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ACLU Files Lawsuit Against “Compassion Seattle’s” Anti-Homelessness Initiative

— August 12, 2021

The ACLU claims that Compassion Seattle’s initiative, which will be voted upon in the state’s November election, undermines the city’s ability to set its own policies–and lacks the vision to present a long-term solution to the city’s homelessness crisis.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has filed a lawsuit against a Seattle initiative seeking to overhaul the city’s response to homelessness.

According to, the proposed initiative was conceived by “Compassion Seattle,” managed by SoDo Business Improvement Area Executive Erin Goodman, former City Council President Time Burgess, and former King County Executive Ron Sims.

Under “Compassion Seattle,” the city will provide an additional 2,000 shelter beds or permanent housing units intended for use by the homeless.

So far, Compassion Seattle has received sufficient support to secure a spot on Washington’

While Compassion Seattle may sound like an ideal solution to the city’s homelessness problem, the ACLU and its allies observed that, if passed into law, the initiative mandates the city “to ensure that parks, playgrounds, sports fields, public spaces and sidewalks and streets remain open and clear of encampments.”

So far, Compassion Seattle has received sufficient support to secure a spot on Washington’s general election ballot in November.

However, the ACLU’s lawsuit asserts that Compassion Seattle’s charter amendment “goes beyond the scope” of state law, seeking to transform a city-specific issue into a statewide problem.

A homeless encampment in Northeast Portland, Oregon. Image via Wikimedia Commons/user:Graywalls. Source image located at: (CCA-BY-4.0).

“CA-29 ignores well-established limits to the local initiative process,” ACLU-Washington staff attorney Breanne Schuster said in a news release, reprinted in part by “State law provides multiple avenues for constituents to influence homelessness policies and practices, but the initiative process at the city level is not one of them.

“CA-29 violates both our state’s local initiative laws and the proper function of our democratic systems,” Schuster added.

University of Washington Law Professor Hugh Spitzer told The Seattle Times he is unsure of how far the lawsuit will go, since he has filed similar complaints and ended up losing.

“The courts tend to avoid interfering with local choices,” Spitzer told the Times, further noting that the judiciary does not tend to offer opinions on what is now “nonexistent” legislation.

“It’s too early,” he said. “They say you gotta wait until it either passes or doesn’t pass.”

However, Knoll Lowney of Smith & Lowney PLLC, one of the firms representing the plaintiffs, said lawsuits against initiatives like Compassion Seattle are not uncommon.

“These cases happen all the time,” Lowney said. “It’s pretty hard to defend a local initiative or referendum [taking place at the state level and with the potential to affect local governance], and this one is unlikely to survive.”

Compassion Seattle, meanwhile, has condemned the lawsuit, saying the ACLU and its allies have instigated another doomed attempt at finding solutions for homelessness.

“[The ACLU] has dictated City of Seattle policy on homelessness for the last decade, with no accountability, all while the crisis has only gotten worse, with chronic homelessness rising at an annual growth rate of 42% in Seattle/King County since 2017. Enough is enough,” the group said in a statement. “Our opponents would prefer we maintain this status quo, continue ineffective policy and ultimately do nothing to address voters’ number one issue, one that is costing taxpayers more today than ever before.” notes that critics of Compassion Seattle’s proposal say the initiative does not identify any potential source of funding for the project, and does not offer a permanent solution to the city’s homelessness crisis.


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