Two days before signature–gathering could begin for a ballot initiative on homelessness in Seattle, a coalition of homeless advocates has filed a legal challenge that argues the language that would appear on voters’ ballots in November is misleading.
While major names in the local homeless services world have voiced support for the Compassion Seattle campaign, which would amend the city charter to require certain expenditures and policy actions around homelessness issues, the petition filed Thursday in King County Superior Court shows that there is likely to be some grassroots opposition.
Supporters of the campaign say the proposed amendment would force the city to prioritize spending on housing and behavioral health services, connect homeless people to those services, and then make some effort to keep parks and sidewalks clear of the camps that have proliferated in Seattle in the last few years.
But critics say the initiative wouldn’t actually provide resources to fix homelessness and might give future leaders a justification to indiscriminately remove homeless encampments from parks and sidewalks.
“How Compassion Seattle is rolling out is: This is the Holy Grail that’s going to solve homelessness and visible poverty,” said Tiffani McCoy, advocacy director at the street newspaper Real Change, one of the challengers (and a member of Project Homeless’ advisory board). “And I want voters to know this is not going to solve all of the issues.”
Real Change joins the homeless activist group Nickelsville, the Transit Riders Union and nonprofit Be:Seattle to ask for the title change.
The campaign can start on Saturday gathering the 33,000 signatures it needs to make the November ballot, but if a King County judge agrees with the petitioners and orders changes, those signatures will be invalid. This will likely hold the campaign up two to three weeks, according to Knoll Lowney, an attorney for the petitioners.
“We are disappointed this largely procedural challenge will delay signature collecting that was to start on Saturday,” the campaign said in a statement. “Time is precious when collecting more than 33,000 valid signatures, and this is clearly an attempt to make our job harder. Be assured we will not be deterred and we will be successful.”
The ballot title, which is assigned by a city attorney, says, among other things, that the change would dedicate 12% of the city’s revenue each year to homelessness and human services at a minimum; fund mental health and addiction treatment; make the city provide 2,000 more housing units within one year; implement legal diversion programs for people arrested for poverty or mental-health related crimes; and “balance keeping public spaces clear of encampments with avoiding harm to individuals.”
The petitioners say it is “inaccurate and prejudicial” to say that the measure would create 2,000 housing units in one year, because that isn’t possible — and that it’s more likely the city would fund temporary shelter beds, hotel rooms or tiny house villages, so using the term “housing units” is misleading.
They also argue the amendment presents “conflicting and vague provisions,” particularly around providing services to people living outside and removing encampments, which they say aren’t reflected in the ballot title.
“Condensing a 1,500-word ballot proposal regarding homelessness into a 75-word summary that all people find agreeable is a challenge, to be sure,” a spokesperson for the city attorney’s office said in an email. “We’ll be thankful for the court’s guidance in presenting a reasonable ballot title for voters’ consideration.”