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Mercer Island residents look to stop Tent City in court

First Hill residents and members of Tent City 4 listen to Rev. Leslie Ann Knight speak from the pulpit during a neighborhood information meeting at the United Methodist Church Wednesday night.   - J. Jacob Edel
First Hill residents and members of Tent City 4 listen to Rev. Leslie Ann Knight speak from the pulpit during a neighborhood information meeting at the United Methodist Church Wednesday night.
— image credit: J. Jacob Edel

Two North-end Mercer Island residents filed suit against the City of Mercer Island and the United Methodist Church, seeking a court injunction to prevent Tent City from coming to the Island. The suit came less than a day after dozens of neighbors and Island residents met a handful of their future homeless neighbors at the United Methodist Church on S.E. 24th Street, the proposed site for the camp.

The court hearing originally scheduled to take place on Monday was postponed. The new date of the hearing has been set for July 30.

The lawsuit contends that the city did not provide a fair process and that city codes do not allow the City Council to authorize temporary use agreements, which the church and camp have made.

According to Mercer Island’s acting City Attorney Katie Knight, the city received a fax on Thursday indicating that a group of Islanders are seeking a restraining order to prevent Tent City from coming to the Island. The plaintiffs demand that an ordinance regarding temporary encampments on Mercer Island be written and approved prior to hosting any Tent City type of encampment. She also defended the city’s position.

“I continue to be confident in the city’s legal position regarding the temporary use agreement,” said Knight.

United Methodist Church pastor Rev. Leslie Ann Knight declined to comment.

While other courts have upheld the Constitutional rights of religious institutions to house homeless encampments, the lawsuit lists several impacts of the camp upon the neighborhood.

“We hope the Court will prevent establishment of the camp until appropriate legislation is adopted in a public process,” the lawsuit documents read.

On Wednesday night, the Methodist Church invited the community to learn more about its expected guests from Tent City, which was set to moving to the Island in early August.

About 170 Islanders, residents of Tent City and members of the clergy filled the pews as the church explained its reasoning behind inviting the homeless encampment and answered questions from the community. About 25 Islanders, including those named on the lawsuit, asked camp residents about their lives, what form of identification is required to check in, the various policies of the camp and whether or not the church had plans to invite Tent City back every year.

Speaking from the pulpit in front of a window overlooking the future site of the camp, Rev. Leslie Ann Knight of the Methodist Church, Dale Sewall of the Presbyterian Church and Bill Kirlin-Hackett, the director of the King County Interfaith Task Force on Homelessness, led the meeting. Also attending was the Island Chief of Police and two City Council members.

“It is our desire and our expectation that Tent City will be a positive experience for all of us,” said Knight in her introduction.

Kirlin-Hackett explained that the meeting was not to verbally oppose or support the camp, but to meet some of the residents and learn how Tent City 4 operates. The clergy members reminded the neighbors that they were the guests of the denomination for the evening and instructed the crowd not to applaud comments or questions. Kirlin-Hackett said it was not a night for opinions but for questions.

“We know we have many opinions in this room,” Knight said in her introduction, explaining the ground rules of the meeting.

The city has not yet responded to the notice as it was received by mid-afternoon Thursday and has not been formally served. United Methodist Church pastor Rev. Leslie Ann Knight also declined to comment.

At the meeting on Wednesday, Islanders took the opportunity to ask questions about the identities and histories of camp residents. Many also wanted to know how and what was checked when admitting new campers. Members of the camp and clergy said that criminal background checks were not required, but security checks for outstanding warrants and sex offenders took place prior to letting someone stay. Check-in takes about 45 minutes to an hour, they said, and is done around the clock whenever someone seeks admittance.

A valid state ID is required to stay with the camp as well. One Islander asked if out-of-state IDs were accepted, which they are. One camp resident said that half of the camp’s population is not from Washington. The same resident said that many find themselves homeless after moving to the Seattle area in search of jobs and then find out how high the rent is.

Mercer Island Police Chief Ed Holmes explained that Island police would visit the camp daily. He was also asked if the warrant and sex offender databases include criminals from other states. Holmes replied that the two databases used include the entire nation in addition to the state lists.

Another Island resident wanted to know what happened when a prospective camper was rejected or when an existing resident violated the code of conduct. Camp advisor Bruce Thomas said the police are notified if an outstanding warrant is found. If a sex offender shows up or a resident becomes unruly, the person is escorted to the bus station or sent off in a taxi cab, another Tent City resident explained.

A church neighbor asked how the size of the Methodist Church property compared with other congregations that have hosted Tent City. Kirlin-Hackett said one church in Kirkland that recently hosted the camp is on a lot about half the size of the United Methodist Church, which is about 1.5 acres including the adjacent park and ride owned by the church. The Kirkland Congregational Church is nearly 41,000 square feet or just shy of an acre.

Islander Johni Freadman asked why the Methodist Church was chosen instead of other Island congregations. Sewall explained the Clergy Association and Tent City had identified six to seven plausible religious institutions that could host the camp. Out of those selected, many were undergoing recent leadership changes. Plus, the members of the Methodist Church were the first to make the decision.

“Losing church leaders delayed us,” Sewall said of the timing. He explained that the Clergy Association planned to invite the camp in 2007, but ultimately decided to postpone the invitation. “We were waiting for new leadership to arrive,” Sewall said.

Islander John Redifer asked what Tent City residents do to improve themselves since SHARE/WHEEL is not a social service agency. Several campers then shared their experiences of how and why they became homeless, and how they plan to change that.

“I moved here from Denver for all the IT [information technology] opportunities and now I am a BCC student getting a 4.0,” said a female Tent City resident. “I am using Tent City for exactly what it is designed for.”

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