How Compassion Seattle became dividing line between candidates following defeat in court

Nov 1, 2021, 12:32 PM | Updated: 1:09 pm
Compassion Seattle, homeless crisis, single family zoning...
(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Election Day is less than 24 hours away, with Seattle set to vote on a new mayor, city attorney, and two at-large councilmembers. Leading up to that has been an election cycle where the debate around homelessness has been largely defined by Compassion Seattle’s now-defunct ballot initiative.

What went wrong for Compassion Seattle’s homeless initiative?

In practice, the initiative 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.”

After being struck down in court for going “beyond the scope” of what’s permitted in voter initiatives in Washington state, Compassion Seattle quickly morphed into a sort of measuring stick for candidates and their respective proposals to address the city’s homelessness crisis.


Mayoral candidate Bruce Harrell has been clear about his own position on the initiative, calling it a plan that he says “will help the homeless and help residents in this city.”

Harrell addressed an open letter to city councilmembers on his campaign website as well, calling on them to incorporate parts of Compassion Seattle’s initiative into the city’s 2022 budget, encompassing a minimum 12% investment in homeless response efforts, and “reflecting the core mandate of the proposed amendment.”

He has also stated that he believes “there need to be consequences” for those living in encampments who refuse an offer of shelter.

Gonzalez describes her own plan to address homelessness as “drastically different” from Compassion Seattle’s, claiming that the group’s charter amendment was “fundamentally rooted in legitimizing inhumane, forcible removal of people from parks and public spaces.”

“That is not a solution to homelessness,” she told MyNorthwest. “That is a Band-Aid approach that is the current status quo, which is to simply move the problem from one neighborhood to another, and that’s unacceptable.”

Instead, she proposes that the city prioritize “individualized service plans” for neighborhoods, while focusing on ramping up mental health services and permanent housing options.

City Council

At the council level, Position 9 candidate and Fremont Brewing co-founder Sara Nelson has similarly cited Compassion Seattle as a blueprint for how she’d envision the city’s approach to homelessness.

“I would have voted for it,” Sara Nelson said in an interview with KIRO Radio’s Gee and Ursula Show. “Here’s why: First of all, it was a plan written on paper. But more important than that, it contained an element that is missing from our response so far. And that is Seattle funding of mental health and substance abuse treatment. That’s a huge issue.”

“I believe that we need to clear encampments,” she added. “Some people call it sweeps, I call it help.”

Nelson’s opponent, Nikkita Oliver, has criticized Compassion Seattle as more of a half-measure, pointing to how it would represent “only a 1% increase of the current city spending around the issue of housing affordability and homelessness.”

“It had a six-year sunset, which meant that they also knew that it wasn’t necessarily a solution that was going to get us out of this crisis,” Oliver told MyNorthwest, going on to note how the initiative also wouldn’t have mandated permanent housing options.

Large donations to ‘Compassion Seattle’ initiative dwarf all other races

Oliver’s own priorities revolve around ensuring access to facilities like restrooms and hand-washing stations to make outdoor spaces more hospitable in the short term, while the city increases its number of permanent housing units to eventually bring those people indoors in the future.

“We don’t have enough both supportive or bridge housing, and we don’t have enough non-congregate shelters,” they said. “And often what happens when we sweep people, is we just sweep them to another place, often with even less stability and increasing the likelihood that we’ll have even more public safety issues.”


The group behind the initiative itself has since diverted its focus toward support for candidates like Harrell and Nelson. That includes former City Councilmember Tim Burgess, who served as an officer for the initiative, and formally endorsed Harrell’s candidacy in mid-August. Burgess endorsed Nelson in October.

After a court appeal from Compassion Seattle was denied, the group urged voters to “make a difference this November in who you elect as Mayor, as City Attorney, and to the City Council.”

Critics for the proposal have echoed stances voiced by candidates like Gonzalez and Oliver, with ACLU Washington claiming it would have been “neither compassionate nor effective.” A separate group that led fundraising efforts against the initiative further alleged that its “‘solutions’ are not based on research or reality.”

MyNorthwest Blog

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How Compassion Seattle became dividing line between candidates following defeat in court