Maybe Metropolis: The Sweeps and Shelter Initiative

by Josh Feit

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?

9 thoughts on “Maybe Metropolis: The Sweeps and Shelter Initiative”

  1. Numbers about where homeless people come from come, themselves, from surveys carried out in association with the annual One Night Count, but those surveys suffer from the same reliability problems as most attempts to quantify the homeless do.

    I grew up and lived in the Midwest until I came here to take database classes in 2006. In 2012 I became homeless. Should I then have been shipped back to Milwaukee?

    I know a man who comes from Hong Kong. He seems to have been in Seattle a long time, but should we send him back to Hong Kong? I know another man, a chronic addict, who’s a Seattle native. Where should we send him? I don’t know the woman who lives in University Playground, but she’s said to have taught at the UW. Most people who teach at the UW aren’t native to here, so her case should be easy, right?


  2. Yet another misreading of Martin v. Boise. You write “the 9th Circuit ruling in Martin v Boise saying cities cannot punish homeless people for sleeping outside without offering adequate alternatives,” but that is not an accurate reading of the case – it simply says a city may not CRIMINALIZE those camping on public property but is certainly free to otherwise remove them and is NOT required to provide housing.
    The court made the distinctions quite clear:
    “Our holding is a narrow one. Like the Jones panel, “we in no way dictate to the City that it must provide sufficient shelter for the homeless, or allow anyone who wishes to sit, lie, or sleep on the streets . . . at any time and at any place.”
    — Martin v. Boise
    The Martin case gets misconstrued all the time by homelessness advocates and by city officials; the former in insisting that we can do nothing about tents in city parks, along sidewalks, etc unless housing is immediately available – and by the latter in insisting that “our hands are tied on camp removals until we find enough housing.” Meantime, of course, insufficient help reaches those in encampments, and Seattle residents are in effect denied use of many smaller parks. Your article points out many flaws in the Charter approach which, anything else aside, is a misguided attempt at governance, but let’s stop using Martin v. Boise – inaccurately – as straw man.

  3. The chronic homelessness issues are like a mythical hydra; it has many serpent heads. The issues are interrelated and go beyond Seattle; all high value west coast cities have encampments; there are even in Grays Harbor. Sweeps and housing are but two of several issues; there is also mental health, alcoholism, drug abuse, sex abuse, broken families, high rent, unemployment. The issues may be beyond the fiscal power of individual cities. The initiative is being termed an unfunded mandate. one issue is to determine how many of the chronic homeless need services attached to their housing and for how long. There will be turnover.

    The 2007 forced marriage and joint ballot measure between the Regional Transportation Investment District and ST2 was a creature of the R led State Senate. The joint measure drew support from the broad middle establishment and opposition from the environmental left (e.g., Cascade, Sierra Club, Ron Sims) and the anti Link right led by Kemper Freeman. (how much highway do you want with your train?). It would have used sales taxes to fund the expansion of untolled limited access highways. Of course, those same highways got funded in the 2015 statewide package. The analogy does not seem quite right, as in 2007, a regressive tax would have been used to fund highways. Today’s initiative has no funding and proposes two goods: housing and parks and public spaces free of encampments. We need both funding and smart compassion.

  4. To the article above – drug addicted homeless need a carrot and stick approach to get them to accept treatment and get clean. If this includes sweeps – so be it. You are doing that person a favor – it is caring to interrupt an addiction as early after the user starts using as possible and get them into treatment as early as possible. It will give them a better chance of overcoming that addiction and getting their life back!

  5. All this is really beside the point. Enough housing for homeless and income people will never be built less zoning is updated to allow much more housing to be built. The answer to homelessness and to the loss of the working and middle class in Seattle is zoning reform.

    1. zoning reform isn’t the problem. We had about 3500 unhoused homeless in Seattle prior to the pandemic. We can build that much housing and alot of it is already in the pipeline. The problem is the large number of homeless that come here from other places. 6 out of 10 homeless in Seattle, came from someplace else and Seattle taxpayers should not have to pay to house those 6 out of 10. Those homeless should be sent back to there home states, counties and cities unless those states, counties and cities can pay to house their homeless in Seattle.

      1. What the city and he feds need to do is build affordable housing that caters to people earning 0 to 30% of Average Median Income. Rezoning so more luxury apartments are built does not address this demographic.

        Also, not sure where the 6 out of 10 figure came from. From polling, the vast majority of homeless said they lived in King Coumty prior to becoming homeless. We do definitely need a regional solution where all cities contribute their fair share to addressing homelessness.

      2. 3500 prior to the pandemic? Where is that number from? According to the 2020 point-in-time count (which happened prior to lockdown) there were 11,571 peopl identified, and they even state in the report that the really bad weather the night of the count likely prevented them from finding even more folks who were hunkered down out of the rain.

        Understanding the scale of the problem is essential to looking for an appropriately scaled solution. Please don’t throw around fake numbers that make the issue look smaller than it is, thanks.

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