What went wrong for Compassion Seattle’s homeless initiative, and what’s next?

Aug 30, 2021, 5:56 AM | Updated: 11:00 am
Compassion Seattle...
Tents in Seattle. (Photo: Rob Harwood)
(Photo: Rob Harwood)

A King County judge struck Compassion Seattle’s proposed charter amendment from the November ballot last Friday. After months of fundraising and a sizable mobilization of resources, what’s next for the group behind the initiative?

ACLU: Compassion Seattle initiative ‘is neither compassionate nor effective’

In practice, the proposed amendment would have mandated 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. It also would have placed a requirement on the city to “ensure that parks, playgrounds, sports fields, public spaces, and sidewalks and streets remain open and clear of encampments.”

Critics have pointed out that the initiative did not identify a funding source for the 2,000 proposed shelter beds, nor would it have been enough to fully house the city’s estimated 4,000 unhoused individuals. Early on, a coalition of groups had also tried to block the measure by unsuccessfully claiming its ballot title was deceptive.

Compassion Seattle also encountered several issues leading up to its defeat in court. In late May, the group 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 endorsement page had not formally offered support for the measure.

Its signature-gathering process wasn’t without controversy either, including an account from one canvasser who described a process where the group was “putting us on the street to get as many signatures as we can without knowing what we’re doing.” Despite qualifying for the November ballot after turning in over 64,000 signatures, nearly half were deemed invalid, the “vast majority” of which were due to signers who weren’t registered to vote in the city of Seattle.

Then, in early August, the ACLU filed a lawsuit in King County Superior Court, claiming that Compassion Seattle’s charter amendment went “beyond the scope” of what’s permitted in voter initiatives in Washington.

“CA-29 ignores well-established limits to the local initiative process,” ACLU of Washington Staff Attorney Breanne Schuster said at the time. “State law provides multiple avenues for constituents to influence homelessness policies and practices, but the initiative process at the city level is not one of them. CA-29 violates both our state’s local initiative laws and the proper function of our democratic systems.”

Compassion Seattle fired back, labeling the lawsuit “yet another blatant tactic to preserve and protect the status quo by the same small group of activists who unsuccessfully appealed the Charter Amendment 29 ballot title.”

King County Judge Catherine Shaffer ultimately agreed with the ACLU’s reasoning, ruling that the charter amendment would have circumvented Seattle’s homeless response processes, overriding the authority of state and city lawmakers, and violating a joint agreement already in place between the city and the nascent King County Regional Homeless Authority.

Over the course of its campaign, Compassion Seattle raised over $1 million in contributions, including several large donations between $25,000 and $50,000 from local real estate, property management, and investment companies. The group spent over $995,000, including roughly $184,000 on signature gathering, $51,000 on mailers, and $16,000 on fundraising and outreach.

Moving forward, it has indicated that it does not plan to appeal Judge Shaffer’s ruling, citing a process that would not have allowed enough time before King County Elections begins sending out the first round of overseas and absentee ballots in early September.

Regardless, it also noted that it “strongly disagrees” with Shaffer’s decision, urging its supporters to “not give up the fight,” and turning its focus toward the city’s three major election races coming up in November.

Alliance hopes to force Seattle to take action on homelessness

“We can still make our voices heard in the elections for Mayor, City Council, and City Attorney,” it said in a news release. “In each race, the difference between the candidates is defined by who supports what the Charter Amendment was attempting to accomplish and who does not.”

Meanwhile, opponents of the initiative have lauded the ruling as “preventing a misleading and illegal use of local ballot initiative powers.”

“It’s important that voters fully understand what they are being asked to weigh in on, and CA 29 makes promises it can’t keep,” Katie Wilson of the Transit Riders Union said last week.

“Judge Shaffer’s ruling affirms well-established limits to the local initiative process and recognizes the importance of the proper functioning of our democratic systems,” Breanne Schuster agreed. “We are pleased that CA 29 will not stand as an impediment to solutions that meaningfully address our housing crisis and do not punish people for trying to meet their basic life-sustaining needs like shelter, sleep, and food.”

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What went wrong for Compassion Seattle’s homeless initiative, and what’s next?