BELLEVUE — Rabbi Sydney Danziger came to Bellevue’s Temple B’nai Torah in part because she was impressed with its commitment to social justice and issues around homelessness. As part of that mission, the synagogue has hosted a tent city for homeless people five times on its property.
But Temple B’nai Torah didn’t become an encampment host without facing obstacles, including a 2005 lawsuit and opposition from neighborhood advocates. A consent decree between the city and the synagogue as a result of the lawsuit currently allows tent cities on Bellevue religious groups’ property for 90 days.
“Within our faith, we are commanded to do certain things,” Danziger said. “One is to welcome the stranger, the widow, the orphan. It’s very much a part of our mission and our raison d’etre to take care of the vulnerable around us.”
The city of Bellevue will continue allowing religious organizations to host the camps, even after the consent decree expires in January 2020, as required by state law. The proposed changes to its land-use code increase the number of days a temporary camp can stay in one spot — from 90 days to 120 — and at a greater frequency than currently allowed — from once at the same site every 18 months to now once every 12 months.
The Bellevue City Council plans to vote next month on the proposed changes.
City staff have worked for more than a year to update regulations that they say will simplify the permitting process for religious institutions. They say tent cities are necessary, and that the regulations balance both the institutions’ right to religious exercise and concerns of residents in surrounding neighborhoods — though some neighbors say the city hasn’t done enough.
The proposed changes are narrowly focused and don’t address unlawful camping, overnight parking or indoor shelters for those experiencing homelessness. The regulations, if approved, also wouldn’t mean that an institution can automatically host an encampment — hosting requires a lengthy application process.
Temple B’nai Torah and three Eastside churches have hosted the tent cities a total of 10 times, but none has done so since 2016. Temple B’nai Torah has hosted the encampment known as Tent City 4 five times. The roving homeless encampment has been at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church twice, and once at both First United Methodist Church and the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection. First United Methodist Church also hosted Camp Unity Eastside, which split from Tent City 4.
The self-managed tent community, which is managed by SHARE/WHEEL, is now at the High Point Way exit off Interstate 90 in Issaquah. But when they stay on their property, members of the houses of worship often volunteer to help the residents.
“It’s enlightening, because not everybody has the ability to get to know people who don’t have a home, and it really allowed us to evangelize the idea that these are not scary people,” said Dick Stein, a member of Temple B’nai Torah who has helped coordinate logistics each time the synagogue has hosted. “It’s a cliché at this point, but a lot of people are one or two paychecks away from disaster. It can happen to anyone.”
Critics, some of whom have voiced concerns since the first encampment moved in 15 years ago, say that the camps have been badly operated, increase crime and aren’t good neighbors.
They don’t object to tent cities specifically, but have “legitimate public health and safety concerns,” Karen Morris said Monday at a Bellevue City Council public hearing. Morris lives near Temple B’nai Torah and has collected crime data on the encampments, which she says the city has ignored.
“If we question anything at all, we are called ‘homeless haters,’” Morris said in an interview.
Bellevue city officials acknowledge increases in call volumes in the areas surrounding an encampment. Police statistics, however, don’t show a clear correlation between the encampments and an increase in crime, said Toni Pratt, a city of Bellevue senior land use planner.
Under state law, local governments can’t prevent religious organizations from hosting temporary encampments. They can, however, add their own conditions, such as the number of days allowed. Bellevue’s proposed four-month limit mirrors other Eastside cities, including Sammamish and Woodinville. In Seattle, the encampments can stay on religious institutions’ grounds indefinitely.
Danziger, the Temple B’nai Torah rabbi, said she would welcome Tent City 4 again. In the meantime, the synagogue is operating The Sophia Way’s emergency shelter in its building. The shelter for homeless women will be housed there until May 2020.