A group of “diverse civic and community members, business and neighborhood leaders” including business groups like the Downtown Seattle Association, homelessness service providers like the Chief Seattle Club, plus the Public Defender Association, Evergreen Treatment Services, United Way King County, and the Housing Development Consortium are backing a plan to provide what they say the mayor’s office and city council cannot: a comprehensive strategy of housing, services, and clearance resources to address Seattle’s longrunning homelessness crisis.
Led by former councilmember and mayor Tim Burgess, the Compassion Seattle coalition is backing a charter amendment that would fundamentally change Seattle’s governmental structure around managing homeless services and create a separate $200 million fund to back it.
The proposal would back up its efforts to provide housing and services with a requirement that “city parks, playgrounds, sports fields, public spaces and sidewalks and streets” remain “open and clear of encampments” once the programs are available.
From Compassion Seattle’s announcement:
The groups worked collaboratively to craft specific action steps to address homelessness through a citizen initiative to amend the City Charter. It would require the city to provide low-barrier, rapid-access mental health and substance use disorder and services; field engagement; and emergency and permanent housing options with a focus on people with high barriers to services and those who are chronically homeless. Behavioral health support is often a key missing component of current interventions. Along with the mandate to provide immediate care related to mental health and substance use disorder, the plan requires the city to provide an additional 2,000 units of emergency or permanent housing within one year of the charter amendment being adopted by Seattle voters. Results from a February 2021 poll show 71% of Seattle voters are in favor of the charter amendment’s approach, including the focus on behavioral health services. The charter amendment requires the city, in conjunction with King County, to deploy a behavioral health rapid-response capability as an alternative, where appropriate, to a law-enforcement crisis response. The amendment also prioritizes addressing factors known to drive the overrepresentation of Black, Indigenous, and other people of color experiencing homelessness.
The proposal also includes structure that supporters say would address concerns around encampments with a network of shelter resources and services:
The amendment further proposes a coordinated plan to move people experiencing homelessness into emergency and permanent housing, instead of living in encampments, including enhanced shelters, tiny houses, hotel-motel rooms and other forms of non-congregate emergency or permanent housing. It requires the city to ensure that “city parks, playgrounds, sports fields, public spaces and sidewalks and streets remain open and clear of encampments” once the programs and services required by the amendment are made available.
The plan also includes a new fund that would drive the proposals by requiring the city to commit at least 12% of its General Fund — around $200 million. Backers point to the newly passed $200M+ JumpStart tax on big businesses and the coming process to sort out how best to spend $239 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds as two possible sources to help start and establish the new effort.
The announcement included an array of support from officials at local business groups, homelessness service providers, and housing providers.
“We’ve seen recently that almost everyone living on our streets is willing to relocate to a hotel room or other lodging that feels secure and leads to permanent housing, not back to the street a week or so later,” Lisa Daugaard, director at Public Defender Association, said. “We’ve also seen that many people have major barriers and need a lot of support, at least initially. 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 assistance they welcome.”
“This is the type of approach our members have long advocated for to ensure we can bring more people inside and provide the services they need,” Downtown Seattle Association President and CEO Jon Scholes said.
The proposal emerges as Seattle is pushing forward with a wider reopening after months of COVID-19 restrictions and amid criticism over the city’s handling of people living without shelter and encampments. CHS reported on calls for the city to take emergency actions to provide shelter and services to clear Capitol Hill’s Miller Park of large encampments before the return of in-person classes at the adjacent Meany Middle School campus this month.
“Our challenges here at the city are not just about CDC guidance,” Deputy Mayor Casey Sixkiller told attendees of an online neighborhood meeting about the situation. “It is about access to services, it’s access to housing… We don’t have places for people to go and so as a result folks have found other ways to survive through the past year.”
Meanwhile, the Durkan administration opted to forgo millions in potential federal funding for homelessness services and Seattle sweep actions have continued across the city. Public health guidelines advise against sweeps during the COVID-19 crisis if there are no safe shelter alternatives available.
The Durkan administration has touted the pounds of trash collected under a “Clean City” surge program set to end in April that has been focused on “removing trash to begin to set Seattle up for clear road to recovery—for our businesses, schools, neighborhoods, and residents.”
Burgess, meanwhile, has been laying groundwork for the effort. “The tents, dilapidated vehicles, and piles of trash you see in almost every Seattle neighborhood have become an enduring fixture. So has the human suffering,” Burgess wrote in a February op-ed. “We should quickly prioritize addressing these tent encampments and follow the lead of other cities that have successfully tackled this issue,” he concluded.
The next step for the coalition is gathering around 30,000 signatures to put a vote on the charter amendment proposal on the ballot. Expect to see a lot of signature gathering effort in coming weeks — the campaign to recall Kshama Sawant is also gearing up its signature gathering effort following last week’s state Supreme Court decision.
Compassion Seattle is planning to put its vote on Seattle’s November ballot.
Learn more at compassionseattle.org.
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