Sammamish puts homeless camps on hold

January 22, 2014

By Ari Cetron

Updated: Jan. 22, 11:56 a.m.

Tent City IV hadn’t quite left Sammamish yet when the City Council decided it wouldn’t be coming back for at least six months.

On Jan. 14, the council voted 5-2 to impose a six-month moratorium on even considering homeless camps in the city while it works out more permanent regulations. Councilman Ramiro Valderrama and Councilwoman Nancy Whitten were opposed.

Tent City, a traveling camp of homeless people, moved to Sammamish behind Mary, Queen of Peace Catholic Church in October and left Jan. 19. For a few days, it seemed the camp might remain in Sammamish and move to Good Samaritan Episcopal Church, but that plan fell through.

The group ended up at Lake Sammamish State Park.

The camp was permitted under a general type of temporary permit, which city leaders say is not ideal. They wanted time to gather input from residents and develop regulations that can work for the city.

Under state law, and based on legal precedents citing freedom of religion, churches and other religious institutions have a right to host such encampments, said Kamuron Gurol, Sammamish’s development director. Municipalities have a right to regulate the time, place and manner in which the encampments take place.

Sammamish’s new regulations will seek to balance those interests. Gurol noted that almost every city in the region has regulations governing homeless camps, and so Sammamish will be able to learn from the experiences of others.

By developing regulations, Gurol said, the city will have a chance to gather information from all interested parties.

Some in the city are opposed to the regulations. Resident Christina Pribbernow said she is against any type of homeless encampment, and would rather see things like more affordable housing or increased minimum wages as ways of addressing homelessness.

Anna Low, a Tent City resident, spoke to the council, thanking them on behalf of the rest of the camp. She noted that most people in the city had been supportive and incredibly generous, and the interest in the camp has been overwhelming.

Sammamish resident C.J. Kahler was opposed to the way the council was adopting the moratorium. The council enacted it as emergency legislation, meaning it can make it effective immediately, and they don’t have to hold a public hearing before voting. However, a public hearing on the issue has been scheduled for March 4.*

Kahler noted that there have been minimal problems at Tent City IV, and questioned why there was an emergency.

“Everything I’ve heard has been a clean slate,” he said.

The emergency nature of the legislation is what troubled Valderrama. He said he wondered if the council was overstepping its authority in enacting it as an emergency. He noted that there were no other homeless-encampment applications on the immediate horizon, and that Tent City IV has been in Sammamish for 90 days, during which there has been no move toward starting the regulatory process.

Whitten noted that the current way of permitting Tent City does not allow for much community involvement. The current permitting process, she said, does not even require that neighbors get advance notice of the camp’s imminent arrival.

Whitten was supportive of Tent City in general, but said the city needed to find a way to allow the camp that worked with the residents.

“Having Tent City is going to be a recurring phenomenon that we welcome, but we need to do it in a way that’s fair to the neighbors,” she said.

Councilman Tom Odell noted the council and Planning Commission have had a full plate for the past three months. Any potential regulations would first need to be vetted by the commission.

Odell also said there was a lot of emotions surrounding the encampment’s initial application, but now that the city has had time to digest what it means to host Tent City, it will be better positioned to write meaningful regulations.

The Planning Commission will begin its work on Tent City regulations soon. If the city finishes developing regulations before the six-month time frame, it can end the moratorium early.


Public safety numbers

Police have responded to 30 calls in Tent City IV over the last three months, said Sammamish Police Chief Nate Elledge. However, he was quick to add that does not mean there were 30 criminal incidents.
One of the more serious incidents occurred Jan. 9 when a man was arrested for possession of methamphetamines. The arrest came after a joint investigation with the King County Sheriff’s Office. The man said he had sold methamphetamines to other Tent City residents earlier in the day, but none were found. Elledge said he would likely be charged with felony narcotics possession.
As will one other man, who was arrested Dec. 18 at the police station.
Beyond those two, Elledge said, incidents were minor.
Calls could have been for a range of issues, such as welfare checks, trespassing or a warrant arrest. The vast majority of the calls involved police helping resolve internal disputes. Some of the calls turned out to be unfounded, Elledge said.
He noted that 30 seemed to be an unusual number of calls, compared to the experiences of other cities that have recently hosted the encampment. About 15 calls came during the first 60 days, while the other 15 came during the last 30.
There were a total of eight arrests made during Tent City IV’s stay, Elledge said.
He said officers have made a total of 119 checks through Tent City as part of their regular patrols. Elledge also stressed that officers have had many positive interactions with Tent City residents.


*This version corrects the date of the public hearing.

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