Sammamish City Council questions homeless camp regulations
May 21, 2014
By Ari Cetron
New: May 21, 2:14 p.m.
The Sammamish City Council was full of questions May 13 about a proposed set of regulations governing homeless camps in the city.
Tent City IV, a traveling camp of homeless people, took up residence at Mary, Queen of Peace Catholic Church from October 2013 to January 2014, the first time it has been in the city. It seemed poised to move to another church, but that plan fell through.
The council established a six-month moratorium on homeless camps in Sammamish to give it time to establish rules surrounding the encampments.
State law allows religious institutions to host the camps, citing free exercise of religion, among other reasons. Localities may regulate the camps for general health and safety, but may not place an undue burden on them.
The Sammamish Planning Commission has been trying to craft a series of rules that walk this line, and Planning Commission vice chairman Frank Blau presented the commission’s recommendations to the council.
Blau laid out the recommendations and then answered questions about most of them from one council member or another.
The draft rules call for allowing only one camp in the city at a time, but up to two within a 365-day period. They also don’t allow the camp to be in the same location within 18 months. That 18-month clock would start when the camp moved in. So in theory, a camp could return to a location 15 months after it leaves, assuming it can stay in one place for three months as the draft regulations state.
A minority of the commission, including Blau, suggested the camp be permitted to stay for four months. He said it was the opinion of the minority (a 4-2 split with one absence) that the extra month wouldn’t cause a substantial burden on the community.
Blau acknowledged that other cities only allow for a three-month stay, but said there was no reason Sammamish had to do the same and urged the council to make Sammamish a leader in this area.
He also said it was the minority opinion that four months meets the state requirement that regulations not overburden camps, since moving so frequently is difficult for them.
Councilman Tom Odell thought that if Sammamish were the only locality allowing four-month stays, it might lead to trouble coordinating the camp’s move-in and move-out dates.
Blau said he could not see why the extra month would really make much difference in that respect.
Councilman Don Gerend said that coupling the twice-per-year rule with a four-month stay could mean Tent City could be in Sammamish for eight months, two-thirds of the year. He suggested there might be a compromise of allowing a four-month stay, but only once per year.
Backgrounds and travel
Two of the other larger sticking points were the idea of background checks and a transportation plan.
The regulations call for Tent City residents to be checked for outstanding arrest warrants and existing sex-offender statuses. People with either of those designations would not be allowed in the camp.
According to the King County Sheriff’s Office, there is one registered sex offender living within the city limits.
Councilwoman Nancy Whitten asked about performing full background checks on residents instead.
Police Chief Nate Elledge said police are not permitted to perform a background check on someone unless it is part of a criminal investigation. Warrant checks are permitted, though, and those checks also reveal an individual’s sex-offender status.
Council members were curious about how employers and others can perform background checks, but not the police. Elledge said those are the guidelines he’s been given, and it was noted most people sign a waiver allowing others to perform background checks.
Blau pointed out that such checks are not required of most Sammamish residents.
“When I moved into the city of Sammamish, no one ran a background check on me,” he said.
The draft rules also call for the host church to have a plan to transport camp residents to transit centers. Mayor Tom Vance said he was not sure a plan was sufficient, but that there should also be a way to ensure the plan occurs.
Blau said that seemed too burdensome, and could lead to unneeded regulations. For example, one discussion had been to require some form of transportation if the camp was more than a quarter-mile from a bus stop. However, Blau explained any distance would really be arbitrary and not fit every situation.
“There are people who would walk a mile to a bus stop,” he said.
The commission decided that enforcing the plan could be a regulatory hassle, and would be too much of a burden. Blau said the commission believed as long as the host organization presents a viable plan for getting people to bus stops, that would suffice.
The council will hold a public hearing on the proposed regulations June 3. It’s scheduled to deliberate them and take action July 1. The moratorium is set to expire July 14.
On the web
To read the Planning Commission’s draft regulations, visit http://www.ci.sammamish.wa.us/files/document/12829.pdf. To comment on the draft, send emails to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Council members mentioned a series of things they might want changed in the proposed rules, items the Planning Commission seemed not to have considered.
- The transportation plan should also account for ways to get homeless camp residents to shopping.
- Marijuana should be forbidden. Alcohol and illegal drugs are already prohibited, but marijuana is not mentioned.
- Institutions with large child populations should be included in any notifications, beyond the current regulations, which only call for schools to be notified.
- The notification process before any public meeting should be 30 days instead of the 15 days called for in the regulations.