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Mercer Islanders show support and concern for Tent City

About 100 Tent City supporters and concerned Islanders filled Council Chambers at City Hall Monday night as 25 people made public comments regarding the roving homeless encampment coming to the First Hill neighborhood.

Several city employees, police officers and religious leaders from nearby Eastside communities that have hosted Tent City 4 were also there to answer questions from City Council members. The Council listened to testimony from many of them in support of the camp while some First Hill residents voiced their concerns hosting up to 100 homeless people in their neighborhood for three months.

There were 14 comments made by the public in support of bringing the homeless camp to the Island, the other 11 comments generally questioned the safety of the camp and the public process of notifying the surrounding neighborhood.

The Council approved the temporary use permit between the congregation, the camp and the city.

In addition to the public comments, Mercer Island police Chief Ed Holmes presented research findings about crime associated with the camp that he had gathered in recent months. Holmes said the biggest offense associated with Tent City 4 was when the camp called police to report outstanding warrants discovered while conducting its own background checks of people trying to stay at the camp.

"The number one arrest is when Tent City 4 is calling police for people trying to come into the community who have warrants," said Holmes. "That means there is about 3.6 warrant arrests while Tent City is in town."

Kirkland police Lt. Nick Seibert told the Council of his experience with Tent City. He said his department made 250 check-up visits to the camp in the six consecutive months it was in Kirkland and they developed a good relationship.

"They actually welcome police presence because it helps with their own security," Seibert said.

Tent City 4, the Eastside's roving homeless encampment, was invited to stay by the Mercer Island United Methodist Church at the congregation's First Hill property this August to November. The church is located on a 1.5 acre lot in the First Hill neighborhood at 7070 S.E. 24th St. and plans to place the encampment in its lower parking lot. The invitation comes nearly a year after the Mercer Island clergy association announced it's intent to host the camp within a year.

While courts have backed the Constitutional right of religious institutions to host homeless camps on their property, residents of surrounding communities commonly voice similar concerns as some Islanders did Monday.

The Eastside camp serves up to 100 people, and is currently at Temple B'Nai Torah in Bellevue for the second time. Tent City 4 has been in existence since May 2004 and has been located at numerous religious institutions in many communities. Several day cares and preschools have also neighbored Tent City 4 and have welcomed the camp back along with the neighboring faith organization.

Mercer Island United Methodist pastor, Reverend Leslie Ann Knight, told the Council the congregation was "feeling the call" when it decided to invite the camp earlier this month. She also summarized the motivation behind it.

"As one of my members had said about Tent City, 'If there is a need and we have the resources to help but turn our backs, what does that say about us?'" said Knight.

More information about the camp coming to Mercer Island is available by the United Methodist Church, at (206) 232-3044 or www.miumc.org

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