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Tent City may come to Island: MI Clergy Association hopes to host homeless encampment here

An alliance of leaders from several faiths throughout the Island announced their intention to bring the Eastside’s homeless encampment to the Island late last week.

In a forum printed in this week’s issue from the Mercer Island Clergy Association, co-senior pastor of the Mercer Island Presbyterian Church, Dale Sewall, stated all the clergy present at the meeting unanimously agreed to invite Tent City 4, the Eastside homeless camp, to the Island.

“Our goal is to make this a very positive, interfaith, all-Island experience of hosting Tent City 4,” Sewall wrote.

Tent City 4, or TC4, began in 2004 as a place for people living on the streets of the Eastside. They live together as a community for reasons of safety. In 2006, 59 homeless people died in King County while living on the street. Tent City 3 was established in Seattle in 2000 for similar reasons. The camps promise to live by a strict code of conduct that prohibits drug and alcohol abuse, violence, derogatory comments and littering.

Bruce Thomas, the camp advisor and a resident of TC4, said the group of approximately 80 homeless men and women need another place to stay along the I-90 corridor this fall.

“We always try to make small moves,” Thomas said. “We are going to Issaquah and we voted to stay along the I-90 corridor for the next two or three stays.”

TC4 residents are able to keep jobs and maintain access to social services when the camp moves lesser distances, Thomas also said.

Island clergy first met with Mercer Island officials more than a year ago to share their proposal and met again a couple of weeks ago to discuss how the organization should proceed.

“When the Clergy Association contacted the city 15 months ago, the feeling from the city was ‘there was no reason it couldn’t come to Mercer Island,’” Holy Trinity Lutheran Church the Rev. Paul Fauske said.

“The city said, ‘there is no way we can say no, so let’s make sure we can do this right. How do we work in concert to do this right?’” Fauske continued. “How do we make this work for everybody.”

Members of the clergy group have already had several talks with SHARE/WHEEL, the two primary sponsoring organizations of Tent City, who also came to the Island to tour the possible sites for the encampment. According to Fauske, those sites were the Mercer Island Presbyterian Church, Emmanuel Episcopal and the Christian Science church — but, he emphasized, no specific site has been chosen.

“[This is] an opportunity to dispel some of the myths about homelessness,” Fauske added, “as virtually all of these people [who live in Tent City] go off to work each morning. We don’t see this as a solution to homelessness. But it serves as a visible reminder of a huge need. We need to ask ourselves, ‘How do we, as a community, address this? How do we provide for those in need.’”

“People can either see this as a threat or an opportunity,” Fauske said. “Do we oppose it or come to see it as part of our responsibility for the larger community and participate in a solution.”

Mercer Island is considered an excellent city to host the camp by both the clergy association and resident council.

“Transportation-wise, Mercer Island is a perfect location,” Thomas said. “That’s our biggest concern, using public transportation, and Mercer Island is incredibly good in that regard.”

“We are looking for a Mercer Island church with some backbone to step up and say ‘this is our constitutional right and please come,’” Thomas said.

Tent City 4 moved to the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection in east Bellevue on May 19. It plans to move to the Community Church of Issaquah in August. After that, the camp does not have a location available along the I-90 corridor. Should the Island not be available, the camp may have to move back toward the north shore of Lake Washington — to Bothell or Woodinville.

The Woodinville Unitarian Universalist Church has hosted TC4 twice in the past two years and has invited the camp back for a third stay the Reverend Alex Holt said. He also said having TC4 was a positive experience.

“We felt safer having them here,” Holt said, “ because we are located out in the country and had been broken into twice before hosting them. But they patrolled the area every day, since they’re self-policing, and we never had any problems with vandalism or disruptions in the camp.”

“They are extremely good neighbors,” Holt said. “I’m sure we would issue another invitation.”

Thomas extended an invitation to all curious Islanders to come view the camp currently in Bellevue or in Issaquah once they move there in August.

Councilmember Mike Grady said he supports what the clergy is trying to do but has one concern about safety.

“My concern is the location,” Grady said. “If the camp is located near a preschool, then I want some additional security so parents feel comfortable.”

Grady said other council members are also aware of the clergy association’s intentions and have also showed support.

“This is not a surprise to us,” said city manager Rich Conrad when reached Monday morning. “We have been quietly talking about this for over a year. The clergy association has been thinking about it longer than that.”

Conrad also mentioned that the city does not want a legal battle to arise from denying the camp to stay on church property. The city of Bothell has had a few lawsuits against SHARE/WHEEL dismissed in court recently and challenges from Bellevue also failed.

“We cannot say no — there is legal precedent that shows the city would have a difficult time in trying to accomplish that — so if we are going to do this, let’s do it right,” Conrad said. “The churches have the right to sponsor Tent City at their churches — that being the fact we are sure we can provide a safe and healthy environment for everyone. We have been talking to other cities about how this will work and to learn from them to do this in a constructive and positive way.”

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