Compassion Seattle: Is that this the trail to fixing homelessness? Tech, biz, politics leaders communicate out

Tim Burgess (bottom left), Rachel Smith (top right), Kieran Snyder (bottom right) and host Mike Lewis of GeekWire

That Seattle has a homelessness crisis isn’t in dispute; how to solve it is. 

Stepping right into the middle of the fray is Compassion Seattle, an initiative that seeks to rewrite the city charter with a roadmap that mandates specific responsibilities for local government including a requirement for the city to keep parks, playgrounds, sports fields, and public spaces clear of encampments once housing, drug, and mental health services are in place.

The plan, which backers say is polling well, is not without detractors. We talked through the initiative in the latest edition of GeekWire’s Civic Conversations, presented by Microsoft. We were joined by: 

  • Tim Burgess, Former City Council President and Former Interim Mayor of Seattle who helped craft the Compassion Seattle plan.
  • Rachel Smith, President and CEO at the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce.
  • Kieran Snyder, Co-founder and CEO at Textio, and 2021 GeekWire Awards winner for CEO of the Year.

During the conversation, Burgess characterized the measure as a “compassionate, outcome-based plan of action.” 

“Primarily (for) those living unsheltered in our parks, playfields, sidewalks across the city,” he said. 

“We can all agree that what’s happening in Seattle right now isn’t working,” Burgess said.

If it qualifies for the ballot and is 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.

For example, 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.

It also mandates that Seattle offer access to behavioral health programs along with housing. Housing, under the charter amendment, could include “enhanced shelters, tiny houses, hotel-motel rooms, other forms of non-congregate emergency or permanent housing.”

A flyer in Seattle’s Ravenna neighborhood encourages citizens not to sign a new initiative called Compassion Seattle. (GeekWire Photo / Taylor Soper)

Snyder said as a business owner who had most of her staff in downtown Seattle prior to the pandemic, the part of the initiative that she finds compelling is the expansion of services that don’t involve law enforcement.

“The notion of investing in housing and support services that are independent of law enforcement, that’s the thing that makes [Compassion Seattle] a promising set of solutions,” she said. 

Snyder said local businesses should also find a way to help pay for additional housing and services.

But critics of the measure have asserted that the initiative is simply an attempt to promote the sweep of homeless camps and to criminalize homelessness. Smith countered that the initiative requires the city to provide services and shelter first. And only then can the camps be closed, she added.

“It sets really clear conditions under which encampments should be closed,” she said. “At the same time, there is no right for someone to stay in a public place permanently.  

Watch the entire conversation here. This is second in the series of Civic Conversations, presented by Microsoft. Civic Conversations: Tackling Public Policy Challenges During a COVID Economy, the first panel, featured: Gordon McHenry Jr., CEO of United Way King County; Chris Gregoire, CEO of Challenge Seattle and former Washington state governor; and Kris Hermanns, chief impact officer at Seattle Foundation.

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