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PubliCola has reviewed multiple early, unpublished drafts of the measure.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.
“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.