Unlikely alliance hopes to force Seattle to take compassionate action on homelessness
November 2021 will mark six years since Seattle declared a homeless emergency, and since then, most people will tell you the situation has only worsened. That’s even more true after a year of COVID, and enough is enough according to a coalition of unlikely allies behind the Compassion Seattle group.
“For too long, our city has allowed this problem to continue to get worse and worse and worse, and Seattleites have been told that it’s an either/or choice that you can be supportive and compassionate to the people living on the streets, or you can expect to be able to go into your park and have it clean and I think that’s a false choice,” said Erin Goodman, Executive Director of the SoDo Business Improvement Area.
“I think we can do better and that we can work on a plan that does both, that says it’s OK to be focused on strong behavioral health and housing and processes to get people inside, and to work to have parks that are available to all,” she added.
Goodman, former Seattle City Councilmember Tim Burgess, the Downtown Seattle Association, and others concerned about the state of downtown are among those joining forces on a citizen’s initiative for a Seattle charter amendment that would not only force the city council and mayor to act on homelessness, but to do so in a very specific way – with a focus on compassion, not just clearing out encampments.
“It requires the city to, in a dedicated fund, fund behavioral health services, produce a significant number of additional emergency and permanent housing units, expand their crisis rapid response capability, and further invest in diversion programs for people that are cycling through without resolution,” Goodman explained.
The proposal calls for 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 non-congregate emergency or permanent housing.
The plan would also require the city to clear tents and encampments from parks, sidewalks, streets, and other public areas as soon as those initial changes are made and a system in place.
“The city has a commitment to the parks and the people of Seattle to ensure that those spaces are available for use by the general public,” Goodman said.
Normally, you would likely see some members of the group behind this charter amendment in opposite sides of the ring, with some fighting for business and others fighting for homeless individuals and their rights. But the big difference here is they’re working together for a common goal.
“I believe this is a first step in true collaboration between the business and provider communities. Chronic unsheltered homelessness is too big of an issue for any one sector to go it alone,” said Paul Lambros, CEO at Plymouth Housing.
“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,” said Lisa Daugaard, director at the Public Defender Association, and part of the alliance.
“We’re heartened whenever we see the need for more housing amplified,” said Marty Kooistra, executive director at Housing Development Consortium of Seattle-King County. “But the rich promise offered by safe, healthy, and affordable housing can only be fully realized when housing is addressed as a part of a comprehensive strategy that recognizes, respects, and responds to all challenges to a person’s well-being and stability. These interrelated challenges require not only urgency and clarity, but the kind of forceful cross-sector resolve this action so powerfully embodies.”
As long as the declared civil emergency related to homelessness is in effect, the charter amendment directs the city government to accelerate the production of emergency and permanent housing by waiving building permit fees, treating housing permit applications as “first-in-line” for expedited treatment, and refunding to the payee the city’s portion of the sales tax paid for these facilities. The amendment also allows the city to waive normal land-use regulations to the full extent permitted by state law, so emergency and permanent housing can be more quickly established.
Should the group gather the required 33,000-plus signatures to get this to voters, it would be on the November ballot. Should it come out on top, the city would be bound by the amended charter, which would mandate an additional 2,000 shelter beds or permanent housing.
The group also hopes to address prolific offenders.
“The city has a public safety obligation and that has to be paramount, but within that can we find a better way for individuals with a certain classification of crimes, and what can be done if we look at both pre-arrest and post-arrest and develop the system,” she asked.
This would come from existing funding, according to Goodman.
“This would be a dedicated fund at the city in the charter calls for a minimum of 12% of general funds to be put into that account this is based on our look at the 2020 budget, and based on 2020 numbers at 12% would add an additional $16 million,” Goodman explained.
“We also feel like the city has the resources and the capability to when focused on one goal versus different pet projects,” she continued. “We think that now using the city’s funds to build capacity through federal and state and county in working with the regional homeless (authority), getting it off the ground now, we feel it can make a great impact with the funds that are already set aside in the budget.”
Part of that impact comes from the behavioral health response, specifically rapid crisis response.
“We have a small version of this now with the city’s Health One unit, but there has also been a lot of conversation at city council about creating a service provider-based program like a CAHOOTS or STARS,” Goodman noted. “The charter does not prescribe one over the other, but we need to be looking at a different response for people that are having either a mental health crisis or behavioral disorders in public.”
And this is also about racial equity.
“BIPOC individuals are disproportionately represented, and this charter amendment wants the city to investigate and understand why, and look at the systems, both on the city level and societal level that contribute to that, and work to address those,” she said.
But it is also not a full slap on the lack of confidence in the city council?
“We need to work together,” Goodman said. “It’s not (directed) specifically at the city council or the mayor. But what I hear from my ratepayers is that they don’t feel like the city is moving in any direction, and that the status quo is the plan.”
“It came time for a bunch of us to get together and say, ‘OK well, what would we do? How would we design this?'” she continued. “That requires input from business organizations, from government, and from social service providers. Because if we don’t create a plan that is well rounded, inclusive of best practices, and effective when evaluated, then we’re setting it up to fail. It’s essential that we work all together as a team.”