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Tent City camp is welcomed by many, but feared by neighbors

Tent City 4, pictured above, in Bellevue last summer. - Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter
Tent City 4, pictured above, in Bellevue last summer.
— image credit: Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter

About 100 Tent City supporters and concerned Islanders filled Council Chambers at city hall on 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 in support of the camp while some First Hill residents voiced concern about hosting up to 100 homeless people in their neighborhood for three months.

There were 14 comments in support of bringing the homeless camp to the Island, and 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. Recent Mercer Island High School graduate Carrie McKee said she supported the camp because it provided a learning experience for teens such as herself and all Islanders.

“Here on Mercer Island, we are often living in an ivory tower. I am not a parent, but I am a child and I think the concerns about protecting children from Tent City residents are things based on irrational fear. We need to think about exposing them [Island children] to the rest of the world beyond Lake Washington. The arguments against are based out of fear that lacks experience about the actual Tent City,” said McKee.

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. There will be an additional neighborhood public-information meeting on July 9 at the United Methodist Church from 7 to 9 p.m. Neighbors are welcome to attend and meet some Tent City residents and learn more about the camp.

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 daycares and preschools have also neighbored Tent City 4 and have welcomed the camp back along with the neighboring faith organization.

Mercer Island United Methodist Church pastor, Rev. Leslie Ann Knight, told the Council that 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.

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 on Monday.

Islander Tara Johnson began the public comments, saying she supported efforts to end homelessness by volunteering in shelters and soup kitchens but did not approve of the methods employed by SHARE/WHEEL, the organization that operates Tent City.

“Their [SHARE/WHEEL] goal is not to help resist homelessness; it’s to exploit the poor for their own agenda. It is deceitful and self-serving. I urge you to put an end to this rogue chapter,” she said.

Mannie Batra, who said he lived near the church, told the Council he was bothered that several supporters of Tent City from nearby cities knew of the public hearing, but several church neighbors and other Islanders did not know of the meeting.

“I live six houses away, and I didn’t know this meeting was going to take place until today. But many people from other communities did know about it. This is something the rest of the Island is really affected by, but they didn’t know a thing about it,” he said of the meeting.

The city advertised that the Tent City agreement would be an agenda item during the June 16 meeting in the June 11 issue of the Reporter.

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 are 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 during the six consecutive months when it was in Kirkland, and they developed a good relationship.

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

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

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