Candidate Questions for the 2021 Seattle Election: What to do about Homelessness

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Photo by Mason Jones on Unsplash

This is the third in a three-part series on issues defining the Seattle 2021 Election. In Part I, we looked at residential zoning and explained our methodology for this series. In Part II, we looked at misdemeanor crime. A final issue is their approach toward homelessness. Specifically, on August 25, I chose to ask them where they stood on the “Compassion Seattle” initiative, which was subsequently thrown out by legal decisions.

Question: Should the Charter of the City of Seattle be modified to simultaneously (a) require the city to allocate a fixed percentage of its budget and commit to specific, measurable actions that prioritize mental health and substance use disorder treatment support services, combined with (b) housing, and (c) if services and housing options are available, compel the city to remove encampments that pose health and safety risk?

A King County judge threw a giant curveball into this when she ruled on August 27 that the Compassion Seattle charter amendment is outside the bounds of what is permitted by the voter initiative process, striking it from the ballot; and Compassion Seattle’s attempted repeal has failed. The issue divides the two mayoral contenders: Bruce Harrell is on record supporting the Compassion Seattle Initiative and has recently affirmed support for its basic approach, and Lorena González opposes it as an unfunded mandate.

About the issue: “Compassion Seattle” is a voter initiative which would have amended the City Charter to require emergency housing (2,000 units within the first year of adoption), dedicate at least 12% of the City’s general fund revenues to address homelessness, and required the City to take action to ensure that parks, playgrounds, and public spaces remained clear of encampments as housing and services became available. Again, this proposed amendment is no longer on the ballot, given the upholding of the judge’s ruling.

Argument in favor: It’s been more than six years since the City declared a “state of emergency” on homelessness, and it’s clear that neither City Council or the mayor have been able to take effective action to reduce homelessness or keep encampments from growing and endangering public spaces. It’s time to make it an explicit legal requirement by enacting it into the City Charter. The coalition that produced this initiative includes a broad group of voices. Actions by the Council, such as defunding the Navigation teams that did outreach of clean up of encampments may have made the problem much worse. It’s time to find a new pathway forward by enacting this set of policy mandates into the City Charter. This charter amendment was born out of increasing frustration with city government’s ability to tackle homelessness.

Argument opposed: The King County Regional Homelessness Authority was only recently established, and we need to give it more time and resources to work, without overly constraining it with what must be done and when. A charter amendment is an awkward and unduly constraining way to enact such legislation.

Candidate Responses

Given the legally uncertain nature of the Compassion Seattle initiative at the time the question was posed, several campaigns declined comment, deferring to the Court process. Here are the responses in full:


Bruce Harrell, Candidate for Mayor

“While Compassion Seattle will no longer be on the ballot, I continue to support the initiative’s goals of dedicating significant resources to action on homelessness and to an increased urgency of addressing unsafe encampments in incompatible areas, so that we can get people off the streets, out of parks and playfields, and into housing with services. My administration will bring together service providers, homelessness advocates, housing experts, community leaders, nonprofit, business, labor and philanthropic organizations, and more to define a plan that meets our shared values, publish it so it’s widely available to the public, and get to work demonstrating real progress. Under our administration, we will publish the costs per unit, costs per person, all measurable outcomes and timetables and build trust by establishing a measurable plan and proof that we are spending public dollars efficiently and effectively.”


Kenneth Wilson, Candidate for City Council (Seat 8)

“I do not agree with a fixed budget allocation to housing and services. We cannot promote one bad idea with another. I would work to immediately support enforcement of existing laws and to eliminate encampments on public property. Allowing encampments exposed/outside and along the edges of roads, parks, and schools is not compassionate for the homeless or the City. My plan is to provide permanent pathways that deliver community value for their tax dollar investment and life-long opportunities for the homeless individuals through goal-oriented rehabilitation with a realistic 18 to 24 month transitional housing and job training that graduates them out of homelessness. (Please see KenForCouncil8 for written details.)”


Nikkita Oliver, Candidate for City Council (Seat 9)

“Charter Amendment 29, by determination of the Court, will NOT be on the 2021 General Election ballot. Charter Amendment 29, misleadingly called “Compassion Seattle,” is not a normal referendum, but a Charter amendment. Charter amendments usually cover governance issues, not policy. Charter Amendment 29 is/was an unfunded mandate that would NOT have rendered much, if any, permanent affordable housing and would have only required the City to give a little over 1% more towards services for our unhoused neighbors than it was already allocating. We need real solutions that address the root causes of the problem which, according to the Regional Homelessness Authority, are a lack of affordable housing and a lack of access to financial means and resources in our region. Marc Doans, the CEO of the Regional Homelessness Authority, states, ‘The driver of homelessness is economic.’”


Sara Nelson, Candidate for City Council (Seat 9)

“This question is sort of moot because the judge ruled this Charter amendment could not go on the ballot. My question is, what’s the plan now? We’re spending more and more money on our response to homelessness and the problem keeps getting worse, representing an utter humanitarian and policy failure on Council’s part. So, we need to stop doing what we’re doing now because it’s not working and Compassion Seattle’s proposal was at least an attempt to put some teeth into a course-correct. What I liked most about it was that it would’ve mandated a direct, Seattle funding stream for mental health and substance abuse treatment which is the most urgent missing piece of our response. Even more than housing, in my opinion, because there are lots of City-funded providers offering short-, medium-, and long-term housing options right now (and I do support the “Housing First” model).

“The ball’s now in Council’s court. We need to fundamentally restructure our response to the homelessness crisis and implement a model proven to work in other cities, centered on individualized case management and a real-time, online “command center” for service providers and City agencies to ensure continuity-of-care and help individuals get into the housing that meets their immediate needs. Right now, there’s zero coordination among providers and they don’t track the kind of housing and services individuals need or have been offered already. I’m not saying we have to toss out all our partnerships with providers, but we do need to incorporate more accountability measures to meet evidence-based outcomes. We must also ensure our parks are open and accessible to all. That’s the foundation of our Commons and simply ignoring encampments is a smokescreen for doing nothing to help people living there. This isn’t rocket science and we don’t have to recreate the wheel — we just have to have the political will to approach this challenge more effectively.”


Which Candidates Align With You?

If “yes, I favored the Compassion Seattle Initiative,” favor Bruce Harrell as mayor, and Sara Nelson and Kenneth Wilson for City Council.

If “no, I did not favor the Compassion Seattle Initiative,” favor Lorena González as mayor, and Nikkita Oliver and Teresa Mosqueda for City Council.


Concluding Reflection: Two Slates Seem Clearly Defined

Judging from both their direct responses to this three-part series as well as prior on-the-record statements, the eight candidates appear to be fairly neatly divided into two “slates” of four each on these three policy questions. While there is some fence-straddling, there really is no example of a candidate from one “slate” crossing firmly over into the other, at least on these three issues.

When it comes to zoning, decriminalization, and homelessness policy, you could shorthand these two slates the “More Leftward Slate” and the “More Moderate Slate.” The More Leftward Slate is comosed of Lorena González, Nicole Thomas-Kennedy, Teresa Mosqueda, and Nikkita Oliver. The More Moderate Slate includes Bruce Harrell, Ann Davison, Kenneth Wilson, and Sara Nelson.

Put another way, it would be quite surprising if it’s not another year of The Seattle Times endorsing the Moderate Slate and The Stranger endorsing the Left Slate.

Be sure to vote by mail on or before Tuesday, November 2.

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Steve’s a Seattle-based entrepreneur and software leader, husband and father of three. He’s half Canadian, and east-coast born and raised. Steve has made the Pacific Northwest his home since 1991, when he moved here to work for Microsoft. He’s started and sold multiple Internet companies. Politically independent, he writes on occasion about city politics and national issues, and created Alignvote in the 2019 election cycle. He holds a BS in Applied Math (Computer Science) and Business from Carnegie Mellon University, a Masters in Computer Science from Stanford University, and an MBA from the Harvard Business School. Steve volunteers when time allows with Habitat for Humanity, University District Food Bank, Technology Access Foundation (TAF) and other organizations in Seattle. More of his writings can be found at stevemurch.com.

8 COMMENTS

  1. I conclude from these answers that the debate/impasse about homelessness policy will continue, regardless of the outcome of the election (and even if Compassion Seattle had passed). One reason for this conclusion is how entrenced the homeless-service and housing-advocacy groups are at City Hall, controlling the majority of the council, helping to elect them, and insisting on ever-greater funding and new taxes. One solution would be to pry away some of the “homeless-undustrial coalition” partners, such as labor unions or minorities (who suffer by the lack of affordable housing). Another is to “buy off” the opposition by developing new, richly funded programs that enrich and employ these constituent groups. Both Prying and Buying seem to me to be more likely to work than the current strategy, which is to elect a mayor or a majority of the council that favors reform.

  2. In other words, NO HOPE in sight…….
    It will take years and can only be completed by slowly replacing the council members. But 1st lets have a City Attorney who will prosecute all crime ; if you feel drugs should be tolerated , change the law. Then maybe changing districts back to city wide voting. But most importantly, having performance requirements in the contracts for all city services – it is called management ……..

  3. No City Attorney prosecutes “all crime.” The City Attorney uses discretion to decide who to prosecute, as do the police. Neither of these candidates has a track record. The question is do you trust the Republican, Davison, or the Democrat, Thomas-Kennedy to prosecute misdemeanors in our city with concern for civility, consistency, and non-biased priorities?

    The City Attorney also controls civil enforcement cases. What will the candidates do with regard to land use cases where developers and neighborhoods are at odds? How will they settle disputes in civil cases, since most are resolved by settlements? We need to concern ourselves with their decision-making priorities in regard to civil cases too.

    • It’s a non-partisan position. For those voters who greatly value political party over approach to the office or goals, you can see Davison’s direct response to this issue here: https://neighborsforann.com/who-i-am/

      You’re quite right that neither candidate has direct experience in such a role. Trivia: Pete Holmes, the outgoing 12-year City Attorney, came into the office relatively inexperienced in the role as well. He was a tax/bankruptcy attorney.

      Agree fully that prosecutorial discretion is a key responsibility, but not the only responsibility, of the position. It also includes oversight of civil matters, leading a group of attorneys who will represent the City in court on various matters.

      To read more about Thomas-Kennedy’s self-described abolitionist approach, readers might want to read this profile in South Sea Emerald, from June: https://southseattleemerald.wpcomstaging.com/2021/06/10/abolitionist-nicole-thomas-kennedy-announces-last-minute-run-for-city-attorney/

    • Really……….It’s a trust issue and who do you trust more defined by party affiliation ????

      Why don’t we make it illegal in Seattle to you think, before consulting your local democratic representative.

  4. One question for voters is whether those who want to scale back misdemeanor prosecutions significantly are really “abolitionists.” The term is a signal to decarceration advocates, who have been energized by the Black Lives Matter protests and some solidarity signals from the majority of the city council. But it is also an attempt by opponents of these candidates to attach an extreme label, abolitionists, on their position. In fact, there is a broadly popular middle position, namely steering more low-level offenders into diversion programs, many run by local nonprofits, that avoid jail and provide counseling and treatment. Similarly, there was a time when national Republicans were buying into the argument for less jail time on grounds that jails were costly and counterproductive.

    Compassion Seattle, at least after it was revised by community suggestions, tried to occupy this middle ground. As usual, the middle ground is a killing ground in Seattle’s polarized politics. Thus we have two extremes contending for the city attorney position.

    • Nicole Thomas-Kennedy has an extensive interview in the South Seattle Emerald in June of this year, in which she self-describes as an abolitionist:

      https://southseattleemerald.com/2021/06/10/abolitionist-nicole-thomas-kennedy-announces-last-minute-run-for-city-attorney/

      Excerpt:

      SSE: How would you bring an abolition-based practice to the position of Seattle City Attorney?

      NTK: When I talk about abolition, it’s not just the cops, it’s the whole carceral system. The whole punishment system. Prisons. Jails. I know when people talk about abolition, those who haven’t read a lot about it assume it’s an immediate, “Let everybody out. Everything is decriminalized. It’s a free-for-all.” That’s not how it is. We’re going to take steps towards it. I think getting rid of most misdemeanor prosecutions is an easy and obvious first step. The less we deal with issues like social problems and issues of public health [using] cops and the carceral system, the better we’re going to be at solving those problems.

      The whole carceral system just reinforces all the injustices that we see from officers. I know there is this idea of “Oh we can prosecute cops,” but how often does that happen? It’s so rare, it’s like a fairy tale. The one most heinous cop of all time gets prosecuted. It’s not an adequate system for dealing with that, and it’s not an adequate system for dealing with poverty, racism, disability, addiction. Especially mental health and addiction — those are mental health problems, they’re not legal problems. The legal system isn’t going to solve those problems. I think that moving away from using cops to address those problems — and moving away from prosecuting people who are in the midst of those problems — is going to work towards eventual abolition.

      First, let’s abolish misdemeanors. We don’t need them. It’s not working.

  5. Guess I’m in the moderate crowd – Sara Nelson made the most sense in each of these questions, nailing absolutely the overly loaded question #1. Davidson too on the misdemeanor question. Anyone actually interested in public safety knows where their city attorney vote belongs. As to homelessness – the longer road is to finally elect a responsive and effective city council, but it beats turning the City Charter (the Compassion Seattle idea) into a policy-making instrument.
    These discussions certainly solidified my November vote – thank you.

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