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Originally published November 16, 2012 at 8:51 PM | Page modified November 17, 2012 at 8:58 AM

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Tent city dispute sends homeless packing

The majority of Tent City 4 residents went to the new Camp Unity Eastside after leaders were disciplined by its parent organization, SHARE, in a dispute over criminal-background checks and other issues.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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There are now two homeless encampments on the Eastside after an exodus from Tent City 4.

The overwhelming majority of residents went to the new Camp Unity on Thursday after leaders of 8-year-old Tent City were disciplined by its parent organizations, SHARE and WHEEL, in a dispute over criminal-background checks and other issues.

Nearly 60 former Tent City residents slept on the floor of Kirkland's Lake Washington United Methodist Church while a much smaller number stayed at the old camp at another Kirkland church, city and church officials said Friday.

Lake Washington Methodist applied Friday for a city permit for Camp Unity, which city spokeswoman Marie Stake said will be processed as quickly as possible in what is an emergency situation. The church and camp leaders were collecting donations of tents, pallets and other equipment.

The rift between campers and SHARE escalated after a Tent City resident was arrested on child-rape charges based on accusations in Tacoma.

When Robert Bruce McKay-Erskine, 35, entered Tent City at St. John Vianney Parish in Kirkland, he passed a check for outstanding criminal warrants and a check of registered sex offenders. After nine days at the camp, a felony warrant was issued for his arrest, and he was arrested at the camp Nov. 7.

The next day, the Rev. Ramon Santa Cruz met with camp adviser Steve Wiggins, and suggested that in addition to checking for warrants when a person enters the camp, follow-up warrant checks be done randomly each week.

"I agreed right away to do it. I think it's a good idea," Wiggins said.

Wiggins went to SHARE's weekly decision-making "Power Lunch" last Saturday and asked the leadership group to endorse weekly checks for warrants. "They voted it down and went after me and the camp leadership for all kinds of reasons," he said.

Wiggins was barred from the camp for 13 days, on grounds he participated in an unauthorized meeting with the pastor. SHARE consultant Scott Morrow wrote on the nonprofit group's website that Power Lunch attendees suggested that when a church host asks to meet with a Tent City leader, the leader should respond, "I'm sorry, I can't discuss that. Call Scott, please."

Morrow said Friday he wasn't authorized to answer media questions.

Tent City 4's other camp adviser and the bookkeeper also were ousted for 13 days because of problems such as failing to make sure residents were doing their required duties, said Lantz Rowland, SHARE board member and Tent City 3 resident.

"You get rid of these three people, and everything's cool," Rowland said. But Tent City 4's five elected executive committee members stood by them — and they, too, were ordered to leave.

"They were stubborn and dug their heels in," Rowland said.

On Tuesday, SHARE threatened that the camp would shut down Thursday. The camp had "repeatedly failed to do their share at things like wiener roasts and fundraising auctions," and ignored directives to shape up, SHARE's website said.

But Thursday, as most residents were leaving, those who stayed elected new leaders and SHARE allowed the camp to remain open.

Tent City 3, currently in Tukwila, doesn't follow Tent City 4's policy of checking whether homeless people have warrants and turning them away if they do. To deny someone a place to stay for something as minor as an out-of-state traffic offense, "I think that's absurd; I think that's stupid," Rowland said.

Representatives of SHARE and the Archdiocese of Seattle said they expect to have further conversations about warrant checks at Tent City 4.

Archdiocese spokesman Greg Magnoni said police apparently found accused rapist McKay-Erskine at Tent City 4 because the camp did a computer inquiry for warrants.

Whatever the outcome of further talks, Magnoni said, the encampment is welcome to stay at St. John Vianney until Jan. 13. "We made an agreement with them, and we're going to hold to that agreement."

The Rev. Kelly Dahlman-Oeth, pastor of Lake Washington Methodist, said there are more than enough homeless people on the Eastside to fill two camps. In a meeting at Tent City 4 on Tuesday, he said, "I assured them the faith communities on the Eastside will not let them be shipped off to various shelters or be without a camp."

Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105

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