A judge has ruled that Charter Amendment 29, known as “Compassion Seattle,” won’t go before Seattle voters in November. The measure’s potential effect on the city was still being debated, but it could have dramatically changed the way the city addresses homelessness if it had passed.
But its spirit could still influence the Nov. 2 election, in which persistent visible homelessness, and its pandemic-related growth in places like downtown Seattle, will likely be key issues.
King County Superior Court Judge Catherine Shaffer said that she actually liked the ballot initiative and would have voted for it if it were on the ballot — but her decision was about whether it goes beyond the power given to cities by state law.
“My view is kind of irrelevant to what’s before me,” Shaffer said during a hearing Friday. If passed, Charter Amendment 29 “would be local folks seeking to overturn the will of the state population as expressed through our state representatives in legislation. And that’s not how it works.”
The Compassion Seattle campaign said in a statement its lawyers would not appeal because the timeline was too short. The campaign disagreed with the ruling, but expressed hope the spirit behind the amendment would still influence how supporters vote in November.
“We urge the public not to give up the fight,” the campaign said in a statement. “We can still make our voices heard in the elections for mayor, city council and city attorney. In each race, the difference between the candidates is defined by who supports what the charter amendment was attempting to accomplish and who does not.”
The Compassion Seattle campaign was created by business leaders at the Downtown Seattle Association and local chambers of commerce, which plowed more than $1 million into it.
The measure would have temporarily amended the city’s charter, its founding document, to demand that the city set up 2,000 shelter or housing units in a year, rewrite its budget so more money goes to social services, and “develop policies and procedures to address those individuals who remain in public spaces,” which the next mayor — who will be chosen in November — could have interpreted a number of ways.
It’s an irregular way to set policy, and the plaintiffs — including the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and advocacy group the Transit Riders Union — argued it went outside the bounds laid out by state law.
Knoll Lowney, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, argued that not only does state law lay out a blueprint for constructing homelessness policy, Seattle and King County are part of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, which is supposed to take the strategy on homelessness away from individual cities and focus more on the region.
According to data from the city, many people enrolled in Seattle shelters became homeless in other parts of the county, especially south.
Shaffer agreed that setting local homelessness policy to this degree was an incorrect use of the charter amendment process, as well as problematic in its scope: amendments are not supposed to supersede the power of the Seattle City Council on things like budgets and land use code.
“These businesses and stakeholders should have a place at the table, but the charter amendment process is not the way,” Lowney said.
Tom Ahearne, a lawyer for the campaign, said during the hearing that it would have been more fair to voters to challenge the measure after they stated their will this November.
“All doubts should be resolved in the favor of letting the people vote,” Ahearne said.
Charter Amendment 29 has been divisive, splitting homelessness nonprofits, advocates and the two candidates for mayor. Mayoral candidate Bruce Harrell, former City Council president, was for the mandate, and his opponent, current council President M. Lorena González, was against.
The Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, which represents scores of homeless services providers, was a plaintiff in the lawsuit, while the heads of some of the largest homeless shelters, housing providers and funders have lent their voices in support.
Most of the discussion over the amendment has focused less on what it would do — vague wording allowed lots of room for competing interpretations — and more about ad hominem attacks, according to Tim Harris, founder and former director of the street newspaper Real Change, which has been a major organizer against Compassion Seattle. Harris caused a stir at Real Change when he came out in favor of the measure.
The Compassion Seattle campaign has repeatedly characterized its opponents as a small group of activists whose influence in local politics has led to homelessness getting worse and worse in the last decade. Opponents have called the proposal an effort from big businesses to get homeless people out of sight.
Harris said that while it was flawed, Compassion Seattle tapped into the frustration Seattleites are feeling about growing homeless encampments. He thinks the largely progressive opponents of the measure can’t ignore that and need to come up with their own policy answer.
“This time it was the chamber [of commerce] folks that got a jump on it, and were proactive about creating a solution — and I think it would’ve passed,” Harris said. “And I just think this is an opportunity for advocates and the progressive community to come up with their own solution and regain the initiative on this.”
But Tiffani McCoy, who has helped lead the coalition against the measure as an advocacy director, said Compassion Seattle would have just been business as usual when it comes to the encampments. Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan has been ramping up removals of encampments through the year.
“What this would actually do is enshrine the status quo of Jenny Durkan’s policy on sweeps,” McCoy said.
Durkan has not taken a stance on the measure.
Though it’s likely dead, Compassion Seattle will also certainly still influence some who opposed it. Harold Odom, who lives in a tiny house village in Georgetown and co-chairs the Regional Homelessness Authority’s implementation board, said even though he likes Harrell and is not impressed by González’s track record on homelessness policy, González didn’t support the measure, and that’s good enough for him.
“Compassion Seattle is a central part of [Harrell’s] campaign — homelessness fatigue,” Odom said, but when it comes to the now-dead measure and its proponents, “their compassion is not compassion. It’s trying to criminalize, in the long run, homelessness.”