Sammamish City Council expects to pass tent-city ordinance
The Sammamish City Council will consider on Tuesday a proposed ordinance some homeless advocates see as unconstitutional. However, supporters say it would make the city a more welcoming place for encampments.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Some Sammamish City Council members believe a tent-city ordinance they expect to adopt Tuesday night could inspire better conditions at homeless camps across the Eastside.
But several homeless advocates as well as Tent City 4 sponsor SHARE/WHEEL believe the proposed ordinance is flat-out unconstitutional and could end up being one of the most restrictive tent-city laws in the Seattle metro area.
One of the most controversial requirements in drafts of the ordinance would require background checks seven days before a camp is set up within city limits.
Jarvis Capucion, a SHARE/WHEEL board member, believes the requirement is unconstitutional and that it’s against state law for a city to force religious organizations to run background checks on people it has decided to help.
“If a church is willing to challenge this law, it will not be upheld,” said Capucion. “It’s unconstitutional to make restrictions on a church’s mission to be compassionate.”
Capucion citeda law passed by the state in 2010, which he said was passed after a state Supreme Court ruling in 2009 that found that the city of Woodinville violated the religious rights of the Northshore United Church of Christ when it refused to consider encampment permits the church had submitted.
As a courtesy to the neighborhoods where they stay, Capucion said, Tent City 4 runs background checks on all members when they first enter the camp, but the encampment will not approve being forced to repeat the check every time it relocates, he said.
The Sammamish ordinance could also prohibit encampments from staying in the city more than once a year and more than once every 18 months at any one location.
Sammamish hadn’t considered any homeless-camp regulations until last fall, when Tent City 4 found itself scrambling to find a new place to go. Although the campers found a mostly warm reception in the city — often rated as one of the safest in the country — some parents and Arbor Montessori School staff complained that illegal activity was happening at Tent City 4 when it was hosted by Mary, Queen of Peace Catholic Church.
A Sammamish Police Department investigation resulted in the arrest of a man who said he had sold methamphetamine to several people inside the camp. Members suspected of being involved were banned from the camp.
Tent City 4, which routinely moves to a new location about every three months, planned to relocate to another Sammamish church when its first 90-day permit ran out in January.
But before it could, the City Council passed a six-month moratorium on homeless encampments to give it time to pass an ordinance to regulate them. Tent City 4 stayed briefly at Lake Sammamish State Park, then was welcomed into the Klahanie neighborhood, which is in unincorporated King County.
The Sammamish City Council also will consider Tuesday whether it wants to allow encampments to stay three or four months at a time.
City Councilmember Ramiro Valderrama-Aramayo believes that if the ordinance allows for four months, it will be a win-win situation for churches, cities and the camps: Everyone would have to deal less often with decisions about where the encampments move. He said he’d like other Eastside cities to follow suit.
“This allows the organization to have more stability, so we’re not constantly faced with the tent city rushing to find a new place at the last minute,” said Valderrama-Aramayo.
It’s been more difficult for Tent City 4 to find host churches on the Eastside ever since fall of 2012, when some Tent City 4 residents split off to create a second Eastside encampment called Camp Unity.
The cause of the split was the SHARE/WHEEL board’s refusal to honor a Kirkland church’s request that the camp perform random, weekly warrant checks after a man wanted on child-rape charges was arrested at their camp.
Ever since, it’s been difficult for the encampments to overcome the fears of neighbors that camp residents could hurt children living or going to school nearby, says Elizabeth Maupin, coordinator of the Issaquah Sammamish Interfaith Coalition.
It’s not unusual for neighbors to be apprehensive of encampments, she said, but it doesn’t take long for most communities to warm to them. When an encampment first stayed at the Community Church of Issaquah years ago, Maupin said, parents formed a patrol to go through the camp.
“By the end of two weeks, volunteers weren’t showing up for their shifts because they no longer saw the point. They felt safe,” said Maupin.
Alexa Vaughn: 206-464-2515 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @AlexaVaughn.