What's Tony Thinking

Follow Up on “Compassion Seattle”


Earlier in the week I wrote about this proposed Seattle Charter Amendment, “Compassion Seattle.” That followed on a conversation with its principal architect, Tim Burgess. On Friday, Post Alley carried a slightly edited version of my piece.

As Tim pointed out and as responses to my piece indicate, CS gets push-back from both the left and the right — which may be a good sign. Some right leaning folks appear to doubt that anything will work to deal with Seattle’s homeless emergency short of a police crackdown and they are skeptical about the costs involved. Those on the left see CS as a Trojan Horse for clearing or “sweeps” of encampments or criminalizing poverty.

As I noted, the heart of CS is the goal of “functional zero.” Zero unhoused people living on the streets and in the green spaces of Seattle. In other words, the current situation of tacitly allowing encampments all over the city, accelerated by the pandemic, would end. But it would do so within the context of a concerted effort to provide more emergency and permanent housing as well as much more rigorous support services for the various needs among the homeless population, principally mental illness and drug addiction.

We won’t have an end to encampments without both, more housing that is low or no cost, and social services. We may not have a complete end even with those components, but we can do better.

That said, there are some who have a vested interest in the status quo. Others have referred to Seattle’s “Homelessness Industrial Complex,” the thick web of homeless advocates and service providers who derive their reason for being (and funding) from the current situation. Some will call that characterization unfair, even harsh. That doesn’t mean it isn’t true. There’s a way in which advocating for and supporting the homeless becomes, for some, perhaps myself included, a way of being involved in something considered good and virtuous. We “do-gooders” get a pay off — personal satisfaction and social recognition. There is, or at least can be, a kind of co-dependency at work here.

When I was at the “Hope Factory” this week building tiny houses, there was a videographer there the entire day making a video about the work and those of us involved. Such efforts do get press and recognition. There was a front page article in the Seattle Times about that project a week ago as well. Doing this work you are “on the side of the angels.”

But I would say that’s true only insofar as your goal is to work yourself out of a job. That is to get, as a city and county, to “functional zero,” and not have clusters of unsafe and unsanitary encampments all over the city.

So far as I can tell, that is the goal of CS. “Functional zero.” Not providing just enough for the destitute to stay that way while the City remains grid-locked between those who “advocate” for the homeless and those who want a law and order/ police response. Compassion Seattle seeks to break that deadlock.

It won’t be easy.

In our currently polarized state many folks are more invested in their viewpoint and being right than in making headway on the problem at hand. Such is the situation we find ourselves in nationally on all sorts of fronts. Polarization tends to empower the ideologues, while disempowering the problem-solvers.

The mid-twentieth century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr was identified with something called “Christian realism.” It was justice-oriented and reformist, but not utopian. Complete and total justice is not to be had in this world; proximate justice is a better goal. I relate to that. You need both a big heart and a hard head.

CS must result in more housing and services. It may result in some enforced efforts to clear camps. That seems to me a kind of Christian realism. Not everyone in the camps just needs help and housing. There is a criminal element as well. And there are people, like all of us, who will resist change even when it’s for something better.

A better carrot and a firm stick are both required.


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