Tent City 4 returns quietly to Finn Hill: Move-in lacks controversy, protests that plagued camp two years ago

They threw a party and no one came. And that was just fine with the hosts.

After packing up in the rain the night before, about 50 homeless men and women savored both the sunbreaks and the quiescence during their well-oiled move to the grounds of St. John Mary Vianney on Veterans Day. In stark contrast to the mercurial scenario exactly two years ago, not a protestor was in sight. Only helpers. Camp adviser Bruce Thomas shakes his head in absolute disbelief. "There is an incredible team of support here."

Tent City 4 is an Eastside homeless encampment run by SHARE/WHEEL, permitted to house up to 100 adults and must move every 90 days. (SHARE stands for Seattle Housing and Resource Effort. WHEEL stands for Women's Housing Equality and Enhancement League.)  In addition to two Tent City locations, they also operate 13 fixed-site shelters with 350 beds.

Since its inception two-and-a-half years ago, Tent City 4 has become defined by polarity. Religious organizations, which have federally-mandated land use rights, often unequivocally welcome the two-and-a-half-year-old Eastside homeless encampment as part of missions to reach out to the homeless. On the flip side, most surrounding communities - and often the city government - do everything in their power to limit their stays and prevent their return.

Tent City 4 was last at Finn Hill's St. John Vianney from November 2004 to February 2005. From there it moved to two successive Kirkland locations: the Kirkland Congregational United Church of Christ across from City Hall and then the Lake Washington United Methodist Church. During this time, Kirkland City Council created a reasonable zoning code, establishing the maximum stay at 92 days and limiting the stay to once a year in any one Kirkland location. This code does not apply to St. John Vianney as it is in unincorporated King County.

Beacon of kindness

According to Tent City 4 executives, this church and its parishioners, however, stand as a beacon of kindness and generosity, especially considering the miles of red tape the organization is forced to continually navigate. A spokesperson for SHARE (who preferred not to be named) said that when permits are issued, the host typically submits its own stipulations in response to the permit. He said St. John's submittal was only three pages, in contrast to the city of Bothell's eight-pager. "They have done everything in their power to keep us out," Thomas says of Bothell.

Huge bill

To be specific, Bothell recently slapped Tent City 4 with a $4,000 bill (which has since grown to $5,000) for the time devoted to processing the application for the permit to stay at the First Evangelical Lutheran Church in August. Tent City 4 reportedly was hamstrung by the many conditions attached to the permit and never moved there, as it had hoped. Instead, it moved to the Woodinville Unitarian Universalist Church in unincorporated King County. The First Evangelical Lutheran Church paid the bill - as it would have crippled the non-profit SHARE/WHEEL - reportedly under protest.

There have been similar legal twists and turns associated with the city of Woodinville. In fact, a series of civil infractions filed by the city against SHARE/WHEEL employee Scott Morrow were recently dismissed by a King County judge.

"SHARE is responsible for saving thousands of lives," says Peggy Hotes, a Carl Sandburg Elementary School teacher who lives at Tent City full time while the encampment is at St. John Vianney. "There aren't enough shelter beds or affordable housing."

Hotes has been volunteering with Tent City 4 since its inception in May 2004, doing everything from driving the moving van to picking up and delivering blankets that have been washed. "You can't imagine how rewarding it is," she says of her volunteering.

Hotes, who is on the TC 4 executive committee, also stayed at the encampment when it was at St. John two years ago; she has been such an active and trustworthy volunteer that she is now one of TC 4's two check co-signers. She was also recently elected to SHARE's board of directors.

Tent City 4 is a contained social entity that polices itself, requires resident to sign a code of conduct and performs background, warrant checks and sex offenders checks on all potential residents. Residents agree to abstain from drugs and alcohol and share responsibility for site security and maintenance. Hotes says that TC 4 residents share 24/7 security patrols and a member of the executive committee is always on guard with a cell phone and log.

No extra security

There are three Lake Washington School District schools within a mile of Tent City 4. If you travel north on 84th Avenue Northeast you will come to Carl Sandburg and Discovery Community elementary schools, Finn Hill Junior High School and Thoreau Elementary School. The district decided to employ a more low-key approach this time, having posted security guards at Sandburg two years ago. District superintendent Don Saul sent a letter home to the schools' parents Nov. 6 in attempt to quell unfounded fears.

"Last time they were here there was considerable concern voiced by parents and the community," says district public information officer Kathryn Reith. "The general feeling was that the guard didn't do much for security and there was no particular need." After checking with the safety officer at the Northshore School District, which didn't hire extra security and didn't report any problems, Lake Washington felt comfortable with its level of security already in place.

Members of Tent City 4's executive board reported that during Tent City 4's stay at Woodinville, a King County sheriff mentioned that there was less trouble with Tent City residents than with a neighboring large apartment building. Ongoing police reports, in general, corroborate the absence of a spike of suspicious or criminal activity.

High employment rate

People may be surprised to learn that, according to Thomas, between 70 and 80 percent of the residents are employed. In addition, many people have moved here from out of state and are looking for a fresh start and higher pay.

Diana and Alec, who are married and grandparents, are both qualified carpenters; they heard there were construction jobs to be had in the Seattle area. They spent the last two years on the road and hope to find permanent jobs here. They also noted that minimum wage is more than $2 higher here than in Colorado.

Couple Tonya and Victor moved to Seattle from Boulder at the beginning of November. He is a qualified meat cutter and is looking for work. She is an experienced cashier. They tried the shelters in Seattle "but they were awful," according to Tonya. "To me it's like a stepping stone," Victor says. "We can stay here, save money. One day we can return the favor."

Tent City 4 could use monetary and in-kind donations, including tents, warm clothes, batteries and food. If you are interested in donating, see www.Eastsidecares.org or call St. John Vianney at 823-0787.[[In-content Ad]]