Initiative to curb homelessness disaster in Seattle more likely to qualify for November poll

Tents line a Downtown Seattle street. (GeekWire Photo / John Cook)

The group pushing the Compassion Seattle ballot measure which seeks to overhaul city policies toward its persistent homeless crisis will be turning in more than 60,000 signatures on Thursday in an effort to qualify the measure for the November ballot. 

The initiative’s backers need 33,000 valid Seattle voter signatures to place the city charter amendment on the 2021 ballot this fall, which also will feature the city’s mayoral contest.

Upon receiving the signatures, the City Clerk’s office will transmit the petitions to the King County Elections office to determine if the measure qualifies.

Given the number of signatures, it appears likely to land on the ballot, sources said. If it qualifies, Compassion Seattle would be one of the most contentious local ballot measures in years.

A flyer against Compassion Seattle. (GeekWire Photo / Taylor Soper)

Backers of the measure include the Public Defenders Association, Plymouth Housing, and a coalition of downtown business leaders, among others. The effort, they say, is to force the city to fund a battery of services and shelters for thousands of the town’s unsheltered residents.

The initiative also would require the city to keep “parks, playgrounds, sports fields, public spaces and sidewalks and streets clear of encampments” once the mandated housing, drug, and mental health services are in place. There is an ongoing push within the Los Angeles City Council to implement similar rules. 

Debate about the measure comes at exactly the same time that large employers such as Amazon are returning workers to their headquarters in Seattle’s business district, which has been hit hardest by the homeless crisis.

If approved by Seattle voters, the amendment essentially bypasses the City Council and, for the first time, adds specific benchmarks and responsibilities to Seattle’s sometimes confusing, competing, and decentralized array of homeless services and programs.

Under the proposed changes, the city would be legally required to provide an additional 2,000 units of emergency and permanent housing within one year of the amendment’s January 2022 start date.

But the measure, even before qualifying for the ballot, has proven contentious with some homeless advocates supporting it and others countering that it is simply an attempt to promote the sweep of homeless camps and to criminalize homelessness.

During GeekWire’s recent Civic Conversation on the measure, former interim mayor and councilmember Tim Burgess denied that Compassion Seattle criminalizes homelessness.

He called it a “compassionate, outcome-based plan of action primarily (for) those living unsheltered in our parks, playfields, sidewalks across the city.”

Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office estimated that 2,000 people are living in the streets of downtown, Belltown, and South Lake Union. 

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