Op-ed: How to Improve Compassion Seattle’s Charter Amendment

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Compassion Seattle promotional image. (Courtesy of Compassion Seattle)

Author’s Note:

I eventually changed my mind and moved from the ambivalent support you see below to firm opposition. Two reasons were paramount:

  1. CA29’s use of “enhanced shelter” in the definition of “emergency housing” meant that the “units” built could be beds in big, congregate shelters. I made the mistake of assuming “enhanced shelter” required residents to be given private rooms. It does not. It is my fault for missing this trojan horse on the first pass. Shelters are in no way a serious form of housing, and are often more harmful to people than camps. They are not good policy, and are not compassionate, especially when given as an excuse to sweep people from parks. This is reason enough to firmly oppose it. It’s also notable that Bruce Harrell seems hell-bent on keeping taxes low and flat, which makes it even more likely that only shelter beds will be built if he is elected. Fortunately, Lorena Gonzalez supports tax increases.
  2. The apparent broad coalition of support turned out to be ephemeral, if it ever existed. It later emerged that many of these organizations did not endorse the campaign. Not only that, but the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, which represents all of these organizations and many more, was a plaintiff in the lawsuit to stop the amendment. That means that many of its supposed supporters were actually in the coalition that succeeded in suing to stop it. The coalition was not broad, and many organizations I respect, that have deep expertise on the subject, opposed it. This too was enough reason to switch me from weak support to opposition

Due to my ambivalence from the beginning, I did not provide a signature for the ballot.

Original Article Text

A group calling itself “Compassion Seattle” is pushing for a change to the City’s charter to address our homelessness crisis. It is backed by an unusual coalition: from centrist business groups like the Seattle Metro Chamber and the Downtown Seattle Association, to more progressive human services organizations like Plymouth Housing, DESC, Fare Start, the Public Defender Association, and Evergreen Treatment Services. This unusual consensus over a human services issue speaks volumes on our elected officials’ incompetence in addressing the crisis. 

The amendment seeks to accelerate the construction of affordable housing, add data transparency, increase funding for mental health, and set guidelines around campsite removal. In this author’s opinion, its strengths outweigh its weaknesses. But it has some serious flaws, and since its drafters appear open to amendment, I’ll suggest a few fixes that would make it much better. 

More Housing for the Homeless

First, the best part. The Charter Amendment requires the city to build 1,000 units in six months, and another 1,000 the following six months. These will be “emergency or permanent housing with…behavioral health service and necessary staffing to serve people with the highest barriers.” These must be “in addition to those already funded” to prevent politicians from using fuzzy math to take credit for things that were already going to happen. 

Two thousand homes will provide stable housing within one year to our most desperate citizens. When coupled with King County’s plan to build units for up to 2,000 people, it will reach almost the entire chronically homeless population. It also avoids the thorny issue of funding, which might be required for a more ambitious target.

But it needs to be bigger. It ignores our other rough-sleeping neighbors, who need another 3,600 units countywide. Given our share of the homeless population, Seattle should shoulder 2,500 more transitional units. This will probably require a modest tax increase, but with state and federal matching dollars, and spreading it over a few years of revenue, the tax bill will be small enough that the coalition could stay cobbled together. 

None of this includes the remaining 4,000 people living in emergency shelters, or the many who cycle in and out of homelessness every year. That suggests that the Seattle share should include another 2,500 transitional units for the shelter folks and possibly several more thousand for the temporarily homeless. But the higher taxes needed for this would torpedo the coalition. So this charter amendment is not the best vehicle for getting that done. 

Expanding Behavioral Health Support

Another welcome provision requires the city to fund “low-barrier, rapid-access, mental health and substance use disorder treatment and services . . . [for the] chronically homeless.” They must include a “behavioral health rapid-response field capacity” that works with “non-law enforcement crisis response systems,” using “culturally distinct approaches.” This has to be available to everyone living in housing for the (otherwise) homeless, and it requires an increase of funding from 11% to 12% of the budget, which is about $15 million. The Compassion Seattle folks believe this will cover even the high end cost estimates for the additional behavioral health services. 

They could improve the amendment by guaranteeing these services for folks in and out of homelessness or even those at high risk for homelessness, and by furnishing the funds to support this.

Performance Metrics

The amendment also mandates that the City publish quarterly information regarding the “effectiveness of strategies and services designed to transition homeless individuals to housing,” and inform the public “which city services, activities, and practices may contribute to people entering or experiencing homelessness.” Perhaps this will help us hold our electeds’ feet to the fire. I doubt it. The city already measures the impact of the providers who serve the homeless. When providers flunk the test, some just go straight to the city council and get written directly into the budget instead. Data dashboards don’t necessarily prevent cronyism or incompetence. Making them public might help. 

But tying funds to performance will work much better. The vague language about “practices and strategies…that effectively engage, shelter and house” needs tightening. Funding should depend on the ratio of dollars of funding to months housed, with a minimum magnitude of average months housed. This should be measured separately by risk-tier, since chronically unsheltered folks are much more expensive to house. Racial groups and other marginalized groups should also be measured separately. Efficiency should be maximized for interventions within the groups, not across the groups, to prevent performance data from driving biased funding away from marginalized citizens. 

Reducing the Cost and Time to Build Housing for the Homeless

The amendment lowers barriers for construction of housing for the unsheltered. It requires the City to waive land use codes, regulation and permitting fees, move projects serving the homeless to the front of the permitting line, and refund various city-related costs, fees, and sales taxes. This is excellent, but could be better on five fronts. It should:

  1. Be permanent, rather than tied to periods of declared homelessness  emergencies. This will help prevent future emergencies. 
  2. Include all subsidized housing, but prioritize permits for housing the homeless first.
  3. Waive the design review process for affordable housing.
  4. Waive parking, lot coverage, and rear and side setback requirements.
  5. Increase heights for affordable housing to 85 feet in multifamily and mixed used neighborhoods, and 45 feet in lower density neighborhoods, with increased floor to area ratios to match. At minimum this should apply in all high opportunity and high frequency transit neighborhoods, and to community land trusts in remaining neighborhoods. 

Funding

The Amendment hives off a separate fund for human services and homeless programs, with a 12%-of-revenue funding floor. This is in some sense an unfunded mandate. But a great deal of federal money is headed our way. And it will force the City to prioritize housing the homeless instead of waiting for more tax money, as booster John Scholes of the Downtown Seattle Association said to the Seattle Times. The bill might be better if it includes a funding mechanism, but I suspect that is too heavy a lift for this likely fragile coalition. 

Sunset Clause

The Amendment also includes a six-year sunset clause. This pays homage to the fact that we shouldn’t lard up our charter with policy initiatives in perpetuity. Policy needs come and go, and charters are like constitutions. But the sunsetting seems overbroad and premature. We need to have a basic framework for addressing any unhoused humans within our borders for the long haul. Nevertheless, it might sense to sunset certain specific provisions, like the 12% requirement, in a decade or so. 

Camp Removals

Finally, the most difficult and contentious item requires the City to make housing available so that public spaces can remain free of “unauthorized encampments.” We cannot be certain of exactly how this will affect removals, as exemplified by the fact that even our mayoral candidates disagree on whether it empowers or limits camp removal. 

From a pure statutory standpoint, the amendment narrows the scope for removals in two ways: It puts refreshing limits on how people are removed, by requiring individualized interventions, which pay attention to culture, family structure, and disability. It also acknowledges the possibility of harm from encampment closures. These will guide the city to more appropriate action and give the aggrieved grounds to challenge the manner in which removals take place.

On its surface, the amendment also limits whether camps may be removed. One clause says the City’s policy is to “make available…housing to those living unsheltered so that the City may take actions to ensure that [public spaces] remain open and clear of unauthorized encampments.” The plain language implies housing options are required before for removal. But as a matter of formal logic, the drafting does not pull this off. A later clause is clearer. It says that “it is City policy to avoid, as much as possible, dispersing people, except to safe and secure housing. This suggests that housing is required, unless one of the exceptions in the next part of the text apply.

Exceptions

The problem is that exceptions could be read so broadly that they completely swallow the requirement for housing availability. There are public health and safety exceptions, which is reasonable. But “interference with the use of public spaces by others” blows open a yawning gap in the rule. What qualifies as interference? Do subjective feelings of unsafety qualify? Whose subjective feelings? Does someone have to physically block access? If a camper is on public land, isn’t she technically “interfering” with at least her tent’s worth of access to that public space? A court will probably require something like a “reasonable” sense of interference, but given the sharp divergence in how various sets of mainstream Seattle citizens react to the camps, isn’t this just asking the court to treat “reasonable” like a Rorschach test?  

There are other serious drafting issues. The definition of “public spaces” in the first clause currently includes “parks, playgrounds, sports fields, public spaces, and sidewalks and streets.” “Public spaces” is defined to include “public spaces.” (Try doing something like that with a formula in Microsoft Excel and see what happens!) Worse, if this language sticks around, a literal interpretation of it allows for removal from ANY space, even if there is no housing available. This is because trespassing law protects private land, and a literal definition of “public space” would include all space owned by the public. That’s all the space! True, a court might note that this reading of the exception swallows the meaning of the statute, and narrow it using some statutory interpretation tools, but narrow it to what? The language is so unclear that it is best understood as punting the question of removal to the courts.

Fixing This Section

If the amendment is supposed to actually shape when removals occur, it should be clearer and more prescriptive. Getting this past the many hands of the coalition is hard work, but right now, the added ambiguity may make matters worse on multiple fronts. Three changes are needed:

  1. The requirement for housing availability prior to camp clearance should be as explicit in the opening sentence as it is in the sentence that says it is “City policy, to avoid, as much as possible, disbursing people, except to safe and secure housing.”
  1. “Public spaces” should be removed from the definition of “public spaces.” If the coalition cannot agree on narrowing the list to only the current specified examples, it can add “and similar spaces,” which a court will interpret in light of the existing list.  
  2. “Interference” should be defined as physically blocking access or creating an objectively threatening atmosphere when using public spaces. That way the drafters don’t have to anticipate every future situation, but the text can still serve as a real guide to officials and courts.

These changes should go a long way to allay concerns of some progressives that the statute is a trojan horse for rampant removal. 

Conclusion

The Charter Amendment is a coat of many colors, some beautiful, some neutral, some ugly. The requirements for more housing, mental health and funding are outstanding. But if we are going to house our homeless neighbors and end the problem of encampments, we need to build for the intermittently homeless too. We can’t expect our electeds to step in and do this. The fact that they cannot get this sort of thing done is implicit in the very existence of the amendment. Regulatory burdens should also be removed for all affordable units, and not just for periods of emergency. The coalition should consider expanding mental health support to those who have recently exited the system, or are at high risk of homelessness. The performance metric requirements and data transparency are good, but funding for agencies and programs should tie to performance. The sunset clause should be lengthened in time and narrowed in scope. Finally, the purported goals of the camp removal sections are a big step forward, but the drafting completely kneecaps their effectiveness when it comes to the question of when removals are allowed. Clearer wording on this front would make this a much better proposal. 

As it is currently written, I support the measure. The benefits are enormous, and the risk of it being used as a club to bludgeon our unhoused neighbors with arbitrary removals looks fairly low, but that is subject to change as political winds tend to. My vote for the bill will be much more solid if the Coalition clarifies the requirements and exceptions for removal. And I’d be screaming support from the rooftops if they also required performance metrics for spending and chose to expand the housing construction mandate.

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Ron Davis (Guest Contributor)

Ron Davis is an entrepreneur that has spent most of his professional life working to improve the lives of workers and seniors. He's a former member of the Citizen Oversight Panel for Sound Transit and is active in trying to make Seattle a more just, inclusive, clean, walkable, city. He has a JD from Harvard Law School and lives in Northeast Seattle with his wife, a family physician, and their two boys.

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Aidan Carroll

Ron cites/links to the Times interview last winter where Jason Johnson took the opportunity to dishonestly smear SHARE/WHEEL/Nicklesville, so this seems like a good place to post their statement correcting the record that circulated by email a few months ago:

Rebuttal to 2/15/21 Seattle Times Interview with Jason Johnson by Scott Greenstone

By SHARE Writers Daniel McCraw, Joe Kirk and Anitra Freeman with Alex Finch and Scott Morrow from Nickelsville 2/23/21

Why is it so hard, in a democratic republic such as America and in an inclusive city such as Seattle, for the recent Interim/Acting but never Permanent Seattle Human Services Director Jason Johnson to see the value of engaging with grassroots, self-managed communities who exercise their right to be heard? This is the SHARE and Nickelsville response to Mr. Johnson’s recent slur of SHARE/WHEEL and Nickelsville, three separate organizations led by homeless and formerly homeless people.  In different ways we each fight for the real solution to ending homelessness (AFFORDABLE HOUSING) while providing shelter space every single night 365 days a week, starting with SHARE in 1990. 
A constructive and accurate response to Mr. Johnsons slur requires setting out some history, facts on the ground, and what homeless people need right now. Times Reporter Scott Greenstone conveniently avoided troubling Mr. Johnson with these, instead focusing on the homeless services power structure’s present soap opera and state of mind.
Let’s start with money. Controlling funding was the base of Jason Johnson’s power – no one worked with him because of his crackpot ideas and bureaucratic mendacity (we’ll get to those.) Rather, it was because he controlled the City’s homeless services money.
This was a powerful perch, but Johnson exaggerates his power and control of the funding available to SHARE, WHEEL and Nickelsville. He is of the mistaken opinion that the City Council should play a minor role in city budgets. He is plain wrong when describing the role of other public funders, who he claims have deserted us. In fact, FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) steadily funds SHARE/WHEEL. King County returned to supporting SHARE/WHEEL at the start of the pandemic, and like it or not, the City of Seattle pays Nickelsville Northlake Tiny House Village’s utilities.
Nickelsville and SHARE congratulate our sisters at WHEEL for their remarkable perseverance, persuasiveness, hard work and coalition building in starting a new low-barrier women’s shelter at First Presbyterian Church, with significant City of Seattle support, just this month.
Granted, United Way should support grassroots democratic organizations more than they have. Unfortunately, their present cookie-cutter requirements effectively disqualify democratic self-managed organizations that emphasize shelter and privacy.
Nickelsville Tiny House Villages, SHARE shelters and tent cities and other projects do not operate from the top down. We are communities of self-managed people. We are non-autocratic. We are willing to go to the City Council for a cause we believe in individually or collectively. We are in solidarity with those that offer their support for true solutions. In a democratic republic this should not be held against us.
(continued below)

Last edited 5 months ago by Aidan Carroll
Aidan Carroll

(continued)
“It is a shame that we struggle for establishment funding while traditional non-profits (that don’t vigorously challenge crackpot schemes) gobble up the bulk of the city’s 165 million dollars designated for the homeless services industry. Still, our successful democratic advocacy seems to irritate Mr. Johnson the most.
Jason Johnsons’ most wasteful and unsuccessful homelessness theory is Rapid Rehousing. It assumes that right now, here in Seattle, in a small amount of time in some agency managed motel room, tiny house or enhanced shelter homeless people can be fixed up a bit. Quickly they are referred by the kindly agencies to housing where they will live happily ever after.  And if the agency doesn’t move the homeless person along, Johnson would penalize the agency.
The result is that often homeless people are swept and placed into programs then quickly abandoned once a ‘metric’ is met. Homeless individuals, who have not had a “normal” existence for sometimes up to years get a break on a couple months’ rent and then it’s sink or swim. The process is often mechanical. In this situation one never has a chance to regain a sense of belonging. We can pack shelters and tent cities until they are bursting with people, but if they have nowhere affordable to go the pipeline explodes.
Implementing Rapid Rehousing results in too many homeless people being pushed from shelter to street or maybe an unaffordable apartment for a month or two until getting evicted due to lack of funds.  We estimate that way more than half those ‘in the system’ don’t succeed in staying in housing.  Some studies agree.
No, SHARE participants didn’t appreciate our indoor shelter system being defunded by Jason Johnson in 2016 and having to sleep outside as a group for half a year because we didn’t guarantee Rapid Rehousing would work. Thank goodness more sensible heads prevailed, restored the funding, and SHARE resumed operating the most cost effective, democratic and community minded indoor shelter network in Seattle.
SHARE was right about rapid rehousing then, and our success helped stop Johnson from punishing other agencies who can’t implement the fantasy either. 
When Johnson complains about us, this is why. His attempts – this is just one example – to punish those who are right about Rapid Rehousing and speak truth to power failed. We don’t give up. 
Nickelsville hasn’t given up either.  They started Seattle’s first Tiny House Village more than 13 years ago.  Here is our disagreement with Jason Johnson:  We believe that poor people, even while poor, deserve a community to live in with safety, health, stability, storage, loved ones, good food, self-management, democratic decision making and maybe even a garden. That is why we like Tiny House Villages.
The rich are still getting richer, and the poor are still getting poorer. While old fashioned affordable housing is the goal, history and reality tell us Seattle is actually going backwards, not forwards. Every month it is harder, not easier, for poor people to find an affordable home here.” (continued below)

Aidan Carroll

(continued) “That is why Nickelsville finds Rapid Rehousing absurd. That is why we will not pretend that Tiny House Villages are a mere 3-month stopover on the rapid road to ‘normal’ affordable housing. We deserve a better home and community now, even if we are poor.  That is what we can do – together – in Tiny House Villages.
In our 13 years of operating Tiny House Villages the Human Services Department – as epitomized by Jason Johnson – has over and over again ignored what we want and need, pretended that HSD failures are our fault, and tried to stamp out city support for democracy and self-management of tiny house villages.
Jason Johnson has supported the violent and illegal take over of democratic and legal Tiny House Villages. As he leaves HSD it was still blocking the funding for democratic community organizations like SHARE and Nickelsville – even though the City Council instructed them to do this last fall.
Another unnecessary Johnson fiasco were Seattle’s Navigation Teams, whose encampment sweeps gave police money and power to scatter people. Johnson said the Navigation Team succeeded because it made homeless people choose between the shelter system and the legal system. Forcing homeless people to choose between a bed bug ridden, privacy violating shelter separated from your community and possession or jail is not a SHARE or Nickelsville definition of success.
Rapid Rehousing, the Navigation Team and 165 million.  These Johnson led initiatives wasted millions and did precisely nothing to make a sustainable solution.
An accurate history of SHARE/WHEEL and Nickelsville won’t be found in the Seattle Times. As Malcom X said, “If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.”  Times Reporter Scott Greenstone’s job is to help Johnson avoid this history and denigrate democratic advocacy.
Let’s not forget that housing should be, and could be, a basic human right like food and clothing. It is hard for housed people, going on with their lives the best they can, to understand it is not only and precisely because the people who own the local newspaper, the radio stations and the TV station do not want you thinking so dangerously and out of step with their needs and economic interests. Their messaging will reflect that and try to influence the general public into buying into that wholesale.
There will be a day when criminalizing homelessness will be accurately described alongside all the other forms of punishment in history those who had no choice were forced to undergo. First though poor and working people must have their own media, that listens and reports on working and poor people in the manner the Blethen Family has the Times report on the impacts of homelessness on the wealthy.
Seattle history also shows Johnson didn’t have to be adversarial.  In the 90’s and 00’s, HSD Directors sometimes allowed their staff to problem solve on the ground. We remember HSD Staff like Karin Dawson who listened and responded to facts, regardless of her boss’s nutty theories.” (continued below)

Aidan Carroll

(continued) “We worked with her in a respectful and professional manner that Jason Johnson – or anybody -would have received if he would have sat down with us. The reality is that we love to talk about and help solve problems, we do it every single day on so many levels those unacquainted with us would be amazed at the dedication and perseverance.
We want to sit at the same tables as Amazon and The Chamber of Commerce. As a group of homeless people, working for homeless people for decades at this point, we ARE experts in homelessness.
SHARE/WHEEL and Nickelsville cuts out the profit of the homeless-industrial complex and passes the savings onto you! No other homeless services organizations do so much, at such little cost, period exclamation mark! We don’t have an army of staff and a CEO, we have a self-managed group of shelters, tiny houses and Tent Cities, who constitute the best solution to homelessness while we wait for real affordable housing for all.
The foul weather of the last few weeks has caused the COVID-19 and Economic Crisis to get even worse. Thousands of homeless and even housed individuals are facing extreme cold that they are not prepared for. Did the government make or call out the Sheraton, Hilton, Holiday Inn or other hoteliers to help? They’ve got the empty rooms.  No, the most notable help has been a series of acts of mutual aid from housed and unhoused communities. People who have a sense of what it’s like to belong. SHARE participants and Nickelodeons live like this. This is what we teach people. This is what makes a better society and should be supported and encouraged. 
We choose, in a democratic society, to actually act democratic. We are not apologizing for that. Daily, in our shelters, tent cities and tiny homes, we hold each other accountable. It is with a clear and agreed upon social contract that ensures the safety, security and the ability to function as a healthy community. It isn’t perfect but it is better than the alternatives, like any democracy.
We remain, as always, willing to work with anyone and everyone to end homelessness, in a democratic, inclusive and community-driven process.”

pat simon

The short answer here is that this proposed amendment merely ratifies what we have now; it does nothing new or helpful. It has been weakened once already to pander to those who think camping in public spaces is OK. It’s a ridiculous exercise and should be stopped. What we need is equal enforcement of our laws.

A Joy

This charter amendment is awful, and guest contributor spin downright disingenuous.

First off, 2,000 housing units is still less than half of the people sleeping on the streets of Seattle. So this does not “reach almost the entire chronically homeless population.”. Neither does it avoid “the thorny issue of funding.”. Quite the contrary. As an unfunded mandate it is directly in the cross hairs of the funding issue, punting the hard decisions down the road so that in time this part of the amendment can be conveniently ignored.

Mental health and substance abuse programs are always a good idea, but their inclusion here shows the lack of insight and implicit bias of those who drafted this amendment. Studies show only between 30 and 40% of those living on our streets have a drug issue. The numbers are roughly the same for mental health problems (excluding the PTSD that is common from living on the streets for an extended period of time, as that is an effect and not a cause). So while this programs would help, they would not lead to a significant decrease in homelessness.

Waiving land use codes is an obvious bad idea. Building ghettos does not serve any group or community. And relaxing regulations is exactly how rat traps get built. The health of people living in such housing is substandard, and as such well beneath what should be the goals of social service programs.

Camp removal is the true underlying goal of this amendment. Specifically, it aims to criminalize camping on the sidewalks and in parks. This only makes it harder for a person to get off the streets as a criminal record and associated debts (which can easily climb into the thousands of dollars) don’t help one’s credit score. And with at best only around 40% of the chronically homeless housed, that leaves over 3,000 people who are automatically now a criminal underclass.

The benefits of this amendment are minimal, ephemeral, and run counter to helping the issue it claims to help. It does not surprise me to see the DSA and Chambers of Commerce supporting such an amendment, as their focus is purely one of business and they’d rather see homeless people in jails over on the streets. Most homelessness NPOs I am aware of (and volunteer for) stand adamantly against this amendment, recognizing it for what it truly is. In the end, this amendment will make the homeless issue worse over time or just force it out of Seattle city limits, which helps nobody involved.