Homeless camp regulations taking shape in Sammamish

June 11, 2014

By Ari Cetron

June 11, 10:47 a.m.

A set of rules governing homeless camps in Sammamish is taking shape, and there seem to be parts of the plan likely to make people on both sides of the issue unhappy.
The issue of homeless camps came to the fore last October when Tent City IV, a traveling homeless camp, stayed at Mary, Queen of Peace Catholic Church. The city began debating the camps shortly after Tent City IV left Sammamish in January.
The city’s Planning Commission proposed a set of regulations last month, and the City Council held a public hearing on the issue June 3. Under state law, churches must be permitted to host the camps as a way of exercising their religious values. Governments may regulate the camps for the general health and welfare of the community.
About two dozen speakers came to the meeting, the vast majority of whom favored stricter regulations on homeless camps.
Most speakers noted they feared for their children. They pointed to instances where they said they witnessed drinking and drug use by Tent City residents. Residents point to the eight arrests – though none of those arrests have resulted in convictions – during Tent City’s stay in Sammamish. Two of the arrests were for possession of methamphetamine.
“All pose safety issues for the community,” Sammamish resident Liu Fang said.
Other residents suggested that Tent City or the host church should be responsible for a security patrol in the area.
“I don’t think schools or private residents should have to pay for their own security,” said Vikram Kulkarni.
Opponents called for the city to increase the duration between times Tent City could stay in one place. The proposed rules state it can only return to a location every 18 months. The clock starts ticking at the beginning of the camp’s three-month stay, meaning there would be a 15-month gap between staying in the same place.
Others suggested a better solution would be to set up more permanent shelters.
They also called for random background checks on Tent City residents. The proposed rules check for outstanding warrants and registered sex offenders. People with either of those statuses would be barred from coming to the camp.
Sammamish Police Chief Nate Elledge said law enforcement officials are generally prohibited from running random background checks. And Tent City supporters said the rules go too far.
Tent City residents noted that no children have been harmed in the camp’s history. They said opponents are selectively sampling Tent City’s history when they cite crime statistics.
They suggested other institutions besides religious groups should be allowed to host the camp, there should be fewer time restrictions, and that the permitting process should be less drawn out.
Others believed that random warrant checks are demeaning and discriminatory.
A Tent City resident named Gabriella (she didn’t give her last name) agreed the city should think of children, and of the example that residents set in how they treat the less-fortunate.
“You need to remember that they’re learning by what you do,” she said.
Sammamish residents also spoke in favor of the camp. They said the regulations are asking a lot of the churches which might host the camp.
“There’s a big burden placed on the religious organizations to manage this,” said Kurt Hamke.
Sammamish resident Sharon Mattax said it’s foolish to demonize Tent City residents for drug problems when many city residents also use drugs.
“If we wanted to get rid of drugs, we should look at all of our schools,” she said.

Council discussion
The council hashed out some of the regulations, taking straw polls on many of the elements. None of the decisions are final until the council takes a formal vote July 1, although some look likely to pass.
One aspect likely to generate more discussion was the length of time the camp will be allowed to stay in the city. Councilmembers Bob Keller and Nancy Whitten, and Mayor Tom Vance, favor a three-month stay. Councilmembers Ramiro Valderrama and Don Gerend, along with Deputy Mayor Kathleen Huckabay, supported four-month stays.
Councilman Tom Odell was absent from the June 3 meeting.
In the past, Gerend said he would like to see a compromise by allowing one four-month stay per year, instead of the proposed rules, which allow two three-month stays per year.
All six members present preferred to allow the camp to stay at the same location only once in 18 months, and to start the clock at the end of the last stay.
The council was also split on the length of time the camp would need prior to holding a neighborhood meeting. Keller, Vance and Gerend favored a 15-day notice period, while Huckabay, Whitten and Valderrama favored a different period, likely longer.
The council seemed likely to require there be a plan in place for transporting camp residents to transit centers and, possibly, to shopping locations.
They may also be required to have a security plan in place, although the city will not dictate the details of the plan.
“If they want to use volunteers, they can use volunteers. If they want to hire someone, they could do that,” Vance said.
Whitten said the plan might also call for policing from Tent City staff.
Gerend suggested the camp should be able to stay on public land in addition to privately-owned church land. The other council members in attendance rejected the idea.
The council also suggested the regulations, which cap the number of residents at 100, might be adjusted. Keller noted that not all churches have the same amount of space, and some might require that fewer residents be allowed.
The public hearing remains open, and the council will likely accept further comments and begin deliberations on the issue at its July 1 meeting.

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