Lived Experience Coalition Says No One Asked Them About Homelessness Initiative, Which Centered Sweeps From the Beginning

By Erica C. Barnett

Proponents of a proposed amendment to the Seattle city charter that would mandate (but not fund) spending on shelter and enshrine encampment sweeps in the city’s constitution have argued repeatedly that the proposal isn’t about sweeps.

In fact, business leaders and homeless service providers who are supporting the initiative argue the proposal—the brainchild of former Seattle City Councilmember Tim Burgess—is designed to spur the city to finally prioritize a crisis that has been growing for more than a decade, by forcing local leaders to spend money on shelter and housing until the problem is solved.

And the plan has some backing from institutional players outside the business community, including housing and shelter providers. Downtown Emergency Center Director Daniel Malone, for example, told PubliCola he thinks the initiative is “a step in the right direction because it acknowledges people need care and support, which seems to be in contrast the view espoused by some that people living outside should be treated punitively.”

But drafts of the measure show that from its inception to the latest incarnation, the plan has been centered on removing encampments, not ensuring that unsheltered people have permanent, stable places to go. (A new version of the measure includes a relatively minor but somewhat perplexing change: The constitutional amendment would sunset at the end of 2027, suggesting perhaps that homelessness will be solved by then.)

PubliCola has reviewed multiple early, unpublished drafts of the measure. They heavily emphasized encampment removals and gave no information about where funding for new shelter or housing would come from. And even the latest version provides no new funding to pay for the thousands of shelter beds it would require, prompting some Seattle leaders, including Seattle City Council president Lorena González, to call the measure an “unfunded mandate.”

Additionally, advocates for people experiencing homelessness, as opposed to providers who arguably stand to benefit from additional city funding for their programs, say they were not consulted on the measure at any point, and have major misgivings about how the proposal will work in practice.

“This is politically motivated to influence the [mayoral] election. That’s why it’s happening right now, and if [advocacy] groups don’t respond to this in a coherent fashion, they’re going to dominate the narrative.”—Tiffany McCoy, lead organizer, Real Change

Tiffani McCoy, advocacy director at Real Change, told PubliCola it’s “obvious” that the charter amendment—first proposed by former city council member Tim Burgess, who has a history of trying to influence local elections—”is politically motivated to influence the [mayoral] election. That’s why it’s happening right now, and if [advocacy] groups don’t respond to this in a coherent fashion, they’re going to dominate the narrative.”

“They didn’t consult with us, and I believe they did it on purpose. Why consult the people you don’t agree with?”—Lived Experience Coalition member Kirk McClain

Although the charter amendment would require the city to create 2,000 new “emergency or permanent housing” beds in 2022, it provides no additional funds to do so, instead mandating that the city spend a minimum of 12 percent of its general fund budget on human services. “It’s being rolled out as the holy grail, and it’s just not,” McCoy said. “There’s no way to we can do this without more funding.”

Members of the Lived Experience Coalition, a group of homeless and formerly homeless people who advise the King County Regional Homelessness Authority and are represented on its governing board, told PubliCola that no one from the campaign has ever reached out to them for input or feedback or responded to their requests to weigh in on the proposal. Had they been asked, they say, they would have told Compassion Seattle that homeless people need housing, not vague commitments that will be tough to fulfill without funding.

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“They’ve definitely spoken to the business community, but not to those with lived experience or people on the ground when they came up with this ‘solution,'” LEC member Zaneta Reid said. LEC member LaMont Green added: “If you want substantive expertise, if you want to solve this problem, the most obvious experts are not being asked to come to the table.”

“If you look at this from the 10,000-foot view, what you see here is a group of people that have a lot of money and they think that because they have a lot of money and because they’re successful they can fix this homelessness issue—they can fix us,” said LEC member Kirk McClain, “even though they have absolutely no experience successfully doing this in the past. … They didn’t consult with us, and I believe they did it on purpose. Why consult the people you don’t agree with?”

Lived Experience Coalition members said they don’t support the initiative because it focuses too much on removing encampments and not enough on actually funding and building the housing that would enable people to move inside. Harold Odom, another LEC member who currently lives in a tiny house village, called the charter amendment “an insult, because it says ‘as emergency and permanent housing are available,'” the city must keep public spaces “open and clear.”

“We know there’s not enough permanent housing, and we know there’s not enough emergency housing,” Odom said. “There are many things that need to be done on several fronts. But you don’t know this when you don’t ask people on the street.”

Drafts of the amendment and campaign finance reports show that the campaign was taking advice instead from Seattle political consultant Tim Ceis, whose recent clients include Burgess’s left-baiting People for Seattle PAC (which attempted to smear council candidates by literally equating them with “extremist Kshama Sawant“), perpetually “concerned” former Burgess council aide Alex Pedersen, “Seattle Is Dying” star Scott Lindsay, and CASE, the political arm of the Seattle Chamber.

The early drafts focused heavily on sweeps over services, and were filled with  vague, noncommittal language about the need for housing, shelter, and services. For example, one early version said that “the Department of Human Services shall develop, publish and implement a plan to provide services to individuals experiencing homelessness” without defining the cost of or a funding source for this theoretical “plan.”

Meanwhile, early versions of the amendment were specific and dramatic about the need for punitive measures against people living outdoors. One early draft specified that “encampments in public spaces that pose a public health or safety risk may be immediately removed” and added that any plan to provide services to people living unsheltered “shall require the cleaning and removal of unauthorized encampments in public spaces as these services are available,” whether or not people living in encampments want or accept the services that are on offer. This is a longstanding issue with sweeps—one that came up just this week, when the city removed an encampment at Miller Park, on Capitol Hill.

Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office sent a statement to reporters Wednesday emphasizing that “the city had multiple openings” at three enhanced shelters, but that many people had refused these offers—a fact that should surprise no one at this point in the pandemic, when it’s clear that people strongly prefer individual rooms to mass shelter, including “enhanced” 24/7 shelters.

A subsequent draft got even more specific, stipulating (in a since-deleted section) that even if there are no services, shelter, or housing available,

individuals may be asked to shift their belongings and any structures to address accessibility issues, to accommodate others’ use of public space, and to relocate from private property. Encampments in public spaces that pose a particular public health or safety risk, beyond that inherent in individuals living in public in informal housing, may be promptly closed down even if not all individuals can be placed in safe and secure lodging, consistent with constitutional law limitations on notice and seizure of property. [Emphasis added]

Early drafts also suggested that people who commit low-level nonviolent crimes be diverted into “treatment programs”  as an alternative to jail—an approach that is neither specific to homelessness nor evidence-based—and would have required all unsheltered people to have “written service plans” designed to set up goals and accountability checkpoints to get them on the path to stable housing. Treatment is not a substitute for housing (nor is forced treatment generally effective), and mandatory service plans do not substitute for affordable housing and can be intrusive and paternalistic.

Subsequent drafts removed the sections about treatment and accountability plans and softened the sweeps language to the point of unparsability. (The most recent version says, somewhat bewilderingly, that “[i]t is the City’s policy to make available emergency and permanent housing to those living unsheltered so that the City may take actions to ensure that parks, playgrounds, sports fields, public spaces and sidewalks and streets (‘public spaces’) remain open and clear of unauthorized encampments.”) But the commitment to keeping public places “open and clear of encampments” have remained consistent from version to version.

Nor have later drafts of the amendment specified how setting aside 12 percent of the general fund (about $180 million a year, split between homelessness and all other human services) would accomplish the lofty goals laid out in the more aspirational sections of the measure. There’s a big difference, legally speaking, between nonbinding statements that “it is city policy to” do something (say, “end chronic homelessness”) and binding statements that the city “shall” take specific action (for example, place 12 percent of its budget in a human services fund or “develop policies and procedures to address those individuals who remain in public spaces.”) “Shall” is a mandate; “it is city policy” is more like a suggestion.

Members of the LEC and other homeless advocates aren’t the only ones raising questions about the charter proposal. Council member Lorena González, who’s running for mayor, told PubliCola she still doesn’t understand whether the new spending mandate will be in addition to the city’s ongoing commitment to fund the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, and whether committing to address homelessness at the city level represents an abdication of the regional approach.

“In concept, I agree with coming up with some sort of baseline to invest in homelessness, but it’s unclear to me whether the proponents of this charter amendment intend for that to be funneled to the regional homelessness authority or if it’s in addition to what we have committed to fund,” González said.

Breanne Schuster, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Washington, said the ACLU hasn’t taken a position on the amendment yet because it’s still unclear what its impact would be, and whether the unfunded spending mandate would require cutting other needed services, such as programs to address public safety outside the police department. However, Schuster said, the ACLU is against any proposal that criminalizes homelessness.

“We know that not only is criminalizing people who are homeless for camping or other life-sustaining conduct on public property ineffective, but it’s also unconstitutional,” Schuster said. “And we know—and everyone knows—that the only long-term, effective solution to homelessness is permanent housing. For far too long, we’ve overinvested in punishing poor people by sweeping their homes and taking their belongings, and in temporary efforts like shelter that don’t solve the root causes of homelessness.”

The 9th District Circuit Court ruled in Martin v. Boise that cities can’t ban sleeping in public spaces unless “sufficient” shelter is available, and the US Supreme Court let the ruling stand. 

The Lived Experience Coalition also pointed out that the city has already committed to a regional approach to homelessness, and to funding and participating in the King County Regional Homelessness Authority. By establishing in the city charter that it’s the city’s responsibility to deal with homelessness, LEC member Johnathan Hemphill said, the amendment “undermines the regional authority and signals to other cities that they shouldn’t invest in this regional authority—we should do it city by city.”

Lamont Green, another LEC member, suggested that instead of adopting another rule to ensure that homeless people don’t take up space in public places, the city should “flip the script” and adopt a homeless bill of rights. “Instead of this language that really lays a foundation for sweeps,” Green said, “we should say that shelter as a temporary measure is a human right for people experiencing homelessness.”

9 thoughts on “Lived Experience Coalition Says No One Asked Them About Homelessness Initiative, Which Centered Sweeps From the Beginning”

  1. Dear talker2. I disagree that Publicola wrote negative commentaries about the KCHRA. Erica pointed out what she thought were areas of concern. That’s a far cry from “very negative”. Furthermore, many of the Lived Experience Coalition staff were the ones who helped create the KCHRA. Why would they be against it? When I was chosen to sit on the governing board of the KCHRA I interviewed with the LEC. What we were and still are against was the lack of acknowledgement of systemic racism within the governing body itself. I have no problem with Compassion Seattle including drug treatment in their program. I do have a problem with that treatment being required BEFORE a person is housed. Even if the language in their proposal doesn’t literally say that, it will end being the case because of the lack of housing stock in King County. Ever tried kicking a crack or meth addiction with no place to call home? The Housing First model works. Permanent Supportive Housing is a part of the housing first model and provides case management, help with getting access to health care, drug and Alcohol treatment services, and most importantly, it provides a roof to lay one’s head while working on getting back on one’s feet.

  2. It’s funny that when Mayor Durkan publicly supported the Regional Homeless Authority early on – your publication was very negative about it and I don’t think the homeless coalition supported it either. Now that a new proposal is put forward – the Regional Homeless Authority is given as the reason why we shouldn’t choose the new proposal.

    Compassion Seattle has one thing that the Regional Homeless Authority doesn’t – addiction treatment as part of the program. And that is a vital piece – it’s the only thing that can get someone to a better path in life that leads to stability and the ability to live housed.

  3. Seattle and King County have not learned their lesson yet. The same politically motivated shenanigans like this is what has resulted in a homeless state of emergency for the state of Washington: Siloed organizations working from a partisan political agenda is why we have not been able to make progress with our homelessness problem. Even if we can’t agree on a solution, at least give people with lived experience of homelessness a whack at it since the regime of status quo politicians and community leaders have failed since 2006. Another example of this is the recent City of Auburn’s Ordinance 6817 which basically forces homeless people to enroll into a community program to avoid incarceration after they are arrested for trespassing (living) on public lands. Seattle’s problem is that we as a city still see the homeless as the problem, not the institutions and systems that keep them from being housed. From 1978 to 1983 Ronald Reagan cut HUD’s public housing budget from 83 $billoin to $18 billion. That’s 65 billion dollars worth of public housing funds – gone! The result? Thousands of new homeless shelters appeared all over the US to house the newly homeless population. Of course the prison population skyrocketed and became too burdensome for the public prison industry and privately run prisons were born. Add to that the “War on Drugs” and strict sentencing guidelines, and you get an explosion of blacks and Latino’s incarcerated for drug crimes. My point is we don’t necessarily have to get politics out of our plans to solve the homeless problem in Seattle, we just need to remove the bad politics.

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