Protests, acceptance fill meeting on whether to host Tent City 4
February 18, 2014
By Peter Clark
Tempers flared Feb. 11 at Faith United Methodist Church’s community meeting to discuss hosting Tent City 4.
Almost 200 residents — with concerns for children, jobs and safety — crowded into the church on Issaquah-Pine Lake Road in unincorporated King County. The meeting, according to the Rev. Dr. John Brewer, was to share information about the possibility of housing the traveling homeless shelter on church grounds.
“We were approached two and a half weeks ago with a serious request,” Brewer said. “While we had only briefly considered hosting in the summer time, this request came urgently.”
After staying at Sammamish’s Mary, Queen of Peace Catholic Church, Tent City 4 looked to move to another spot within the city. Then, the Sammamish City Council passed a moratorium on hosting the camp within its borders. Tent City 4 struck a quick deal with the state to set up in Lake Sammamish State Park, and through further negotiations, plans to remain until March 1.
Church Board of Trustees Chairman Bill Mincey said the church received the request Jan. 21. He said the trustees voted to recommend the church move forward to consider securing a permit and that included holding the community meeting.
“This meeting is part of that process,” Mincey said. “The county would not grant us that permit without this meeting. We know it’s been very sudden. We wish we had more time, but the need is urgent.”
A split crowd greeted a panel of Tent City 4 residents and former hosts. Many clapped for the church’s interest in hosting the camp. However, a vocal contingent also attended and asked about the safety of the church’s preschool and its future should the camp come to Faith United.
The first question asked of the panel whether any host had issues with welcoming Tent City 4 and whether any had a preschool.
“We have two preschools,” Kathi Rowely, pastoral assistant at Mary, Queen of Peace, said of the Sammamish church. She said it also has more than 300 children involved in faith-formation programs and all remained safe during the camp’s stay. “To my knowledge, no, there were not any issues with Tent City 4. There was tremendous outreach from the community with volunteering and bringing things out to the encampment.”
She said a survey of the community found 92 percent of them would like to host in the future.
Temple B’Nai Torah President Cliff Cantor said his community shared the same fears when approached to host Tent City 4.
“When we first hosted in 2005, we had a meeting just like this,” Cantor said. “It was a first for the city of Bellevue, and there was a lot of dissension within our congregation, within our board and within our neighbors. So, we had to work through that process. Once that decision was made, and Tent City moved in, at the end of that process there was almost a complete reversal.”
The speakers could only answer the one question before loud protests began interrupting the proceedings.
Many reacted with anger at the manner in which they could ask questions. Because of the large number of people, Brewer invited attendees to write questions down on cards, pass them along to volunteers and then wait for the panel to respond.
“Why won’t you allow standing comments?” asked a man loudly.
Others echoed his concern.
“We have a room full of very, very concerned parents,” a woman in the rear of the church said. “So far, all I’ve heard is, ‘This is your meeting.’ I don’t hear a lot of hard, pointed questions.”
Panel members respected a portion of the audience’s apprehensions.
“Every one of these concerns is a valid concern,” Cantor said. “This church is trying to be a good neighbor to our homeless neighbors, but they would be amiss if they weren’t trying to be a good neighbor to their homed neighbors.”
Residents of Tent City 4 repeatedly pointed out the encampment’s safety record.
“No one has ever been hurt in the 24 years of SHARE’s existence,” camp resident Jeff Toll said, referring to the Seattle Housing and Resource Effort, the umbrella network under which Tent City 4 falls. “In all the years, no child has ever been harmed in our camp. We have a strict code of conduct.”
Every camp resident took their turn to explain the thorough process of gaining residency in the camp, which involves warrant checks and complete sobriety.
“We have a process and the process works,” camp resident Cynthia Moss said.
Still, the assurances could not calm some parents in the crowd.
“It sounds too good from up there,” a parent who asked to remain anonymous said. “Physically hurt is one thing, but seeing something that’s going to frighten them, that hurts them, too. How am I supposed to answer, ‘Why’s there security around my brother’s school?’”
The future of the preschool surrounded the conversation. Lisa Deily, a concerned parent of a preschool child, interjected to say a group had collected almost 100 signatures to ask the church not to host the camp at this time.
“We are not against you, but it is our first and foremost commitment to protect our children,” Deily said. “Preschool is a time for our children to learn the beauty of God’s world around them, and not to discover the harsh realities of life. That will come soon enough.”
She joined a sector of the crowd in asking the camp to request a spot in summer, when children do not attend preschool.
Preschool Director Kathryn Aitcheson talked about the financial strain that could befall the school should parents choose to remove their children.
“To lose anybody would be devastating,” Aitcheson said. “When we look at actually real-live numbers and we crunch it, it’s about 30 students, then we’re in deep trouble. Our budget is solely dependable on the tuition that we get and we need every penny.”
She did not want to raise an alarm about the immediate future, however, and recognized the church’s backing.
“I do know our leadership of the church would support us and ensure that we can finish out this school year,” Aitcheson said.
History of help
In the end, the crowd seemed split on whether to welcome Tent City 4, while Brewer continued to plead for an open mind and to reflect the church’s history of stewardship.
“This congregation has a history of helping low-income and homeless,” Brewer said. “Many of you in your own religious institutions probably participate in the same way. We all know that homelessness is a serious public problem. We as a church want to be a part of the solution and we know you do, too, from what you’ve shared with us.”
Brewer said the church will hold a congregation meeting Feb. 25, with a decision most likely announced Feb. 26.