A Seattle-sanctioned homeless camp does not do warrant checks "of any sort," so staff members were not aware of a resident's criminal history.

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The impassioned debate over Seattle’s homelessness crisis, already intense following the passage of a new tax to address the problem, took another emotional turn this week after a homeless man was charged with sexually assaulting a woman in an auto-dealership restroom.

The man arrested in Monday’s sexual assault had recently lived in Ballard Nickelsville, one of the city’s six sanctioned encampments. He was wanted on a 2017 warrant at the time of the attack, raising concerns among many community members about who is living in the camps.

However, people associated with the camp and who work in the homeless-service system argue the man’s housing status is irrelevant, a cipher for people’s broader frustrations about homelessness in the city.

Christopher Teel, 24, has been charged with first-degree rape and unlawful imprisonment with sexual motivation after he was arrested Monday in connection with the rape of a woman in a temporary restroom of the Carter Motors in Ballard.

That same day, the Seattle City Council adopted a tax that will collect $275 per employee, per year starting in 2017 on Seattle for-profit companies that gross at least $20 million a year. The tax is expected to generate an average of $47.5 million a year to fund affordable housing and homelessness.

The events capped off weeks of burgeoning frustration over how to address the rising number of people living on Seattle’s streets. To Sara Rankin, a Seattle University law professor who studies homelessness, the reaction to the sexual assault, coming the same day as the council vote, points to a city at a point of reckoning about homelessness.

“The reason why I think this (assault) has been such a hot issue in the last 24 hours is because it’s occurring at the same time that we are really navigating some thorny discussions about how we should approach homelessness and poverty, and its making a lot of people very uncomfortable,” said Rankin.

Teel moved to Seattle in summer 2016, according to King County prosecutors. He had been living in Nickelsville since at least November, when his photograph appeared in a Seattle Times story about the tent camp moving to Wallingford.

Nickelsville, like many other shelters and sanctioned camps, does not check for warrants on their residents, so they were not aware that Teel was wanted on a misdemeanor warrant for failing to appear in court, according to statement issued by Scott Morrow, a founder of Nickelsville.

The bench warrant was issued in March 2017 after Teel failed to appear at a Seattle Municipal Court hearing on a gross misdemeanor charge of first-degree criminal trespass.

The Seattle Police Department’s Fugitive Unit tracks down violent offenders wanted on felony warrants, but Teel’s bench warrant wouldn’t have risen to their attention, said police spokesman Sgt. Sean Whitcomb.

An officer would have run Teel’s name and checked for warrants had he been contacted by police before his arrest Monday — provided they had reasonable suspicion to do so, said Whitcomb.

“When we stop people — for a motor vehicle violation, a pedestrian violation, suspicious circumstances or we have probable cause to arrest them — we’re going to check their ID” and see if there are any warrants, protection orders or missing persons reports associated with them, he said.

But police don’t have the authority to randomly check rosters of encampment residents to fish for people who may have outstanding warrants, Whitcomb explained.
“Our authority is tempered by people’s guaranteed, constitutional rights” — including the right to privacy and protection against unlawful searches and seizures, he said.

When Teel moved into Ballard Nickelsville, he was required to present valid identification. His name was also run against King County’s sex-offender list because sex offenders are not allowed on site. His name was not on it, according to Morrow.

Officials with the city’s Human Services Department said five of the six sanctioned camps, and many shelters, do sex offender checks upon intake.

Some shelters and homeless service providers also do “a range of background and warrant checks” and can elect to remove a person. But not all shelters do these checks, the department said.

For example, the Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC) does not do background checks.

“The point of shelter is to bring people inside for safety and when you put up various kinds of barriers then you will not reach the people you’re trying to help,” said DESC Executive Director Daniel Malone.

And, if a background check is used to determine someone is somehow not worthy of shelter, that person is likely to live outdoors and not receive any assistance and no one will know where they are, Malone said.

At Nickelsville, residents can be temporarily or permanently barred for breaking camp rules, including engaging in “violent, aggressive behavior, intoxication, inappropriate language … on site or (in the) surrounding neighborhood,” according to the camp Code of Conduct.

Teel had not signed into the camp or been there since May 9, according to Morrow. The Code of Conduct requires all residents to sign in to the camp every day. Failure to do so for three days qualifies as “a voluntary move.”

When camp residents met for a regular meeting on Monday night, they were not aware Teel had been arrested in connection with the rape.

Other residents were concerned for his safety because he recently “seemed to be decompensating,” with worsening symptoms of mental illness, and they planned to check hospitals and jails, or file a missing-person report.

Nickelsville staff learned Wednesday that Teel was charged, and notified the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI), a Seattle nonprofit agency that provides case management at the camp.

“We are shocked to learn of a violent act like this, by someone who had recently left Nickelsville,” Morrow said in the statement.

He said in nine years of operations “there has never before been a confirmed criminal act of such terrible significance by either someone living in Nickelsville, or who had recently left.” Morrow’s statement said.

LIHI executive director Sharon Lee said her organization is the site’s fiscal sponsor and does its case management, and they are not responsible for criminal background checks. LIHI only gets the names of camp residents who are engaged in case management, which is not a requirement of living at Nickelsville.

Ballard Nickelsville, which was Seattle’s first authorized camp, opened in 2015. The camp recently moved to Wallingford, near Fourth Avenue Northeast and Northeast Northlake Way.

Like all of Seattle’s sanctioned homeless camps, Nickelsville sits on public property. Each camp is managed by a separate organization. Nickelsville is its own nonprofit, and runs the Wallingford site, in addition to two other sanctioned camps in South Seattle.

Seattle Times staff reporter Sara Jean Green contributed to this story.