Initiative seeks to force Seattle to fund homeless housing and then clear camps

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Tents line a downtown Seattle street. (GeekWire Photo / John Cook)

In an effort to overhaul Seattle’s approach to its homeless crisis, a coalition of downtown business leaders and non-profit representatives on Thursday introduced a citywide ballot measure to force the city to fund a battery of services and shelters for thousands of the town’s unsheltered residents.

Called the “Compassion Seattle” charter amendment, the initiative also would require the city to keep “parks, playgrounds, sports fields, public spaces and sidewalks and streets clear of encampments” once the mandated housing, drug, and mental health services are in place.

If approved by Seattle voters, the amendment essentially bypasses the City Council and, for the first time, adds specific benchmarks and responsibilities to Seattle’s sometimes confusing, competing and decentralized array of homeless services and programs.

For example, under the proposed changes, the city would be legally required to provide an additional 2,000 units of emergency and permanent housing within one year of the amendment’s January 2022 start date.

Additionally, it mandates that Seattle offer access to behavioral health programs along with housing. Housing, under the charter amendment, could include “enhanced shelters, tiny houses, hotel-motel rooms, other forms of non-congregate emergency or permanent housing.”

Among the measure’s backers are Erin Goodman, CEO of the SODO Business Improvement Area; Lisa Daugaard, director of the Public Defender Association; Gordon McHenry Jr., president and CEO of United Way King County; Paul Lambros, CEO of Plymouth Housing; Steven Woolworth, CEO of Evergreen Treatment Services; Derek Belgrade, the deputy director of Chief Seattle Club; and Jon Scholes, CEO of the Downtown Seattle Association.

Daugaard said the ballot measure changes the city’s flawed priorities when it comes to helping the homeless population. “This framework offers the promise of actually prioritizing the people who have been left out for so long and making a plan that will reach and sustain them with the assistance they welcome.”

Added United Way’s McHenry, “We know the need for emergency housing in our region is vast, so the idea of opening 2,000 housing units in conjunction with behavioral health services is something we have long supported. However, we know from previous experience that without the resources, people will remain on the streets.”

For business owners in downtown Seattle, especially those who expect employees to return to downtown offices this summer, news of the charter amendment was welcome.

At GeekWire’s Civic Conversations event last week, Seattle’s homelessness crisis was a key topic with community leaders — including McHenry — agreeing that more needs to be done.

“There are too many employers whose employees are afraid to come back to work downtown because their bus stop is not safe,” said former Washington state Gov. Chris Gregoire, who now leads Challenge Seattle, a group whose members include the CEOs of large Seattle companies such as Zillow Group, Starbucks and Nordstrom.

Calling homelessness an “absolute crisis,” Gregoire cited successful efforts in cities like San Diego where health services, housing, and other programs helped reduce chronic homelessness.

“We can’t afford to wait another day,” she said. “Human lives are being lost. Our economy is being held back. Our communities are not feeling safe and secure.”

Heather Redman, co-founder and managing partner of Flying Fish Partners, a downtown Seattle venture capital firm, said she is encouraged by the group of people involved in the initiative.

“It will ensure that we finally address the needs of those in our community experiencing homelessness and those experiencing homelessness who also have not been able to access needed help with mental health or behavioral health issues,” Redman said.

Compassion Seattle’s launch comes at a critical time as Seattle companies weigh their return-to-work strategies. Even before the pandemic, many CEOs were tiring of the crime and squalor that plagues downtown, with a deadly January 2020 shooting rattling many tech employers. Several companies have contemplated moving out of downtown Seattle, discussions only accelerated by the pandemic.

Seattle startup Syndio recently decided not to renew its lease at its Pioneer Square headquarters, in part due to break-ins and safety concerns raised by employees. The 50-person company, which wants to stay in the city limits of Seattle, is currently evaluating where it plans to place its offices, including locations outside of Seattle.

AdLightning, another Seattle startup, left its headquarters in the Gibraltar building last March and exited the lease in August. The company is currently working remote, and CEO Scott Moore said he’s committed to getting another office at some point. But when he does, Moore said the office won’t be in downtown Seattle.

“At this point, the negatives outweigh the benefits,” he said. “It was marginal last year before the pandemic due to crime, traffic congestion and expense as well as the business-unfriendly attitude of the Seattle City Council. Now, the homeless problem has become much worse.”

Moore, who serves as city council member in Clyde Hill, said Seattle faces tough times ahead.

“Until there’s a credible, durable solution to crime and homelessness in the downtown core, I think Seattle will have a hard time luring tech companies back,” he said. “I also think Seattle’s government leaders need to send a clear signal that it wants businesses to come back downtown.”

Even still, Moore said the cities east of Seattle — like Bellevue, Kirkland and Redmond — are becoming more attractive.

“Frankly, with the explosive growth in office space, residential and transit investments on the Eastside, Seattle is becoming uncompetitive regionally,” he said.

Amazon just this week announced that employees will start returning to its headquarters, saying in a memo to staff that it plans to “return to an office-centric culture as our baseline.” However, downtown Seattle’s largest employer is boosting its presence in nearby Bellevue, Wash., with plans to employ 25,000 people there.

The initiative’s backers also expect to gather support from the 80,000 people currently living downtown — an area that became one of the city’s fastest-growing residential neighborhoods over the past decade.

However, some homeless advocates said the measure simply criminalizes homelessness.

Currently, Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office estimates that among Seattle’s 11,000 homeless, approximately 2,000 people are camping in the downtown corridor. To qualify for the ballot, the amendment’s backers must collect 33,000 valid Seattle voter signatures by the middle of June. Once on the ballot, it would need a simple majority approval to become city policy.

If it qualifies for the ballot, the Compassion Seattle initiative is likely to become a key policy point in the upcoming mayor’s race. Sources said the measure was written specifically with the 2019 U.S. Supreme Court Martin v. Boise decision in mind.

In that landmark homeless rights ruling, the court ruled that municipalities cannot arrest people for sleeping outdoors when no shelter is available in a city. The measure’s provisions for shelter and services are an effort to address the stipulations of that ruling. Among its additional provisions:

  • The City must establish a Human Services Fund of at least 12% of the City’s annual general fund revenues.
  • Mandates that Seattle “identify and address factors known to drive the overrepresentation of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color among those experiencing chronic homelessness.”
  • Requires Seattle, in the event of a declared civil emergency related to homelessness, to speed the production of emergency and permanent housing by waiving code requirements as necessary; waive permitting fees; and make all project-related permits “first-in-line”; among other provisions to speed construction.

Here’s the full charter document:

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