Starting next year, Bellevue religious organizations wanting to host homeless encampments on their properties will be able to do so for 90 days at a time, once every 18 months, but with a six-month gap if another faith community has already hosted a camp in the same neighborhood.
The Bellevue City Council voted Monday to approve a change to its land-use code related to religious institutions and their hosting of tent cities, providing for a break between when they can host tent cities. The change comes after a year of work to update the regulations and a month before a 14-year-old consent decree — which allows the tent cities on religious property — expires.
“We are balancing the right of a religious organization to minister to people with the ability to regulate time, place and manner of the activity,” Mayor John Chelminiak said before the 6-1 vote.
The new regulations have the same duration as what’s outlined in the consent decree. Those differ from the city’s original proposal, which would have allowed sites to host encampments for up to 120 days once a year.
Under the new rules, a potential host will have to wait six months after another organization’s hosting has ended, if the two are within a mile of each other. That way, council members said, certain areas won’t be disproportionately impacted by the temporary tent cities.
Three churches and a synagogue have hosted Tent City 4, as well as Camp Unity Eastside, a total of 10 times from 2005 to 2016. Under the new regulations, only one religious organization can host at a time.
Much of the comments from both sides on Monday evening centered on Temple B’nai Torah. The synagogue filed a lawsuit in 2005 against Bellevue, claiming that the city’s homeless-encampment rule violated its religious freedoms. As a result of the consent decree with the city, the synagogue has hosted Tent City 4 five times. The tent community, which is managed by SHARE/WHEEL, is now at the High Point Way exit off Interstate 90 in Issaquah.
Some synagogue neighbors say the tent cities brought in more crime, though police statistics don’t show a clear correlation between the encampments and an increase in crime.
Neither side seemed content with the changes. Faith organizations said the regulations are too restrictive, while critics of the ordinance said they’re not restrictive enough.
Temple B’nai Torah Rabbi Sydney Danziger said the ordinance, by not allowing back-to-back hostings, prevented potential hosts from fulfilling their religious obligations.
“Those experiencing homelessness are profoundly impacted by stability,” she said before the council vote. “By making them move site to site, from city to city, on a regular basis, makes it more difficult to receive the services they need.”
The Church Council of Greater Seattle described the ordinance as burdensome for faith communities, likening the six-month-gap requirement to a ban on practicing religion for six months.
“Faith communities are unnecessarily restricted from doing ministry that saves lives,” said Michael Ramos, executive director of the church council, which represents 300 congregations throughout King and South Snohomish counties. “There is still a homelessness emergency in King County and faith communities have been doing their part in Bellevue, and want to continue, without unnecessary restrictions.”
Karen Morris, a longtime critic of the way the city has handled tent encampments, said Temple B’nai Torah neighbors were unfairly burdened by the hostings. She disputed the city’s statement that staff members had provided ample discussion opportunities about the ordinance.
Councilmember John Stokes, the sole “no” vote, said the City Council had lost its chance to better address the needs of those experiencing homelessness by limiting the encampments to only one at a time.
“This is a crisis,” he said. “ … We’ve missed an opportunity to do much, much better, that would not have any significant effect on the neighborhoods and have a positive effect on the needs out there. And one of these days we are going to have to address those.”