Tent City: homelessness is everyone's problem

(The following was read at the the Kirkland City Council during the council's May 18 meeting.)

My name is Sharon Sherrard and I live in Kirkland. I am also currently the chair of the Kirkland Interfaith Network, also known as KIN, an affiliation of eight faith-based communities here in Kirkland.

Offering hospitality to the most vulnerable is a basic tenet of most religions. More than 20 years ago, the churches of Kirkland joined together to do just that. Two organizations grew out of that commitment, KITH (Kirkland Interfaith Transitions in Housing), which has a special focus on the problem of homelessness, and KIN, which focuses on the problems of poverty and hunger.

KITH has done amazing work in those 20 some years, providing countless safe bed-nights, and trying to raise community awareness of the problems of homelessness. But the events of the last two weeks with regard to the location of Tent City have made us all aware that there is much more work to do.

On behalf of KIN, I have attended several meetings in the last week and a half on the subject of Tent City. There is another such meeting tonight in Bothell, where other members of KIN are learning how we can support St. Brendan's in their ministry to the residents of Tent City. But I decided to attend this meeting to be sure the Kirkland City Council heard a voice from the faith community speaking in support of Tent City.

The problem of homelessness is a problem for all of us, not just the faith community. Likewise, it is a problem for all of us in King County, not just Seattle. We are kidding ourselves if we think there are no homeless people in Kirkland. They are here, sleeping in their cars, or anywhere they think they can be safe and dry and not harassed. And after the hue and outcry over Tent City, I'm sure they are trying even harder to be invisible.

I realize that citizens and cities have complained about the process used to select the site of Tent City. Whatever process is used to select a Tent City site in the future must include more citizen input, but I fear that what some people really want is simply the right to veto having Tent City anywhere near them.

We fear the homeless; despite all evidence to the contrary, we think that the Tent City residents will cause crime in our neighborhoods, put our children at risk, and be a health hazard for us. This is not true.

However, it is true that Tent City does not solve the problem of homelessness. I have heard well meaning people say, "Can't we do better?" I certainly hope we can do better, but, in the meantime, while we are arguing what to do in the long-term, people are dying on the streets in the short term. We sit in our comfortable houses and argue about where someone has a right to pitch a tent.

I heard a lot of unpleasant things at last Tuesday's meeting in Bothell with County Executive Sims. But I also heard something that was both inspiring and challenging. At that meeting, a woman from SHARE/WHEEL, the sponsoring organization for Tent City, said, "It has been our experience that fear and prejudice do not go away when we go away. Fear and prejudice only go away when we stay."

I hope and pray that Kirkland can be a city that will welcome Tent City. If we aren't that kind of hospitable community yet, we can learn to be, with the help of the residents of Tent City.

Shannon Sherrard


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