its response to chronic homelessness, the worse things will get. Spreading resources like peanut butter among stakeholders and service providers without a targeted, coordinated strategy is not acceptable policy. This upgrade cannot wait for future city council election cycles, or for the Seattle Process to chew tediously on policies while cash is in hand. Compassion Seattle requires devoting at least 12% of general fund revenues to homelessness until it sunsets at the end of 2027. If applied to this year’s budget, that would step up spending by $18 million. The federal American Rescue Act sent $128 million Seattle’s way, and the April city budget report found revenues $40 million higher than expected. No new taxes are required to fund Compassion Seattle, and because its requirements sunset after six years, any consideration of a reboot would face considerable scrutiny.
Sign the petitions, get Compassion Seattle on the ballot and get it into the city charter. Because the officials’ policies have failed, voters must become the leaders.