The C Is for Crank: Correcting the Record on Compassion Seattle

Image via seattle.gov

By Erica C. Barnett

In November, Seattle voters will (almost certainly) vote on whether to adopt Charter Amendment 29, an initiative that would require the city to divert public funds to add 2,000 new shelter beds while keeping parks and streets “clear of encampments,” according to the text of the amendment. The campaign is called Compassion Seattle, a name that suggests that by passing the initiative, voters will be supporting a compassionate approach to the crisis of unsheltered homelessness across the city.

In reality, the measure is an unfunded mandate that would force the city to create 2,000 new shelter “units” (beds) at the lowest possible cost, by diverting money from other city functions into a new fund aimed at moving unsheltered people out of places where they are visible and into places where they can’t be seen—”clearing” parks for housed people to use while spending the usual pittance to house, treat, and serve people with complicated needs.

Because initiative supporters are claiming that the measure will finally fix homelessness in Seattle, it’s extremely important to distinguish between what the charter amendment actually says and what supporters claim it would do. Here’s a cheat sheet to help inform your vote this fall.

Claim 1: Charter Amendment 29 will require the city to build housing and provide needed services, including addiction treatment and mental health care, for thousands of unsheltered Seattle residents.

Compassion Seattle leader Jon Scholes, director of the Downtown Seattle Association, said during a recent forum that the amendment “mandates…  that we invest in treatment, mental health and emergency housing and the set of services that we know are important to bringing people inside.”

This claim is simply false.

In fact, Charter Amendment 29 does not mandate any city spending on treatment, mental health care, or any specific “set of services.” Instead, it says the city “shall help fund low-barrier, rapid-access, mental health and substance use disorder treatment and services” in conjunction with King County—something the city already does through its annual budget and will continue to do as a major funder of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority.

Claim 2: We don’t need additional funding to fix homelessness; it’s just a matter of priorities.

Not only does Charter Amendment 29 fail to prescribe any specific solutions, it provides no new funding to address homelessness. Instead, it requires the city to set aside 12 percent of its existing general fund, which works out to a reallocation of about $18 million a year based on recent budgets, to support “the human services and homeless programs and services of the City.”

That’s right—all of the human services programs the city runs, which include youth and community safety programs, programs to combat domestic violence, services for elderly and disabled people, child care programs, funding for the Nurse Family Partnership, and, starting this year, a new division that will take over some functions of the police department. So if you hear an initiative supporter saying it will add another $18 million to homelessness programs, tell them it doesn’t—it creates a generic “human services” fund that can be spent for any human services purpose.

And even if every penny of the reallocated $18 million went to homelessness, it would barely scratch the surface of the problem. Nonetheless, initiative proponents continue to claim that $18 million would be enough to pay for comprehensive care, including individual housing and shelter.

DSA director Jon Scholes has even claimed the amendment would enable the city to expand JustCARE, a gold-standard program that provides hotel rooms and intensive case management to unsheltered people who are having a negative impact on neighborhoods, to every part of the city. That’s an empty promise.

Claim 3: Compassion Seattle will fund hotels and evidence-based, high-quality services throughout the city.

DSA director Scholes has even claimed the amendment would enable the city to expand JustCARE, a gold-standard program that provides hotel rooms and intensive case management to unsheltered people who are having a negative impact on neighborhoods, to every part of the city. That’s an empty promise, because JustCARE isn’t cheap—certainly not cheap enough to provide hotel rooms, case management, and comprehensive wraparound services on a budget of $18 million a year.

Do the math: At $50,000 a person (the amount JustCARE supporters say the program would cost “at scale“), annual funding of $18 million would be enough to serve an additional 360 people. The initiative claims it will get 2,000 people off the streets in the first year alone. There’s simply no way supporters can justify the promises they’re making about the quality of care their budget-adjusting measure will pay for.

Claim 4: Charter Amendment 29 will require the city to finally invest in real housing solutions for unsheltered people.

Supporters, including several mayoral candidates, have said they’re backing the initiative because it represents a new commitment to housing, forcing the city to provide individual shelter rooms and permanent supportive housing to people living outdoors. Mayoral candidate Jessyn Farrell, for example, told the Seattle Times she considers the measure “the consensus path of what we need to do around homelessness,” because it would require “interim housing, more services, more permanent supportive housing.”

Looking just at the prescriptive language of the measure, it’s clear that what it actually requires is new shelter—which the measure euphemistically describes as “emergency housing”—not housing.

This is a common misinterpretation of what Charter Amendment 29 would do. The amendment includes a lot of words about providing appropriate services and permanent, individualized housing options, but that language is aspirational (“it is City policy to…”); it doesn’t implement any actual policy. In fact, much of what’s in the amendment is already city policy, including a section stipulating that the city supports housing and services that are “tailored to individual needs and cultural differences.” (For example, HSD already has policies in place committing the department to provide culturally responsive services to diverse populations.) Saying that something is city policy and mandating spending on specific solutions are very different things.

Looking just at the prescriptive language of the measure, it’s clear that what it actually requires is new shelter—which the measure euphemistically describes as “emergency housing”—not housing.

Thousands of shelter beds might put homelessness out of sight for groups like the DSA that are concerned about the impacts of tents on businesses, but it doesn’t solve the problem, which is that thousands of people in our region lack a permanent place to live. City and regional leaders have known for many years that the old shelter-first model is an ineffective way to get people housed, which is why “housing first” is now considered a best practice. And the proposal doesn’t mandate spending on services beyond what the city is already doing.

It’s true that the language of the amendment wouldn’t prevent the city from building permanent supportive housing, which costs well over $300,000 a unit and, in Seattle, is largely funded through the $290 million housing levy. But they wouldn’t get much for just $18 million in new spending. And because of the extremely short timeline for the city to create 2,000 new “housing units” and the lack of any new funding to pay for those beds, the city would almost certainly choose the fastest, lowest-cost alternative allowed under the law and add thousands of new beds in low-barrier, 24/7 congregate shelters, not “permanent housing” or even hotel rooms, the form of shelter people living in encampments are most likely to accept. 

Claim 5: Charter Amendment 29 does not mandate sweeps.

Proponents have claimed that the measure is an alternative to encampment removals, and that by providing “housing” and services to thousands of people a year, parks and public spaces will become “clear of encampments” all on their own. As we’ve reported, the measure originated as an explicit plan to remove encampments from public spaces; subsequent versions of the proposal softened the language slightly, but it still refers to encampment removal and relocation.

As Real Change’s Tiffani McCoy has pointed out, “requir[ing] individuals to shift their belongings and any structures” is the definition of a sweep.

Here’s the specific language, with annotations added in brackets.

It is the City’s policy to make available emergency and permanent housing [such as “enhanced” congregate shelter] to those living unsheltered so that the City may take actions [remove encampments] to ensure that parks, playgrounds, sports fields, public spaces and sidewalks and streets (“public spaces”) remain open and clear [swept and secured] of unauthorized encampments. The City shall develop policies and procedures to address those individuals who remain in public spaces [removing people as well as belongings], balancing the City’s strong interest in keeping public spaces clear of encampments and the possible harm to individuals caused by closing encampments [which is already city policy].

Another passage is even more explicit, enshrining the city’s existing standard for encampment removals (currently, any encampment inside a public park or in public right-of-way can be deemed an “obstruction”) into the city’s constitution (emphasis added):

While there is no right to camp in any particular public space, it is City policy to avoid, as much as possible, dispersing people, except to safe and secure housing, unless remaining in place poses particular problems related to public health or safety or interferes with the use of the public spaces by others. In those circumstances where the City does not close an encampment, the City may still require individuals to shift their belongings and any structures to ensure safety, accessibility and to accommodate use of public spaces.

As Real Change’s Tiffani McCoy has pointed out, “requir[ing] individuals to shift their belongings and any structures” is the definition of a sweep. Charter Amendment 29 doesn’t ban sweeps; it lays out a framework for the city to justify doing them.

Claim 6: Seattle can just raise taxes if it really wants to spend more money on homelessness. 

Charter amendment supporters say that while they believe fixing homelessness is just a matter of priorities, the mayor and city council could certainly decide to propose new taxes if they want to spend even more. They’ve also suggested that the city could use revenues from the JumpStart payroll tax to fund shelter, housing, and treatment. If you care so much about homelessness, their argument goes, then why not find a way to pay for even more solutions?

But as JumpStart supporters have pointed out, that money is already spoken for: After this year, it’s earmarked mostly for affordable housing, which is inarguably a key part of the solution to homelessness.

Moreover, the groups supporting the charter amendment are actually rooting for JumpStart to fail; the Chamber has sued to overturn the law, and DSA head Scholes has argued on multiple recent occasions that Seattle taxes businesses far too much. For charter amendment supporters to claim JumpStart or new taxes as a fallback belies the fact that they have fought, and will continue to fight, against new taxes in court and at the ballot box.

erica@publicola.com

16 thoughts on “The C Is for Crank: Correcting the Record on Compassion Seattle”

  1. I appreciate this piece. I’m not sure I agree with all the critiques of Compassion Seattle in here, but the scrutiny is important. I signed the Compassion Seattle petition because I thought at the time that it would be helpful to mandate that more money is allocated to housing insecurity than what is currently allocated. But now I’m unsure how I’ll vote if the proposed amendment qualifies for the ballot.

    Something that I think is too bad about the debate around Compassion Seattle is that I think we’re losing the plot line that the reason homelessness is so relatively high in Seattle is that market-rate housing is super expensive here. I think this is really illustrated when you compare Washington State to Arizona, and Seattle to Phoenix.

    The two states are pretty close in overall population, and Washington is actually richer and has a lower poverty rate. But, Washington has more than twice as many people experiencing homelessness as Arizona. (https://www.usich.gov/tools-for-action/map/#fn%5B%5D=1200&fn%5B%5D=2600&fn%5B%5D=6400&fn%5B%5D=10200&fn%5B%5D=13400)

    King County has about two million fewer people than Maricopa County (metro Phoenix), but King County’s 2020 point in time count logged more than 11,000 people experiencing homelessness, compared to a bit more than 7,400 in Maricopa county.

    No one can argue that the reason Phoenix and Arizona have lower numbers of people living homeless is because of Arizona’s amazingly generous and progressive social safety net. The important difference between Seattle and Phoenix in this regard is that it is much more expensive to rent or buy a home in Seattle. (https://www.nerdwallet.com/cost-of-living-calculator/compare/phoenix-az-vs-seattle-wa). The high cost of housing here is the single underlying phenomenon for both people who are experiencing homelessness, and people who move to Phoenix so that they can afford a bigger house for their family.

    What I wish we had in Seattle and King County was a robust and coordinated effort across the nonprofit, business, and public sectors to legalize as much market-rate housing as possible. Subsidized housing is critical too as there will always be some number of people who need this, but more market-rate housing equals less scarcity equals lower prices, and it will generate new tax revenue. That revenue can be used to finance whatever sorts of homeless services and housing programs we want. And, it will get us to a place of more abundance instead of our unproductive “robbing Peter to pay Paul” situation that we have now with the debate around Compassion Seattle.

    I’m glad that the candidates for Seattle Mayor seem to be in favor of legalizing more types of homes, but I really wish we could bottle the energy and passion wrapped up in the Compassion Seattle debate, and redirect it towards legalizing huge amounts of market-rate housing.

    1. “No one can argue that the reason Phoenix and Arizona have lower numbers of people living homeless is because of Arizona’s amazingly generous and progressive social safety net. The important difference between Seattle and Phoenix in this regard is that it is much more expensive to rent or buy a home in Seattle.”

      Well, or, it’s because Seattle is “amazingly generous and progressive” that it has higher numbers of people living homeless.

      Not saying that’s true but pointing out a flaw in your argument.
      Phoenix: conservative, cheaper housing, fewer homeless.
      Seattle: liberal, expensive housing, a lot of homeless.
      Therefore, you say, it’s housing prices that cause homelessness. But you’ve got another variable to deal with – political culture. Maybe being tough on camping actually reduces the numbers of people camping, whereas being endlessly patient and laudably compassionate encourages people to camp in your jurisdiction.

      I really don’t know – and it’s all more than one thing – but I couldn’t let you get away with that leap of logic.

  2. This is just disingenuous reporting at best and outright misinformation at worst.

    The article appears to make the case that all 2000 of the additional beds required by Compassion Seattle must come from the additional 1% of funding, which is absolutely a strawman. The existing 11% of the city budget can, and must, be reallocated away from programs that are not achieving results towards more sustainable and successful solutions, like JustCARE.

    Also, defining a “sweep” as “any shift of belongings or structures” in ANY circumstance is a complete mischaracterization of the term. Following this logic, we could spend enough money to supply enough permanent supportive housing for every homeless individual in the city, complete with wraparound services, and if the individual still chooses to decline, it is now a “sweep” to require them to move? No matter how large the city makes the carrot, there will always be those who would choose to live outside the system if given that choice. We need to balance public safety with the needs of homeless individuals, and framing the conversion in absolutes as this article does is harmful to constructive discourse.

    1. Nah. It’s 18 million additional dollars. The city already spends money on human services.

  3. I never thought I’d be supportive of something like this, but after the last year of the city just allowing anything and everything to happen in Cal Anderson and Denny Park in particular for months and months on end, it’s clear that we need rules that can’t be crossed. I’m voting for 29.

    1. “Rules that can’t be crossed?” This doesn’t do anything that isn’t happening right now, in fact tomorrow at 8th and Lenora, and Thursday on Cherry. It’s so odd that folks like you think this will solve anything since 2000 folks in emergency housing still leaves another 6000-10000 without a solution. Was whoever wrote this bad at arithmetic, looking things up, or just Machiavellian?

  4. “Thousands of shelter beds might put homelessness out of sight for groups like the DSA that are concerned about the impacts of tents on businesses, but it doesn’t solve the problem, which is that thousands of people in our region lack a permanent place to live.”

    Right… so let’s let an unaffordable (at the city level) perfect (free permanent housing for anyone that needs it, and everybody else that shows up for it) be the enemy of the good (a cot and a shared roof over the head of anyone that needs it).

    This country could permanently house everyone if it cared. It doesn’t. I’ve stopped caring, too. Lot of weight off my shoulders.

    1. 2000 beds isn’t nearly enough to be a cot and shared roof for everyone who needs it. And you’re right that we could house folks permanently but some of that isn’t about caring; it’s that a lot of folks need wraparound services and/or care to succeed in permanent housing and it’s expensive. This country doesn’t like expensive unless we’re discussing cars.

    2. “This country could permanently house everyone if it cared. It doesn’t.”

      Well, the facts that we have states — our laboratories of democracy — makes that hard to frame as a national issue. And even the states are riven by geography/demography (the Cascade curtain is real). So cities and counties are where we should start.

      I have come to see Seattle as a city of people who are willing to share as long as they don’t have to give anything up. The main thing that needs to be shared is the land…without affordable land, affordable housing is impossible. Look up any home in Seattle in King County’s tax rolls and look at how the home value has increased (slowly) compared to the land value (like a rocket).

      Seattle as a city holds land it could turn over developers, following Vienna’s social housing model. $0 to get, with a land rent to make sure it gets developed (it would be nice to see landlords hustling to make *their* rent). The old SPD parcel is still vacant more than 10 years after it was cleared: if it had been offered to a developer for $1M/year ground rent, it would have been developed years ago. But it was sold to investors and sits idle, 1+ acres across from city hall. And consider all the surface parking lots downtown: any city with a housing shortage *and* surface parking is a failure. Tax that land for its developed value, not asset value, and see even more cranes with more housing to follow.

      But as long as Seattle’s land owners fear losing their unearned wealth through more development (which will only increase the value of their parcels), things will never change. The vicious game of musical chairs that is Seattle’s housing market will continue, as an auction where high tech wages force high-touch workers (food service, educations, healthcare) out of the city.

  5. I see it as a concrete plan to place a 12% floor on our GF spending for the next 6 years. There is not a ceiling on expenditure. And I do support us being able to keep certain areas clean and clear. I’m concerned for the small businesses and their employees that have also been greatly affected by this issue. I do believe that housing is a human right, but this in my opinion is a step in a positive direction.

  6. Erica: Is anyone stupid enough to believe that a problem which was created by handing out too much free stuff to those on a bad plan can be solved by handing out more free stuff to those on a bad plan? Steve Willie.

    1. At least it’s a start . . . Wait! Haven’t we already started this some time ago. But I’m still supporting Compassion Seattle.

      1. But you’re still supporting it because…?

        It’s as if no one learned math. Or stats. Or knows anyone in social services.

      1. Please tell me you are kidding! The homeless in Seattle get free food, free water, free tents, free blue tarps, free campsites in public spaces, free clothes, free RV waste collection, free laundry, free showers, free heat, free trash pickup, free tiny homes, free hotel rooms, free needles, free beer and cigarettes (shoreline), free counseling, free bathrooms, free bus rides, etc. All for doing nothing. The list of free stuff is expanding daily. Your question can only be an attempt to trap me or something. So let’s hear it. You were about to claim that the homeless don’t get free stuff? Are you new here?

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