Seattle congregation hosts controversial homeless encampment

Seattle congregation hosts controversial homeless encampment

Area homeless fill the parking lot of University Congregational UCC in Seattle. Catherine Foote photo.
The Seattle/King County Coalition for the Homeless (SKCCH) is a volunteer organization that hosts an annual One Night Count, when workers tally the number of people affected by homelessness in King County, according to its website. The count contains two main components - a street count, and a shelter and transitional housing survey.

"The 2008 One Night Count documented an increase in how many people are on the streets and without shelter," SKCCH’s website reported. "Volunteers observed a 15 percent increase in people surviving outside in the same areas counted in 2007."

In response to this growing problem, the tent community - dubbed "Nickelsville" after Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels - organized to provide shelter, safety and resources for the homeless. This self-governed encampment officially launched Sept. 22, 2008.

Though Nickelsville, which provides shelter for about 100 people per night, has no religious affiliation, it began finding refuge in church parking lots after receiving its fourth eviction notice in three weeks. The city of Seattle issued the notices because camping is illegal within city limits.

University Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Seattle’s University District was the first to offer its resources to the homeless community, allowing Nickelsville to occupy its parking lot throughout October and November. When University Christian could no longer support the controversial community, University Congregational UCC voted to accommodate the encampment.

"Our congregation was following the Disciples congregation’s lead," says Catherine Foote, senior minister at University Congregational, of the Dec. 5, 2008, move. "When [University Christian] reached the end of their ability to sponsor Nickelsville, they laid the pack down and Congregational was ready to pick that pack up."

University Christian found it necessary to amicably end its close relationship with Nickelsville for two major reasons, according to Janetta Cravens Boyd, the church’s recently installed senior minister.

For roughly two years, University Christian had been in a search-and-call process to fill its head pastoral position. During that time, the congregation postponed many of its ministries, such as developing programs for children’s education and outreach to people with disabilities.

Shortly after Cravens Boyd filled the role, Nickelsville came to University Christian’s parking lot, continuing the postponement of the congregation’s plans for other ministries.

"The church wanted to get started with some of the other things it had been dreaming about for the past two years," says Cravens Boyd.

Coupling this with the lack of time, University Christian could only provide resources for two months of encampment for Nickelsville, says Cravens Boyd.

Nickelsville has been able to find refuge in churches because of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA). RLUIPA is "a federal statute that [seeks] to provide stronger protection for religious freedom in the land-use and prison contexts," according to the United States Department of Justice’s website.

Despite legal precedence for this argument, University Christian filed for a short-term permit with the city of Seattle to house Nickelsville. University Congregational is filing for both short- and long-term permits. University Congregational’s goal is to offer its parking lot to Nickelsville through the end of February if the community needs it, according to the church’s website.

Even with RLUIPA, churches believe permits are necessary because Mayor Nickels enabled city officials to force encampments off public and private land. The mayor made this decree while supporting King County’s Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness.

The county’s Committee to End Homelessness introduced a decade-long initiative in March 2005.

University Congregational is asking the city to waive its filing fees while the church studies the permits. Fees could exceed $2,000, according to a member of the Nickelsville community, who wished to remain anonymous. He also said that the city has posted violation notices around the homeless community and church, warning that it will fine the church for allowing people to camp on its property.

Currently, King County cannot provide adequate shelter for all homeless persons. By one estimate, the county is "at least 2,000 beds short every night," according to University Congregational’s website. "In addition, shelters offer little privacy or predictability, and people do not have a place to store their possessions or stay during the day."

Nickelsville’s long-range goal is to secure a plot of land "where up to 1,000 people could live in temporary structures while the city and county continue to plan for and construct more permanent structures as part of the Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness," according to the website.

Though University Congregational has a history of supporting people affected by homelessness, their efforts with Nickelsville are different, Foote said. The congregation considers itself in partnership with the encampment, much like it considers itself in partnership with the city and county in their efforts to end homelessness.

"Our hope is to continue to work with the city and to work with our own vision of love and justice so that people in Seattle don’t have to be homeless," Foote said.

Ryan Singleton recently graduated from University of Chicago with a M.Div.

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