Cities across King County should get out of the way of faith-based efforts to address the rising crisis of homelessness.
WHEN people of faith exercise the ethic of reciprocity — treating others as you would like to be treated — wise secular leaders mostly get out of the way. That’s especially a good idea when good works are directed toward mitigating the region’s rising problem of homelessness.
Instead, cities throughout King County are putting up barriers, big and small, to faith-based efforts. The City of Sammamish has been overtly unwelcoming to efforts by the Mary, Queen of Peace Catholic Church to bring a tent camp back to the parish. Mercer Island — an island of just 6 square miles — has similarly onerous rules preventing churches within a half-mile of each other from hosting a camp more than once every 18 months.
The list goes on. A tent camp to be based at St. Jude Catholic Church in Redmond was charged a permit fee of $2,600 — 10 times the amount of more-welcoming Kirkland. An effort by a coalition of 26 churches to site a 24-hour homeless shelter in downtown Kent has been met with opposition from business leaders.
“It does not help the response to a crisis that affects all of us,” said Michael Ramos of the Church Council of Greater Seattle.
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Earlier this month, a group had to close a 40-person emergency winter homeless shelter in North Bend. City officials there had never been welcoming. North Bend had declined to issue a permit, and a fire marshal said the group would have to find a church with an expensive sprinkler system if it wanted to return.
The group tried to quickly reopen the shelter at a United Methodist church in nearby Snoqualmie, but Snoqualmie city officials inserted an absurd demand that every shelter resident undergo a full criminal background check and have their bags searched. A hearing examiner sided against Snoqualmie officials and the shelter — closed for two and a half weeks in the middle of winter — finally reopened this week.
The cities throwing up barriers to faith-based homeless outreach are not only being unwise, they are also inviting a lawsuit. In a 2009 ruling that allowed a Woodinville church to open a tent encampment, the state Supreme Court said cities could consider noise and other factors in issuing permits but could not “outright deny” churches’ efforts to put their faith into action because of the First Amendment.
The experience with recalcitrant cities shows the need for stronger teeth in the law. Proposals by state Sen. Mark Miloscia, R-Federal Way, and state Rep. Joan McBride, D-Kirkland, would explicitly allow churches to host tent camps for four months, and would allow multiple tent camps within one city. The bill also encourages churches to open their parking lots to homeless families seeking to sleep in their cars.
Reinforcing the constitutional right of churches to exercise the Golden Rule shouldn’t require legislation. Instead, obstinate forces in city halls across the region should consider how they’d like to be treated, should they become homeless.