By Erica C. Barnett
A coalition calling itself Compassionate Seattle filed a petition to amend the Seattle City Charter Thursday by mandating new investments in homeless shelter, housing, and services.
The amendment, which will go on the November ballot if supporters can collect approximately 33,000 valid signatures from Seattle voters, would require the city to create 2,000 new units of “emergency or permanent housing”—a broad category that includes everything from “enhanced’ 24/7 shelters to permanent housing—within one year, and would mandate that a minimum 12 percent of the city’s general fund go to a new fund inside the Human Services Department to pay for shelter, housing, and supportive services such as counseling and drug treatment.
The amendment also includes a stick: “As emergency and permanent housing are available,” it says, “the City shall ensure that City parks, grounds, sports fields, public spaces, and sidewalks and streets (‘public spaces’) remain open and clear of encampments.” Initiative supporters say this is simply what the city already allows: “requiring those living in encampments to move in order to ensure safety, accessibility and to accommodate the use of public spaces,” according to an FAQ. It would also require the city’s parks department to do “repair and restoration” work at parks that have been damaged by encampments.
“As emergency and permanent housing are available,” the proposed charter amendment says, “the City shall ensure that City parks, grounds, sports fields, public spaces, and sidewalks and streets (‘public spaces’) remain open and clear of encampments.”
“Embedding this in what is, in effect, the city’s constitution is important because we’re saying that if the voters adopt this, the city should prioritize its investments in those who have the least,” DSA president Jon Scholes told PubliCola Thursday. “I think of it as analogous to the paramount duty in the state constitution”—which codifies that K-12 education is the state’s top priority— “and while we don’t use the term ‘paramount duty,’ I think the end objective is the same: This should be a core function of city government and a core priority.”
Supporters of the amendment say the mandate to ensure that parks and public spaces are “open and clear” of encampments does not mean a return to aggressive encampment sweeps, although that provision will be open to interpretation if the amendment passes. (The city has largely suspended encampment removals during the pandemic.)
“It’s saying, you have to provide places where people will willingly go and do the work necessary to make that happen,” said Public Defender Association director Lisa Daugaard, whose organization helped revise the amendment. “And when that happens, people will not be living in public—and people should not be living in public.” The idea, according to Daugaard, is to create alternatives to living outdoors that actually appeal to people, and through that process making encampments themselves a thing of the past.
But is that prediction too optimistic, given the city’s long history of failing to address homelessness? The city declared a state of emergency on homelessness five years ago, and the number of people living unsheltered has increased nearly every year ever since. A 2018 study by McKinsey concluded that King County would need to spend $400 million every year on housing—not temporary shelter—to address the homelessness crisis.
The charter amendment, in contrast, directs the city to pay for thousands of new shelter units beginning next year, dictating the percentage of the general fund that must be dedicated to this purpose but providing no additional money to fund this massive investment. This year, the city will spend about 11 percent of its general fund on the Human Services Department.
Building shelter (much less housing) can take a tremendous amount of time, especially if the mayor and council aren’t on the same page. Also on Thursday, the Chief Seattle Club held a grand opening for its new shelter for Native American guests at King’s Inn in Belltown; the hotel, funded with federal Emergency Services Grant dollars allocated last year, is one of just two hotel-based shelters the city has managed to open so far, a year after many other West Coast cities began moving their unsheltered populations into hotel rooms. A charter amendment can mandate action, but it can’t ensure that the same forces that have kept the city from moving forward on shelter and housing in recent years will suddenly vanish.
City Council homelessness committee chair Andrew Lewis told PubliCola he’s impressed by the coalition that has come out in support of the amendment; in addition to the Downtown Seattle Association, it includes the Downtown Emergency Service Center, Plymouth Housing, and the United Way of King County. But he added, “I do want to make sure that we on the council are doing the due diligence to assess and let the public know what we expect all these mandates to cost—and that doesn’t mean don’t do it, that just means getting people ready [for the idea that] we’ve got to pursue additional revenue,” potentially including a local capital gains tax.
The next mayor, Lewis noted, will have an incredibly short timeline to get thousands of new shelter beds (or housing units) up and running—the first 1,000 units would be due in six months, with another 1,000 due six months after that. “I’m the only person in the city who has no ambition to be mayor right now,” Lewis joked, “but my read of this is that the implications are much bigger for the prospective mayor than they are for the council.”
The new mandates would also come at a time when the Human Services Department is ramping down its homelessness division in anticipation of moving most homeless services over to the new King County Regional Homelessness Authority. (The HSD deputy director in charge of homelessness, Audrey Buehring, told staff yesterday that her last day will be April 13.) The Homelessness Strategy and Investment division, as PubliCola has reported, is down to half its regular strength as staffers—not guaranteed employment in the new authority—bail for positions elsewhere, and it’s unclear whether the charter amendment would put an extra burden on the couple of dozen overworked staffers left in the division or if it would require ramping the division back up.
Asked why the amendment adds more responsibility for homelessness to the city, rather than the county, Scholes said, “We affirm the importance and relevance and all the reasons that the regional homelessness authority came to be, but it’s in the process of getting its legs underneath it and meanwhile we have a growing crisis and half the county’s unsheltered population [in Seattle.]” The city, Scholes said, can contract with the county for behavioral health and other services—”we’re not suggesting they need to set up their own parallel systems”—but it needs to provide more funding no matter who does the work.
The city council can’t amend the proposed charter amendment, but they have the right to put a competing amendment on the ballot if they disagree with any of the particulars of the initiative. Currently, the initiative has just one major financial backer—the Downtown Seattle Association. The last charter amendment to pass by citizen initiative was 2013’s Charter Amendment 19, which mandated city council elections by district.