In an uncertain and often hostile world, homeless encampments provide stability and security, the foundation on which new lives can be built.
The city of Seattle should open homeless encampments in residential neighborhoods. Doing so will transform our communities into better places to live.
I serve as pastor of Bear Creek United Methodist Church, a congregation that hosts Camp Unity Eastside, a homeless encampment of about 50 people. Our church is in a residential area of Woodinville, near two elementary schools, a grocery store, a pharmacy and the public library. Our neighborhood is not only residential, it embodies suburbia. And hosting a homeless encampment has made our neighborhood stronger and better connected in ways I had never imagined.
It wasn’t always this way. Five years ago, our church hosted an encampment. At community meetings, neighbors screamed at each other. People acted suspicious, fearful. Accusations flew about increased crime, property damage, fear of unknown people. In the end, we were not sure our neighborhood had been transformed for the better.
We were wrong. The tide is turning. Since the encampment came in October, neighbors feel free to share their own stories of people they love — fathers, sisters, children — who are experiencing homelessness. Muslim neighbors come over to deliver pizza and to listen to the experiences of the poor. The elementary school principal calls because parents won’t stop pestering her about ways for the school to get involved. Girl Scout troops tour the camp and start to imagine how, as our country’s future leaders, they can help enact more compassionate public policies addressing poverty in the Northwest. Retired nurses open the sanctuary in the middle of the night because allowing 50 neighbors to sleep outside in freezing temperatures is unconscionable. Holiday spirit overflows: on Thanksgiving Day, neighbors of all income levels and faiths gather to gorge on pie, to yell at the football game and to share stories of how grateful they are for one another.
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If that’s not a strong community, I don’t know what is.
Encampments are not a solution to homelessness. My friends who live in the encampment end many winter nights with ice in their hair, suffer through stomach flu with only a port-a-potty for recourse, go to work every day hiding their living conditions from employers who would not understand.
But encampments are community, they are survival, they are a place to be known by name, to be held accountable by those around you. In an uncertain and often hostile world, encampments provide stability and security, the foundation on which new lives can be built. And such stability blossoms when people are situated in a neighborhood — not one haunted by the ghosts of industrial waste, but one with children and houses and grocery stores and yes, even elementary schools. In community, nobody is the problem; instead, we all work together to find solutions.
This Christmas Eve, our neighbors, both housed and unhoused, will join us for warm soup, homemade bread and rich conversation around the dinner table. Afterward, some will stay for church, as we hear the story of a homeless family who gave birth to a baby in less-than-adequate shelter, in a city that told them there was no room. Gathered as neighbors, we will remember Jesus, the one who proclaimed good news to the poor, who ate and drank with saints and sinners alike, the one who reminds us that whenever we welcome the stranger, we welcome God into our lives.
I am so proud to serve a church in a residential neighborhood that lives its belief that perfect love casts out all fear. I pray that all of us, no matter what our religion or level of privilege, will remember that our communities are stronger when we choose courage, when we choose hospitality, when we choose love.