New initiative could force Seattle to fund homeless housing and treatment, then clear encampments

SEATTLE — A new initiative wants to change how Seattle responds to homelessness. The plan would override the city council and mayor and force the city to fund homeless housing, and then clear encampments in public spaces – but only if voters approve the measure.

The citizen initiative is called “Compassion Seattle.” It details a plan step-by-step and would make that plan a part of the city’s charter – essentially the city’s constitution.

“People really want to see specific actions and results. Solutions. And this is what this charter amendment does,” said Tim Burgess, former long-time Seattle City Council member and volunteer with Compassion Seattle. “Putting it in the charter is the best way for the people of Seattle to compel action,” he said.

“We decided, ‘let’s come together on this,’ because this (homelessness) is a crisis I think we all see getting worse,” said Jon Scholes, president and CEO of the Downtown Seattle Association.

Scholes said people could expect to see petitioners starting to gather signatures in the next few weeks. The initiative would need 33,060 valid signatures to make it onto the ballot.

It’s hardly a secret many people in Seattle are fed up with the city’s response to homelessness.

“Oh, it’s totally frustrating,” said Scott White, who works at Bartell’s Drugs next to the Ballard Commons. He said he and other employees have been assaulted repeatedly while at work.

But frustration with the city is something people unsheltered are feeling too.

“Most people I know out here are here because there’s nowhere else to be. And I think we deserve better,” said Boar Sun, who said he has been homeless for about a year now and is staying near the Ballard Commons.

Now nearly a dozen business association groups, plus non-profits – many of which help the homeless – have teamed together to take matters into their own hands with “Compassion Seattle.”

Plymouth Housing, United Way King County, Downtown Emergency Services Center, and Evergreen Treatment are a few of the non-profits that have already shown support.

The initiative lays out a plan that would become part of the city’s charter and require Seattle to provide:

  • Immediate care related to mental health and substance use disorder
  • Health services, including a rapid response team that is available as an alternative to police in some situations
  • 2,000 units of emergency or permanent housing within one year of the charter amendment being adopted by Seattle voters
  • Keep public spaces, including parks and sidewalks open and clear of encampments, only after services and housing options are available

The initiative would also put 12 percent of the City’s annual general fund towards the Human Services Fund to carry out the plan.

“I think this will end the political infighting and some of the disfunction and disagreement on the approach. This sets forward what we believe the approach needs to be - that has been proven to work to get people inside,” Scholes said.

Scholes said a poll of 500 Seattle voters showed 71 percent were in favor of the charter amendment’s approach.

Some experiencing homelessness agree it may be time to try something new – if the initiative lives up to its name.

“As long as you’re compassionate and we’re on the same terms, I think it could be great,” Sun said. “It definitely sounds like something I would support,” he said.