Sammamish approves homeless regulations

July 8, 2014

By Ari Cetron

New: July 8, 10:15 a.m.

Homeless camps will be allowed to stay longer in Sammamish than in any other Eastside city under regulations approved by the City Council July 2.

After hours’ worth of emotional pleas on both sides of the issue, the council unanimously approved the regulations.

Under the new rules, camps will be permitted to stay in Sammamish for four months – the standard on the Eastside is three months. After the stay, however, the camp won’t be back for a while. A camp is only allowed in the city once per year. And it may only stay in the same place once every 18 months. The 18-month clock starts ticking on the day the camp leaves.

Over the objections of some residents, there will be no random background checks, but there will be warrant checks (see sidebar) when the camp first comes to town, and again for each new camper who arrives during its stay.

The city began studying the issue last October, when Tent City IV, a traveling homeless camp, stayed at Mary, Queen of Peace Catholic Church for three months. Until then, city leaders had never expected the camp to come to Sammamish, owing to the city’s relative paucity of access to transit and other services.

Before voting, the City Council discussed the matter briefly. They noted that localities cannot reject a church’s bid to host the camps, since courts have recognized helping the homeless is part of a religious organization’s freedom of religion. However, the rules sought to balance that right with the public safety concerns of residents.

Several councilmembers called on the regulations to be a living document, which would be amended as needed if future camps expose weaknesses in the plans.

Others noted that homelessness is a much bigger issue than the couple dozen people who stay at camps such as Tent City.

“We’re not dealing with the homeless. We’re dealing with some of the homeless,” Mayor Tom Vance said.

“We need to develop a holistic solution, as a nation, to deal with this,” Councilman Tom Odell said.


Failed amendments

A pair of amendments that would have created notification requirements broader than the city’s standard failed.

The first, suggested by Odell, would have required notifying property owners within 1,000 feet of the host site of a community meeting to discuss the camp. The typical notification requirement – for developments – is 500 feet.

Odell said the larger number is the same size as a drug-free school zone, while Councilwoman Kathleen Huckabay said the wider zone would allow greater transparency.

Others failed to see the benefit of the larger size. Councilman Ramiro Valderrama said he feared a wider radius than the existing standard could make the requirement seem too onerous, and something that would therefore not survive court scrutiny.

The idea failed 5-2, with Odell and Huckabay in support.

The other failed amendment, offered by Councilwoman Nancy Whitten, would require those same notices to be mailed 20 days prior to the meeting, instead of the city’s standard of 15 days. She said that when mailing time is accounted for, the extra time makes sense.

Valderrama again noted that making the time period longer could be considered too onerous, since it conflicts with standard city procedures.

That amendment also failed.


Emotional testimony

Dozens of speakers gave testimony about the regulations. Many of them had spoken at a June 3 public hearing, but others were making a first appearance.

The faith community turned out in droves to speak in favor of generally looser rules. They noted that while they have a right to help homeless people as part of their religious expression, they also feel they have a moral obligation to do so.

“Ministering to the homeless is not a political issue,” said Michael Ramos, executive director of the Church Council of Greater Seattle.

Mary Doerrer, of Sammamish, noted that the city has piled up accolades for being friendly, well-managed and an otherwise a great place to live. She suggested the city should seek to add “compassionate” to the list. She further noted that stricter rules make it difficult for people in Sammamish to help those less fortunate.

“This could only result in an inability to love our neighbors as ourselves,” she said.

Still others said that those in favor of stricter rules were simply afraid of the camps and did not understand them or the people who live there.

Those in favor of stricter rules disagreed with these characterizations.

Fong Lu pointed to the eight arrests that happened while Tent City was in Sammamish.

“It’s not based on fear, it’s based on data,” Lu said.

Rachel Shively pointed out that compassion goes two ways, and the churches should consider their neighbors.

“I also have compassion for the people with concerns,” she said.

With the adoption of the new regulations, the earliest a homeless camp could come to Sammamish would be January 2015.


Background or warrant?

Throughout the discussion of the homeless camps, there have been people who used the terms “background check” and “warrant check” synonymously. They are different processes.

All campers will be subjected to warrant checks when they arrive in Sammamish. This check will show if there is a warrant for their arrest anywhere in the state, and should also turn up most felony warrants nationwide. In both cases, it depends on the law enforcement agency issuing the warrant to enter it into the proper database. The same check will also show if the person is a registered sex offender, said Sammamish Police Chief Nate Elledge.

A background check shows the times a person might have been arrested in the past.

Tent City IV has long mandated warrant checks and up-to-date sex-offender statuses for its residents. The city’s new regulations codify that behavior not only for Tent City, but also for any other camps which might come into Sammamish.

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