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ACLU: ‘Compassion Seattle’ homelessness proposal ‘is neither compassionate nor effective’

A homeless camp in Seattle. (KIRO 7)

A newly-proposed Seattle charter amendment could have wide-ranging impacts on the city’s homelessness response efforts should it get on the ballot and be approved by voters this November. But as its supporters have poured money and resources into its potential passage, opposition has begun to take shape.

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That opposition includes ACLU Washington, which put out a release Tuesday claiming that the charter amendment would “enshrine Seattle’s current ineffective and harmful practices of sweeping unhoused residents and their homes from public places, while doing nothing to meaningfully address homelessness.”

The initiative is being pushed forward by a group known as Compassion Seattle, staffed by SoDo Business Improvement Area Executive Director Erin Goodman, former City Council President Tim Burgess, and former King County Executive Ron Sims, among others.

The group’s proposed amendment to the city charter would mandate an additional 2,000 shelter beds or permanent housing units within a one-year period 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.

Additionally, it places a requirement on the city “to ensure that parks, playgrounds, sports fields, public spaces and sidewalks and streets remain open and clear of encampments.”

As it has begun to raise money and collect signatures, though, the group has encountered early controversy.

According to reporting from Publicola’s Erica Barnett, Compassion Seattle had erroneously claimed that homelessness organizations like United Way of King County, Plymouth Housing, the Downtown Emergency Service Center, Farestart, and Evergreen Treatment Services, among others, had endorsed the charter amendment. It was later revealed that a large majority of the groups listed on Compassion Seattle’s now-defunct endorsement page had not formally offered support for the measure. In the wake of that revelation, the page was pulled down, and has yet to relaunch.

For the ACLU, the issue is rooted in the fact that the charter amendment contains no requirements specifically mandating permanent housing, and that it “criminalizes poverty,” while focusing mainly on “destroying unhoused peoples’ homes and shuffling them all over Seattle.”

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“The government’s destruction of peoples’ homes and belongings when they have nowhere else to go is neither compassionate nor effective,” the ACLU states.

Responding to the ACLU’s release on Tuesday, Compassion Seattle stated that its proposed charter amendment “does not promote sweeps, nor do we believe sweeps to be an effective practice to help those living unsheltered.”

Its response continues with the following:

Charter Amendment 29 does not criminalize homelessness; it says nothing about law enforcement. It does require expansion of diversion programs so police, prosecutors, defense attorneys and the courts can decide on a case-by-case basis whether treatment and other individualized services are better than arrest and prosecution.

Charter Amendment 29 is focused on resolving the crisis of unsheltered people living in our parks, playgrounds, sidewalks, and other public spaces. This is a crisis we can all see with our own eyes. The Amendment is about addressing the needs of those living outside today, not in several years when more affordable housing is available. Of course, we acknowledge the need for more permanent affordable housing, including supportive housing, but our housing supply shortage doesn’t mean we should ignore those living outdoors today.

Charter Amendment 29 recognizes the racial inequities among those experiencing homelessness and prioritizes specific steps to address this important issue.

Charter Amendment 29 is all about increasing behavioral health services and creating more emergency housing units so people can be brought inside and receive the help they deserve. And it’s about doing it now, not waiting for the housing supply shortage to be resolved at some future time. The conditions people are living in outside in our community are often unsafe, unhealthy, and inhumane. Our neighbors deserve better and maintaining the status quo only hurts our chances of making any real, measurable progress. We can do better.

Meanwhile, a separate group called “House our Neighbors” has emerged as the more formal direct opposition to Compassion Seattle’s proposal, arguing that the amendment doesn’t provide enough time or funds to build the adequate volume of housing needed to move people from encampments into shelter beds.”

“The Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Seattle Association have adopted phony compassionate language to sell the same failed approach of repeated displacement that has been carried out in our City for years, while denying that new resources are needed to address the homelessness crisis,” House our Neighbors says on its website. “Their ‘solutions’ are not based on research or reality, and the proposed charter amendment would codify current failed practices that have worsened the crisis in our region.”

As of June 6, the group has raised just over $1,100 in opposition to the measure, while Compassion Seattle has brought in over $734,000. Prominent contributors in support of the amendment include several local real estate and investment groups, many of whom have donated between $20,000 and $50,000 each.

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