June 7, 2005

Rules for homeless camps generate spirited debate

Full story

By Natalie Singer
Seattle Times Eastside bureau

Tent-city advocates and Bellevue residents packed a public hearing at City Hall last night to comment on proposed new regulations for temporary homeless shelters.

Many neighbors expressed support for the proposal, which would tighten restrictions on outdoor shelters in the city, including limiting tent cities to 60 days at each site and screening homeless residents for some diseases.

"Temporary encampments need regulations," said Arnie Brandon, a resident who said he was worried about safety and wanted stricter criminal screening for shelter residents.

The roving Tent City 4, now at a Kirkland church, conducts its own background checks on homeless residents with the help of the King County Sheriff's Office, but the proposed regulations would require that a third party provide residents' identification directly to the Bellevue Police Department for background checks.

Brandon said Bellevue leaders should go even further, requiring police to be present at homeless encampments "24/7."

Tent-city backers and some church supporters, however, argued that the proposed rules go too far and would make it virtually impossible for Bellevue churches to host homeless encampments, as other religious organizations have done since Tent City 4 arrived on the Eastside about a year ago.

Felicia Johnson, a Tent City 4 resident, said that stricter time limits on how long the camp can stay at one location would place an unreasonable burden on organizers, who are constantly scrambling to find the next site willing to host the camp. Homeless shelters can be good citizens without so many rules, she said.

"It takes time and energy to dismantle Tent City and put it back together," she said. "Just because we're homeless, it does not mean we cannot be responsible."

Written by city planners, the regulations will be voted on by the City Council by the end of next month. Some of the draft rules are more restrictive than similar ordinances recently passed by other jurisdictions, including one approved last month by the Metropolitan King County Council.

Under the rules, temporary homeless encampments would be limited to a 60-day stay rather than the current 90 days, would require hot and cold running water and would allow no more than 100 people, and sometimes fewer, depending on site size (the current rules have no specific limits).

Shelter operators also would have to report immediately to health authorities the name and address of anyone "known to have or suspected of having a communicable disease."

Camps would need one sink for every six people, one shower for every 10 people, one toilet for every 15 people and mechanical refrigeration for perishable food.

They also would have to follow the setback requirements that apply to the host (often a church).

Under the new proposal, the siting of a homeless encampment would become a more-public process and would include public-comment periods and a way to appeal, said Mary Kate Berens, a city planner.

City leaders last night stressed that the proposed ordinance was just a draft and could be changed before the council votes on it.

Tent City 4 has occupied six Eastside sites so far, in Bothell, Woodinville, Finn Hill and Kirkland. The shelter has not been to Bellevue.

Still, city residents became concerned this year when several churches discussed the possibility of hosting it.

"It's not a matter of whether there's been a crime [already]," said Scott Robertson, vice president of the Somerset Community Association. "It's a matter of when it happens."

Tent-city supporters said the neighbors' fears are unwarranted.

"What you have heard tonight is much hysteria," said the Rev. Sanford Brown, executive director of the Church Council of Greater Seattle, which represents more than 400 churches.

The organization opposes the regulations and has threatened to sue if they are passed.

Natalie Singer: 206-464-2704 or nsinger@seattletimes.com