A new campaign calling itself Compassion Seattle has filed a charter amendment proposition that would codify a set of policies and strategies for the city to combat homelessness. A coalition has come together to create the forcing mechanism, which is a tacit rebuke to the city council and mayor for failing to devise an effective plan to mitigate the homelessness crisis in Seattle. Now it must gather signatures, get passed by the voters in November or later, and survive scrutiny.
The campaign, led by former Councilmember and two-month Mayor Tim Burgess, brings together another unlikely coalition (much like the Third Door Coalition), including the SODO BIA, the Chief Seattle Club, the Public Defender Association, United Way King County, the Housing Development Consortium, Plymouth Housing, FareStart, DESC, Evergreen Treatment Services, and the Downtown Seattle Association.
The charter amendment would create an entirely new Article in the City Charter, called “Provision of Homeless Services.” Across three substantive sections it then lays out what the city’s policy should be for addressing homelessness, and some specific commitments to shelter and services including 2,000 new units of emergency and permanent housing within the first year after the amendment passes. But the new Article also states that the city shall keep parks and other public spaces free of encampments “as emergency and permanent housing are available.”
Specifically, the new article says:
- Lots of high-level policy buzzwords, mixed in with a big slice of motherhood and apple pie: “The City shall fund and provide services to improve the lives of all residents of the City. It is the City’s goal that no one should have to live outdoors in public spaces. The City shall coordinate and engage with the public, community-based organizations, non-profit service providers, philanthropic organizations, businesses, and collective bargaining representatives, to understand and address current and emerging human service needs. It is City policy to fully support, advance and invest in any regional governmental homelessness authorities. When the City works with other public and private entities to meet its obligations under this Charter Article IX it shall collaborate to ensure successful outcomes and support an innovative and effective regional service network.”
- It commits the city to “work to end chronic homelessness and racial disparities in the homeless population by investing City funds in practices and strategies, including emergency and permanent housing that effectively engage, shelter and house those who live outdoors in public spaces; and, work to retain individuals in housing; both with particular focus on the chronically homeless and those with the greatest barriers and greatest community impact.”
- It commits the city to measuring and reporting to the public the effectiveness of its strategies and services to combat homelessness, as well as the strategies and practices that might drive people into homelessness. The reports to the public will be at least every three months.
- The city shall (with King County) fund low-barrier, rapid-access mental health and substance abuse disorder treatment and services. That will include a “rapid-response field capability” not based in law enforcement, and culturally distinct approaches to provisioning behavioral health programs. Access to those programs will be in combination with emergency housing (or permanent supportive housing).
- It commits the city to keeping parks and other open spaces free of encampments: “As emergency and permanent housing are available, the City shall ensure that City parks, playgrounds, sports fields, public spaces and sidewalks and streets (“public spaces”) remain open and clear of encampments. The City also may require individuals to shift their belongings and any structures to ensure accessibility and to accommodate use of public spaces.”
- It commits the city to standing up 1,000 new units of emergency or permanent housing within six months of the effective date of the Charter Amendment, and another 1,000 within the next six months. Those housing units will include access to behavioral health services and other staff along the lines of the typical “permanent supportive housing” resources.
- During a civil emergency related to homelessness, such as the one that has been effect in Seattle for several years, it commits the city to expediting the production of emergency and permanent housing serving homeless individuals through several de-regulatory steps, including: waiving land use code and regulations to site projects faster; waiving permitting fees; pushing permit applications to the front of the line; and refunding to the projects all City-imposed costs, fees and City-collected sales taxes on all project expenditures.
- Services offered to homeless individuals shall identify and address factors that lead to the over-representation of individuals from BIPOC communities among the homeless population.
- The city shall offer programs to divert individuals from the criminal justice system “whose law violations are connected to a lack of housing, income stability, or behavioral health issues.”
- To the extent that the regional homeless authority approves and implements its plan, it commits the city to execute its homelessness strategy in a manner consistent with that plan.
- A new separate fund in the City Treasury, the Human Services Fund, is created to hold the annual budget for addressing homelessness as well as any external grants or other contributions. The city will commit to annually budgeting at least 12% of its total General Fund budget to this fund, to the extent that it does not constrain the Parks Department from funding the repair and restoration of parks. According to Compassion Seattle, using this formula for the 2021 city budget would have produced a fund of about $192 million, about $16 million more than what was actually budgeted.
- Existing contracts with the city, including that of the regional homeless authority, take precedence over the charter amendment.
Some observations on the details:
- There are a couple of reasons why this was done as a charter amendment rather than as a regular run-of-the-mill ballot initiative. Regular ballot initiatives can’t budget money, and they can’t administer programs. But charter initiatives can do both of those things. Also, a charter initiative is more durable: after two years the City Council could change or even repeal a ballot initiative, but for a charter amendment it would need to go back to the voters to approve any change.
- The choice to set up a separate fund is interesting. In an interview, Burgess said that there were two reasons they added that in. First, in their conversations with experts on behavioral health programs, they were given cost estimates of between $5 million and $15 million to expand the existing services to the amount needed to match the housing/shelter investment included in the charter amendment. The current level of human services funding is about 11% of the total General Fund dollars, and increasing it to 12% adds $16 million — just enough. Second, Burgess felt strongly, based upon his past experiences, that they needed to make it possible for private citizens and organizations to also contribute to the fund, and under IRS rules if it is a separate fund dedicated to human services then donations are tax deductible.
- Burgess also said that the requirement for “emergency and permanent housing” is intended to be inclusive of the entire spectrum of potential offerings, from enhanced shelter through “tiny home” villages to hotelling and permanent supportive housing. The proposed amendment is not prescriptive of the exact mix, leaving that up to city officials.
- This does not appear to be bringing back “sweeps.” The text of the proposed amendment makes clear that parks and public spaces should be cleaned up and restored “as emergency and permanent housing are available.” And it’s matched with a very aggressive mandate to expand housing in the first twelve months in order to enable homeless individuals to move from public spaces into appropriate shelter.
- At the same time, 2,000 units won’t be enough — at last count that was about half of the people living unsheltered in Seattle. Burgess acknowledged that, but also observed that not all of the homeless individuals will want to move into the city’s housing: some will decline, some will move elsewhere. “What percentage will the city need to serve? We don’t know. But it won’t be 100%.”
The most interesting thing about this proposed charter amendment is that it is being proposed at all, and by a very diverse coalition of what one would normally call “special interests.” Its very existence is an acknowledgement of the complete failure of the city’s eleven elected officials to put together anything even closely resembling a comprehensive plan to address homelessness. It is a loud and not at all subtle message to the Mayor, the City Council, and the City Attorney that they have bickered themselves into irrelevance: their endless infighting and incremental tweaks are no longer fooling anyone into believing that they are going to make a difference to homelessness in Seattle.
Our elected officials are not liked, not showing the necessary leadership, not trusted to manage the problem (or the money), and quite frankly not needed. The people got together and wrote their own plan, and they intend to impose it on their government. Seattle’s elected officials should be frightened, and especially the ones running for office this year. This is their “emperor has no clothes” moment. No one — not even their friends — is looking to them for leadership, and no one is even asking them to be involved. The press release has a full page of quotes from stakeholders — and not a single mention of an elected official, or even a role for elected officials. And lets not forget that it’s proposed as a charter amendment, the people’s way of telling elected officials, “hands off!”
The charter amendment is an exercise in coalition-building and compromise, and it’s not to hard to draw connections between clauses in the amendment and the stakeholders who were sitting at the table. We can assume everyone involved likes parts of it and dislikes others, but they deserve credit for converging on something that they can all live with, that gets more critical aid to homeless individuals while also creating a believable path to reclaiming the city’s parks and open spaces for public use.
Perhaps the most obvious criticism to be leveled at the proposed charter amendment is that it’s an “unfunded mandate.” It requires up to $15 million for additional behavioral health services, as well as an unspecified amount for the 2,000 additional housing/shelter units. Burgess shrugged that off, arguing that particularly with the recently-passed payroll tax and the anticipated $239 million windfall from the recently-passed American Rescue Plan Act he believed that the city had sufficient funds to pay for it.
It will take a couple of weeks for the paperwork on the charter amendment to be processed, including for the City Attorney to write the ballot synopsis. Once that is complete, the campaign will need to collect about 33,000 signatures of Seattle voters in order to qualify for the ballot. The campaign is aiming to place the charter amendment on the November ballot, which means that all of the signatures will need to be collected and filed by early August.