‘Compassion Seattle’ backers file enchantment to get homelessness initiative again on November poll

A homeless encampment in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood. (GeekWire Photo / John Cook)

Backers of the Compassion Seattle measure reversed course Tuesday morning and decided to appeal a judge’s decision to remove the homeless policy reform measure from the November ballot.

Filed mid-morning in the Washington Court of Appeals Division 1, the appeal requests a stay of the decision noting, “If this Court does not issue a stay, Seattle’s citizens would therefore be prohibited for two years from considering and adopting a Charter amendment concerning the homelessness crisis Seattle citizens are facing this year,” the filing reads.

Hours after receiving the appeal, the court accepted the request, set up a hearing panel, and agreed to make a ruling on the stay request by Friday.

A Compassion Seattle spokesperson said the group was left with no choice but to appeal.

“As we said last Friday, we strongly disagree with Judge Catherine Shaffer’s decision to strike Charter Amendment 29, a decision that blocks Seattle voters from being able to voice their opinion about the continuing crisis of homelessness,” the spokesperson said in a statement.

“The Judge’s decision caused an outpouring of support over the weekend from supporters who want us to press on with an appeal. We decided that we must take this action to represent the interests of tens of thousands of voters who signed petitions to put this amendment on the ballot.”

The groups backing the initiative, which include the Downtown Seattle Association and the Seattle Chamber of Commerce, initially had decided to forgo an appeal of the Friday decision, believing there was too little time to return the measure which mandates how City Hall manages Seattle’s homeless crisis to the ballot.

Compassion Seattle would have required the city to improve services, build 2,000 units of shelter, and then remove encampments from public spaces such as parks and sidewalks. On Friday, King County Superior Court Judge Catherine Shaffer said the initiative stepped outside of state law when it made city budget mandates through the charter intuitive process.

But over the course of the weekend, backers of the charter amendment and attorneys interested in the issue questioned Judge Shaffer’s rationale for removing the measure from the ballot in the first place. 

Additionally, supporters of Compassion Seattle have also turned their focus to the November election as another path toward their end goal: to force a significant change in the way city spends money on treating and housing its homeless population.

The debate about Compassion Seattle came at exactly the same time that large employers such as Amazon began planning to return some workers to headquarters in Seattle’s business district, which has been hit hard by the homeless crisis.

In each of the races at the top of the city ballot — mayor, two at-large city council seats, and the city attorney’s race — every candidate already has declared either support or opposition to Compassion Seattle. The backers might not have a charter amendment anymore, but they do now have a slate of candidates.

“There really is a clear choice here,” said Jon Scholes, president and CEO of the Downtown Seattle Association, a prime backer of the measure. “You’ve got to change who is in charge if you want a different outcome.”

To that end, some of the initiative’s backers, which include the DSA and the Seattle Chamber of Commerce, are now turning their energy toward the upcoming elections and with special attention to which candidates support  Compassion Seattle and which do not.

From the DSA point of view, this would mean former council president Bruce Harrell over current council president Lorena Gonzalez for mayor; Ann Davison over Nicole Thomas-Kennedy for city attorney; Kenneth Wilson over Teresa Mosqueda for council Position 8 and Sara Nelson over Nikkita Oliver for Position 9.

“The issue (regarding homelessness) isn’t going away,” Scholes said. “And it’s only going to get worse if the status quo stays in place.”

It was the existing status quo that prompted Compassion Seattle to form in the first place. The ballot measure, which received 37,714 valid signatures to qualify for the November ballot, would have required the city to better fund mental health counseling and provide 2,000 units of emergency or permanent housing within a year, starting in January 2022.

It also would have required the city the clear encampments from parks and sidewalks after housing and services were in place — a feature that opponents of the measure deemed “criminalizing homelessness.”

An anti-Compassion Seattle flyer. (GeekWire Photo / Taylor Soper)

“We are pleased that (Compassion Seattle) 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,” said Breanne Schuster, ACLU of Washington staff attorney, after King County Superior Court Judge Catherine Shaffer tossed the measure from the ballot.

According to its supporters, the measure had been polling well and pushing near to 65% approval.

But in the end, what ruled the day wasn’t support or opposition to specific homeless policies but rather Judge Shaffer’s interpretation on how voters can and cannot set any city budgetary policy through this type of ballot measure.

In her decision, she said that amendments to a city charter — which essentially is a city’s constitution — are not the place to make specific budget mandates as the initiative did. Instead, she wrote, it is the job of the elected officials to make those monetary decisions.

In other words, don’t pick on the city constitution; instead, pick new people to get the spending you want. 

So that, Scholes said, is what the Compassion Seattle’s backers will do — along with trying to get the decision reversed in a higher court. “We strongly disagree with the ruling,” he said. “The voters can change who is in charge. This really matters now and it will matter come November.”

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