A man with a clipboard spent a hot Tuesday afternoon posted at 64th Street and 12th Avenue outside a North Seattle Whole Foods. His lanyard, adorned with a magenta rainbow, identified him as a signature collector for Charter Amendment 29, also known as Compassion Seattle, to the passing customers. One such customer was a Real Change reporter, who identified herself and asked him, “Do you like your job?”
“I like being a part of positive change,” the unnamed signature collector said.
These signature collectors were commonplace in Seattle outside grocery stores and in public parks earlier this summer. On July 1, Compassion Seattle submitted over 64,000 signatures to the city clerk, exceeding their goal to collect 33,060 verified signatures from registered Seattle voters in order to get Charter Amendment 29’s approach to “solve the homelessness crisis” on the ballot in November.
According to Christopher Young, a formerly unhoused Seattleite who also briefly posted up for the campaign, these signature collectors, despite being paid $25 an hour, are not experts on the proposed policies. Young said that actually some, including himself, had no idea what they were advocating for.
“What [Compassion Seattle] is doing is kind of like giving a gun to a child,” Young said of the uninformed signature collection process. “They have a lot of power.”
Advocates for housing justice — including the House Our Neighbors! coalition, which is led by the Real Change advocacy department — have criticized Compassion Seattle’s “deceptive” charter amendment, as it touts itself as a compassionate solution but mandates that the city continue sweeping away encampments. While the amendment requires the city to build 2,000 units of affordable or temporary housing over the course of two years, 4,000 people in Seattle have been officially recorded as unhoused and over 11,000 from volunteer counts. The amendment does not identify a funding source.
Young interviewed for the position with Compassion Seattle on a Saturday. Landslide Political, the Utah-based organization that was running the signature-collecting effort for the million-dollar campaign, hired Young the same day. After a 15-minute PowerPoint that he said was only loosely a training, Young was asked repeatedly to work a six-hour shift the next day. Young said the organizers begged him to, using the $150 compensation for the shift to persuade him. According to Seattle’s Ethics and Elections Commission, paid signature gathering is legal so long as the employees are clearly marked as such.
“Basically, they were taking whoever they could get, putting us on the street to get as many signatures as we can without knowing what we’re doing,” Young said. “They had a quota. They definitely had a quota.”
By his first and only full shift that Monday, Young says Landslide Political told him they had already completed a background check on him in just two days.
He was tasked with collecting signatures outside of the Northgate Target. Young said he was explaining the Charter Amendment as a “Nickelsville situation,” a comparison he had confirmed by higher-ups at Landslide Political.
In response to sweeps of homeless encampments ordered by former Mayor Greg Nickles in 2008, Nickelsville was established on a piece of unused city land as a self-governing community for folks experiencing homelessness. Nickelsville, which has seen turbulence in its decade-and-change existence, is now two tiny house villages that receive city funding and shelter around 35 people.
Rather than serve as a blueprint for the Compassion Seattle plan, Nickelsville has come out publicly against it. The organization petitioned with three others against Compassion Seattle for inaccurate and “prejudicial” language.
Young collected 30 signatures that first day, telling people the plan would provide tiny house villages like Nickelsville. At $150 a shift, that amounts to $5 a signature. For Landslide Political, 30 signatures wasn’t enough. Young said his supervisors wanted at least 50 signatures for the six-hour shifts.
Several passersby confronted Young at his post about his choice to represent the amendment, which is becoming known as hostile to unhoused people.
In a statement made on July 1, Compassion Seattle said signature gatherers “[overcame] harassment, theft of petitions, assault and significant time delays” during their four-week campaign. A spokesperson told Real Change that six signature gatherers had reported attempts to steal or destroy petition materials. Others reported harassment. Two police reports were filed as of July 6.
Young did more research and then realized he disagreed with the pro-sweep charter amendment.
For his second shift, Young said he only collected two signatures and quit before he completed his six hours, thus forfeiting his pay. He said the “little bit of conscience” he has left was not worth $25 an hour.
Young said his signatories did not know what they were signing: “No, definitely not.”
HON! posted information on how to retract signatures on its social media and website for signatories who had changed their minds or felt misled.
According to the Office of the King County Clerk, 82 signatories requested withdrawal from Charter Amendment 29 as of July 7. Signatories can withdraw until the terminal date, which has been set to July 15 at 9 a.m.
While Compassion Seattle secured the first victory, there are still several months left in the long battle for proponents and counter-campaigners of Charter Amendment 29.
Hannah Krieg studied journalism at the University of Washington. She is especially interested in covering politics, social issues and anything that gives her an excuse to speak with activists.
Read more of the July 14-20, 2021 issue.