The campaign for a Seattle voter initiative that would add policies on homelessness to the city’s charter has refiled its measure with new language on encampments and a new sunset clause that would cancel the policies after six years.
Most of the original proposal has been left intact, including a requirement that the city quickly add 2,000 shelter or housing units with treatment services.
The adjustments have been made amid some questions and fears raised in the two weeks since the campaign was launched. As with the original language, the effect of the new language would, to some extent, depend on whom voters elect as mayor this year and how that person would implement the mandates.
Dubbed “Compassion Seattle” by business leaders who wrote the proposal with input from a number of nonprofits that serve homeless people, the initiative has attracted attention and donations off the bat. Its boosters have argued the measure would force City Hall to treat the homelessness crisis with more urgency, saying they agree that housing and services are the ultimate answer to the situation.
But the proposal, which must collect more than 33,000 petition signatures to qualify for the November ballot, also has attracted skepticism and concern from some homeless advocates.
It wouldn’t raise any new revenue to pay for the additional shelter and services, and the campaign’s stance is that no more funds are needed, advocates have noted. Meanwhile, the measure would write encampment policies into Seattle’s most important document, possibly compelling the city to carry out more cruel and ineffective removals, advocates have said. Groups involved with Compassion Seattle have opposed progressive city taxes on businesses and lobbied for removals.
The version of the charter amendment that was filed earlier this month said: “As emergency and permanent housing are available, the City shall ensure” that public spaces “remain open and clear of encampments.”
The revised version says: “It is the City’s policy to make available emergency and permanent housing to those living unsheltered so that the City may take actions to ensure” that public spaces remain clear.
For people who remain homeless, the new version says the city must balance its “strong interest” in clearing such spaces against the possible harm that comes with closing encampments.
And, it says “While there is no right to camp,” the city should “avoid, as much as possible, dispersing people, except to safe and secure housing, unless remaining in place poses particular problems related to public health or safety or interferes with the use of the public spaces by others.”
Those parameters are similar to the policies the city already has in place.
With the measure’s revisions, “We are confident that this initiative will receive even more support from those who live and do business in Seattle,” said Compassion Seattle advisory team member Erin Goodman, executive director of SODO Business Improvement Area.
In a joint statement Friday, nine nonprofits that provided input for the original version of the initiative said they had worked with the campaign on the revisions.
“As a result … we are optimistic that this effort recognizes the scope and scale of what must be done to make real progress toward ending homelessness,” said the statement from the Chief Seattle Club, Downtown Emergency Service Center, Evergreen Treatment Services, FareStart, Housing Development Consortium, Plymouth Housing, Public Defender Association, Uplift Northwest and United Way of King County.
The revised measure “moves away from removing encampments in favor of providing what people experiencing chronic homelessness need to be stably housed,” the nonprofits said.
Still, the solutions in the proposal “require additional financial resources to meet the scale of what’s needed,” they added.
Tim Harris, a longtime homeless advocate who founded the street newspaper Real Change, said the new version of the charter amendment “does substantially soften the language and make it look less like a zero-tolerance policy on public camping.”
But the text remains aspirational and open to interpretation.
“The big question is, when they want or need an encampment to move from a place they deem is problematic, and that person is not going into housing, not going into shelter for whatever reason, are they going to identify a place where they can move their encampment and not be hassled?” Harris wondered.
Katie Wilson, general secretary of the Transit Riders Union advocacy group, remains skeptical of the measure’s business backers and their intentions — politically and with regard to removals, she said. “I’m worried about what their game plan is,” she said.
The campaign’s approach was unusual from the start, because the city charter mostly deals with governance, rather than policies and programs. Under the revised version, Compassion Seattle’s policies would sunset on Dec. 31, 2027.
Temporarily changing a city charter is a strange way to govern, said Erik Houser, who consults with major philanthropies in the region on homelessness and communications.
“What is wrong with the normal advocacy process to get many of these things done?” he said. “It’s unclear why you need a charter amendment … if you’re not going to change [the city’s] sweeps policy, if you’re not going to get new revenue.”