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Compassion Seattle: Is This The Way To Fix Homelessness? Leaders of technology, business and politics speak out

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Compassion Seattle: Is This The Way To Fix Homelessness?  Leaders of technology, business and politics speak out
Tim Burgess (bottom left), Rachel Smith (top right), Kieran Snyder (bottom right) and GeekWire host Mike Lewis

It is not disputed that Seattle has a homeless crisis; how to fix it is.

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

The plan, which sponsors say is doing well, is not without its naysayers. We discussed the initiative in the latest edition of GeekWire’s Civic Conversations, presented by Microsoft. They joined us:

  • Tim Burgess, former president of the City Council and former acting mayor of Seattle, who helped design the Compassion Seattle plan.
  • Rachel Smith, President and CEO of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce.
  • Kieran Snyder, Co-Founder and CEO of Textio, and winner of the GeekWire 2021 Awards for CEO of the Year.

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

“Mainly (for) those living without shelter in our parks, playgrounds and sidewalks throughout the city,” he said.

“We all agree that what is happening in Seattle right now is not working,” Burgess said.

If you qualify for the ballot and are approved by Seattle voters, the amendment essentially bypasses the City Council and, for the first time, adds specific benchmarks and responsibilities to the variety of homeless services and programs, sometimes confusing, competitive and decentralized Seattle.

For example, under the proposed changes, the city would be legally required to provide 2,000 additional units of permanent and emergency housing within one year from the January 2022 amendment start date.

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

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

Snyder said that as a business owner that had the majority of its staff in downtown Seattle before the pandemic, the part of the initiative that she finds compelling is the expansion of non-law enforcement services.

“The notion of investing in housing and support services that are independent of law enforcement, that’s what it does [Compassion Seattle] a promising set of solutions, “he said.

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

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

“It sets really clear conditions under which the camps should be closed,” he said. “At the same time, no one has the right to stay in a public place permanently.

See the full conversation here. This is the second in the Civic Conversations series, presented by Microsoft. Civic Conversations: Addressing Public Policy Challenges During a COVID EconomyThe first panel featured: Gordon McHenry Jr., CEO of United Way King County; Chris Gregoire, CEO of Challenge Seattle and former Governor of Washington State; and Kris Hermanns, director of impact for the Seattle Foundation.

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