If a church wanted to set up a temporary tent city on its property to house homeless people, state law prevents the City of University Place from stopping it.
But lawmakers didn’t prevent local municipalities from crafting their own rules on how those tent cities should pop up, and UP has spent the year discussing what its regulations will look like.
City staff presented the University Place City Council with a proposed draft of an ordinance on temporary tent cities during its study session this week – a product of public hearings and discussions from its planning commission the past year.
Officials on both the state and local levels recognize that homelessness is a growing problem in Washington, which is why the state Legislature adopted a law allowing churches to set up temporary encampments in 2010. Ever since, the issue has sparked debate in cities such as Seattle and Puyallup, where the right of religious organizations to help homeless people has clashed with neighbors who complain of blight and potential safety risks often associated with temporary encampments.
UP Planning Director David Swindale wrote that the city leaders should recognize the value of tent encampments as they craft their city’s rules.
“Many citizens think of tent city residents as criminals with substance abuse problems or mental illness,” he wrote. “While substance abuse and mental illness are definite contributors to homelessness, they are not the only qualifiers of the homeless problem. Other factors such as fleeing domestic violence, sheer poverty and aging out of foster care are also common factors for a more diverse population struggling with homelessness.”
“The homeless issue is getting worse, and tent cities are a viable option to help deal with this issue,” he added.
UP's proposed ordinance lays out specifically what a church or other religious organization must do to set up and maintain a temporary tent encampment, including:
- The organization must apply through the city to establish a tent encampment
- The tent city must be located 20 feet from any business or apartment and 40 feet from a single-family home. It also must be enclosed a 6-foot-tall fence
- The city will determine how many people can be housed in an individual encampment, but it will never be more than 100 people.
- No one under 18 is allowed to stay in the encampment unless accompanied by a parent
- The encampment must meet public health regulations, including providing sanitary portable toilets, hand-washing stations by the toilets and food preparation areas, food preparation/service tents and trash receptacles
(Click on the media to view city staff report that includes a draft of the proposed tent encampment ordinance)
So no matter what city leaders decide, given state law, it’s not a matter of whether University Place will allow temporary tent encampments.
It’s more about how the city will regulate them.
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