About 20 to 25 residents were leaving Tent City 4 at St. John Vianney Church on Finn Hill in Kirkland Thursday in a dispute with the homeless camp’s Seattle-based parent group stemming from the arrest of a rape suspect there last week.
The residents were planning to move to, and were being welcomed by the pastor of, Lake Washington United Methodist Church on the other side of Kirkland on Rose Hill. They had tried to break away from the Seattle group SHARE/Wheel after leaders of that group objected to an agreement with the pastor of St. John Vianney to begin random checks for sex offenders.
That agreement came after Pierce County authorities with the help of Kirkland police last week arrested 35-year-old Robert Bruce McKay-Erskine, charged on Nov. 8 in Pierce County with aggravated first-degree child rape. Leaders of Tent City 4 agreed to do the random checks, and had already been doing background checks on residents, to the objections of SHARE officials, who apparently feel the checks are an invasion of privacy.
SHARE provides dumpsters, portable toilets and other supplies for the camp, and was the entity that had signed the agreement with St. John Vianney. Earlier this week it ordered several Tent City 4 residents to leave and said it would close the camp Thursday at 9 a.m.
Kirkland police arrived and some residents started packing up Thursday morning, but no one from SHARE had arrived by 10:45 a.m. Other residents of the camp decided to stay.
“Basically it's a dispute between some folks at the camp and SHARE, which says these folks have to leave or they’re going to shut down the camp,” said Kirkland Police Department spokesman Lt. Mike Murray. “So there is going to be a Tent City here and another there (at Lake Washington United Methodist). Our concern is that there was an issue about who owns what here. But it sounds like cooler heads are prevailing.”
Lake Washington United Methodist Pastor Kelly Dahlman-Oeth said his congregation was willing to take in those who wanted to leave Tent City 4, who were calling themselves Camp Unity Eastside, and was working with the City of Kirkland to make it happen.
He said SHARE leaders had emailed him to say they were coming to safeguard Tent City 4, and that after two days residents who wanted to return could, except a handful who would be banned.
“I understand there is a group prepared to go, and we will work with the city (of Kirkland) as quickly as possible,” the pastor said. “We know we are not following the city’s procedures. (But) I have a feeling this will play out over the next couple of days.”
Lake Washington United Methodist Church has hosted Tent City 4 twice before and was scheduled to host it again in January. The camp typically moves to congregations in various Eastside cities every 90 days.
Residents of the camp were divided. The basic issue was that many at the camp wanted to involve the church and community in camp meetings, and to continue background checks on residents for outstanding warrants and checks for sex offenders, while SHARE policy is apparently the opposite.
“There’s a split,” said one resident, John Pierce, who planned to leave. “I do not want to be part of SHARE. I want to stay here because it’s safe, and work with the church and the community.”
But he said if that was not possble, he would pack his things and go.
Another resident who declined to provide his name said he felt comfortable at Tent City 4 and was staying. “The people who are leaving have kind of been butting heads,” he said. “Maybe it will be more peaceful now. It’s not going to affect my program. I didn’t know the sex offender and I’m glad, I would rather stay away from them. At least I’m alive.”
Sandra Hunt, a supply coordinator for Tent City 4 through the Kirkland Interfaith Network (KIN), a group of congregations that that raises money for the camp, sympathized with those leaving. She said they had only tried to work with the church and community, and that SHARE leaders had become overbearing.
“This kind of thing makes these people feel voiceless,” she said. “I don’t like to see people powerless. The community and churches should be able to attend camp meetings. They’re being kicked out of what little they have here.”
The camp has moved every 90 days to various congregations in Eastside cities, including Bellevue, Redmond and Woodinville. The encampment has been at Temple B'nai Torah and St. Luke's Lutheran Church in the past.