When I think about the charter amendment on homelessness that’s making its way to the November ballot, I’m reminded of the “Roads and Transit” debates that roiled Seattle progressives back in the late 2000s. In order to pass transit expansion at the polls, transit advocates felt compelled to couple their light rail vision with a roads package to ensure universal buy-in.
Yeah. No. Voters soundly rejected the 2007 measure, and it wasn’t until transit advocates came back a year later with a light rail-only measure that voters approved this region’s historic transit expansion plan. The 2021 version of “Roads and Transit” appears to be the charter amendment on homelessness, which boils down to “Sweeps and Shelter.”
In this instance, housing advocates, such as Downtown Emergency Center, the Public Defender Association, and Chief Seattle Club have signed on with “Compassion Seattle,” the Tim Burgess-led campaign behind the initiative; former council member Burgess, who once pushed anti-panhandling legislation, is the chief proponent of the sweeps and shelter combo. (Actually, it’s even less than that because although it requires the city to spend money on shelter—or housing, but let’s be real about which is cheaper and therefore more likely to happen—it doesn’t provide any new funds to balance sweeps with the shelter half of the equation.)
Housing advocates seem to believe voters won’t back a housing solution without the un-compassionate sweeps component. Admittedly, this time, they’re likely right. Polling is reportedly off the charts in favor of removing homeless encampments from around the city.
But this should raise a question for progressives: Why the need to couple the issues? If the polling is so definitive, and the establishment doesn’t need the do-gooders, why has Compassion Seattle gone out of its way to enlist them and present itself as a smiley coalition?
For starters, the establishment wants to avoid a divisive campaign; a broad coalition is good karma, even if they don’t actually need one. That’s one interpretation. Here’s another, not mutually exclusive from the earnest one: Compassion Seattle has pulled one over on the left: It’s not that the housing advocates need the “Seattle is Dying” vote, it’s that the pro-sweeps people need the housing advocates.
It’s not that the housing advocates need the “Seattle is Dying” vote, it’s that the pro-sweeps people need the housing advocates.
Given the pro-sweeps polling, how can this be? Like this: Yes, a sweeps initiative would likely pass without the homeless advocates signing on. For now. But given the U.S. Supreme Court’s December 2019 decision not to reconsider the 9th Circuit ruling in Martin v Boise saying cities cannot punish homeless people for sleeping outside without offering adequate alternatives, any sweeps law is vulnerable to a challenge from homeless advocates. So, while the current political zeitgeist seems to favor a sweeps-only program, the legal reality does not.
By co-opting homeless advocates into their cause now (or scaring them with polling numbers), Compassion Seattle has given themselves insurance against a substantive future challenge to sweeps. Consider: The city already has the legislative authority to remove encampments if they offer people adequate alternatives to sleeping outside. One way to inoculate sweeps against a future Martin v Boise challenge is to formally tie them to the compassionate idea of housing and shelter by bringing housing advocates on board.
To be clear: Most homeless advocacy groups (as opposed to groups that receive city funds for their own shelter and housing programs) have not weighed in on this initiative. But the ones that are on board, largely institutional players that often work with the mainstream political class and who arguably have something to gain if the city commits to funding housing, are enough. Their presence gives the general public the impression that the sweeps and shelter agenda—the notion that the city shouldn’t build low-income housing unless it also adopts a punitive sweeps policy— has gotten a stamp of approval from the left.
Homeless advocates shouldn’t fall for this. They’ve been right all along. Funding shelter and housing as a standalone policy is the way to address the current crisis.
Homeless advocates should call sweeps proponents’ bluff and let Compassion Seattle run an initiative without them, so they’ve got the political credibility to challenge sweeps when the city starts using the initiative’s overly broad language to make “public spaces open and clear of encampments” via sweeps.
Otherwise, once sweeps and shelter become intertwined, and the stigma of sweeps is removed (“Oh, don’t worry, the city also has to spend money on housing”), the inhumanity of an overly aggressive policing to address homelessness will become the norm. If the left signs off on this carrot and stick paradigm, they will cede the point that sweeps are an inherently logical policy.
Ever since the call for sweeps started turning into a political movement, proponents of sweeps haven’t been able to ignore the compelling argument from the left: Sweeps are unjust if there isn’t any housing available. Funding housing is already a compassionate policy in its own right. Sweeps are not.
In other words, a shelter (and, more importantly, housing) policy does not need a sweeps policy to be worthy of the name “Compassion Seattle.” Let’s not blur these divergent approaches to homelessness by joining them at the hip. Simply providing adequate shelter and housing will do away with the need for encampments (and thus sweeps).
You’ll notice, the initiative’s housing component doesn’t come with any money.
Housing advocates should let the resentment against homeless encampments dissipate as the pressures of the pandemic begin to recede, and follow the lessons of the “Roads and Transit” story by supporting a “housing only” program that actually puts up the money to help the homeless; that’s what the right is afraid of and that’s why they’ve co-opted the idea and strategically tied it to their sweeps agenda. I repeat: The initiative’s housing component doesn’t come with any money.
Again, the city already has the legislative wiggle room to sweep homeless people. Why run the risk of fortifying it against a legal challenge by enshrining it in law as a moral twin of housing?