Opinions voiced over homeless encampment coding in Sammamish

Tent City 4 at Mary Queen of Peace Church in Sammamish, January 2014. - Kelly Montgomery, Issaquah/Sammamish Reporter
Tent City 4 at Mary Queen of Peace Church in Sammamish, January 2014.
— image credit: Kelly Montgomery, Issaquah/Sammamish Reporter

Sammamish citizens voiced their opinions regarding homeless encampments in the city at the council's meeting Tuesday night, with many supporting encampments in the city and others discouraging them altogether.

Rev. Kevin Duggan of Mary Queen of Peace Church, Tent City 4's previous host, said that the ordinances as they're currently drafted would place a substantial hinderance on hosting Tent City. He asked the council to consider recommendations that would adjust the ordinance, enabling hosts such as Mary Queen of Peace to carry out what "they strongly believe is both their moral obligation and their spiritual calling."

Bruce Boyd, a 15-year resident of Sammamish, said he has a 9-year-old son and wants to see the children in the community protected. He said that there is a lack of funding for shelters and he recognizes the goodwill by the churches to do something to help, but "putting other people in danger is not the solution and it's not the way."

Boyd suggested building facilities and offering homeless people job training instead of allowing homeless encampments to effect Sammamish citizen's civil liberties.

Seth Eliot, a Sammamish resident since 2005, said he would like to see a stricter code than what is currently proposed. He said the real issue is not homelessness, but homeless encampment organizers who are "bullying the community to make a statement." He urged council members to listen to the community on the issue.

"The community should be the North star," Eliot said.

Multiple community members brought up the issue of child safety, with one asking who would be responsible if something were to happen to a Sammamish citizen. Others said that those in homeless encampments have mental illnesses or disorders and they don't want unstable people near their homes and schools.

Jan Bennett, a longtime Issaquah School District employee and Tent City advocate, said that idea is absurd.

"These people are sisters, they're brothers, they're mothers, they're fathers," she said.

Bennett said that many encampment members are trying to get permanent housing, but in the meantime they need somewhere they can be safe and their belongings can be safe, explaining that they're real people with real needs.

Members of Tent City 4 were also at the meeting and addressed the council and community, saying that no child has ever been harmed by Tent City 4. They said that they think misinformation has led the city to propose more restrictive ordinances that are actually necessary. They asked that sites be extended to include more than simply religious organizations.

"Homelessness is a public problem," they said. "It can happen to anyone. Anyone."

Cynthia Moss of Tent City 4 said that everyone has the right to practice hospitality to the poor, and the city could not take that right away. She also said that the government doesn't have the right to target a group of people and conduct something as discriminatory as a warrant check.

"No one else in Sammamish is forced to do this," she said.

Dick Gram spoke in support of homeless encampments, saying he considers encampment members good friends. Gram said that one Tent City 4 resident got a job and could afford housing, but if he moved out of Tent City he would not be able to afford his child support, so he stayed. Another, Gram said, donated all of his hair to the Locks of Love nonprofit organization.

"We're impressed with what they do, with how they act, and we don't feel threatened by them. And I hope you don't either," Gram said. "As you make these decisions, try to set up bridges and not roadblocks."

John and Mary O'Brien, owners of the Arbor School, spoke of their experience while Tent City 4 was located next to their school at Mary Queen of Peace Church. John said that when they became aware that Tent City 4 would be next to their school, they hired a security guard. John said this guard became aware of methamphetamine possession and use in the encampment.

As previously reported by The Reporter, an investigation took place in January and Sammamish police arrested a Tent City resident for felony possession of narcotics. The 38-year-old man was found carrying a pipe used to smoke methamphetamine, with a small amount found in the pipe. After his arrest, police say the man claimed to have sold methamphetamine to 12 residents of Tent City 4 earlier that day.

"No one ever knows when they're making an impression on a child," Mary O'Brien said. "There were impressions made on some of our children."

Mary said that it was very burdensome for the school to have to hire a guard, yet the city and citizens discussed how it would be too burdensome for homeless encampments to have a transportation plan.

"I appreciate that we need to be careful with our regulations, but we also need to be careful with our children," she said.

John said that neighboring cities require homeless encampments to be between 500-700 feet away from schools and asked that the council consider issues such as theirs when making a final decision.

Citizens took part in the public hearing for more than two and a half hours. The last to speak was Gabriella Duncan. Duncan said that she is an educator, a social worker and that she is homeless.

"We're not animals that need to be relocated or tagged," she said. "Your children need to be safe, but you also need to remember what they're learning by what you do. We are all still human beings."

The council closed the public hearing and began discussing the recommendations made by the Planning Commission. Mayor Tom Vance said he didn't want a debate, he simply wanted to know the general consensus on specific ordinances.

Council members were in general agreement on most issues, except for length of stay and transportation. The council was split between a three or four month period for length of occupancy as well as an adequate approach to a transportation plan.

These issues will be discussed on July 1, when a second public hearing and reading of the code will take place before an official adoption.

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