New Tent City: homeless encampment moves onto county land

Tent City 4, the roaming homeless encampment that was recently in Preston, has moved just off of Exit 20 on I-90 in the Echo Lake area of Snoqualmie on July 11.

Tents lined up at the new location for Tent City 4 so far house fewer than 40 people. The encampment is expected to stay at its current location until early November.

Tents lined up at the new location for Tent City 4 so far house fewer than 40 people. The encampment is expected to stay at its current location until early November.

Tent City 4, the roaming homeless encampment that was recently in Preston, has moved just off of Exit 20 on I-90 in the Echo Lake area of Snoqualmie on July 11.

More than 30 residents are part of Tent City 4 and have moved with the group to the King County-owned land in the  Snoqualmie Valley.

SHARE/WHEEL, the largest homeless shelter network in the county, sets up and operates Tent City 4 and provides a safe space for campers to live.

Location is an important consideration in any Tent City move. Sam Roberson, camp adviser for Tent City 4, explained that churches are a good place to stay because their in-town locations allow the Tent City residents easier access to work and schools. If they don’t move to an area within a town, they look for bus stops to make sure transportation is readily accessible to the residents.

Roberson said they can stay on a property for 120 days. So when they have a date, they make sure to move out in a timely fashion. Roberson said they have never overstayed.

When Tent City 4 moves, they try to get permits to stay in the locations they find. Their permit request to move from Skyway to Issaquah was denied earlier this year, but their time was up and they moved on. Camp supervisor Perry Debell said they sent a check and a permit request to King County but the county isn’t being responsive.

“They’ve cashed the check, but they’ve never given us the physical permit,” Debell said. “SHARE and Tent City hold their word, we want to know why they don’t hold up their part of the bargain.”

John Starbard, Director of Permitting and Environmental Review, said that Tent City 4 has not submitted a permit request yet.

What they have done is submit a letter of application to use the land.

“There are two steps to apply,” Starbard said. “The first step is a request to use the public’s property.”

The second step starts once they have permission to use the property. Only then can they apply for a permit.

“We can’t accept an application unless we know they have a right to be on the property or they have a sponsor,” Starbard said. “They have neither.”

Kathy Lambert, District 3 King County councilmember, said it is illegal for the camp to stay at its current location.

“They are on a natural reserve which is not legal,” Lambert said. “They have applied for a permit, but because they are (there illegally) they are not likely to get it.”

Usually Tent City works with churches, which can act as sponsors and grant them use of land. In this case, no one has told the organization they can use the land.

There are two more steps that Tent City is required to take but didn’t. Notices must be mailed to property owners within 500 feet or to the closest 20 property owners in the area.

A public meeting with the community is also required. A sponsor would typically host the meeting.

Tent City 4’s request to use the land is under review by the county’s Facilities Management Division,  working with King County Parks to look at underlying zoning and use of the land.

Aspects that affect Tent Cities’ reception into an area include safety and cleanliness, and there have been some controversies surrounding those.

The rules and code of conduct established in Tent City are in place to create a safe environment for residents; it completely abides by the law, say organizers. The code includes rules preventing drug use, hateful language, fighting, and disturbing neighbors.

“We just don’t allow any drugs or alcohol use in the camp, period,” Roberson said. “No threats, No racist or sexist slurs.”

They’ve had problems with it in the past. In 2014, Tent City removed people suspected of buying methamphetamine in the camp.

It’s not common, but camps deal with such problems quickly and police are contacted immediately.

According to Debell, Tent City 4 has had positive experiences with the King County Sheriff’s office.

“We have a really good track record and King County (deputies) have been really good to us,” Debell said.

Lambert said that despite claims of a strict policy of no drug use, Tent City doesn’t actually enforce the rules. She said she’s gotten reports of used needles found on the church properties where Tent City had been located and similar reports at a nearby park.

Shawn Svoboda, Tent City resident, said despite those instances, they strictly enforce their drug policy.

“If we find a person that does any drugs, we will escort them off and if it’s a major drug problem we call the cops,” he said. “No one is allowed to bring any kind of drugs or alcohol on the property.”

Debell seconded this.

“No drugs, no alcohol, zero tolerance,” he said.

Another aspect of Tent City that Lambert criticized is a lack of infrastructure.

“There’s usually no running water, flush toilets, not always excellent garbage flow, not good monitoring of drug activity,” Lambert said.

Svoboda said the camp has four portable restrooms and a sink that gets cleaned out every week. SHARE also comes by every week or two to make a garbage run, since the camp has no dumpster and can’t get one without an address.

Lambert allowed that there are people who do need help in Tent City, but when asking some of the residents, she found that many had been living there for six to seven years.

“I think it’s hard to have a situation where we don’t expect every person to contribute to society,” she said.

According to Lambert the state is getting additional funding to help those with mental illness, so services should be available to people.

With more government agencies setting up regulations regarding homeless encampments, Tent City is struggling to get licenses to stay in their locations. Despite that, the group is  already looking at its next move.

“We have a good prospect in the Kirkland, Redmond, Bothell area,” Debell said.

Tent City 4 hasn’t always had the warmest of welcomes from neighbors, but they stand behind being good neighbors and helping better the lives of residents. Organizers are adamant that when they leave a location, everything is orderly and even better than when they arrived.

“We have to convince people we are good neighbors,” Roberson said.


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