City council mulling its legal options regarding tent cities

Tent City 4 residents Anthony White secures a tent cover against the wind at the encampment in Kirkland. Advocates hope to create at least two such sanctuaries for the homeless in Kitsap County by this winter.  - Chad Coleman/Kirkland Reporter
Tent City 4 residents Anthony White secures a tent cover against the wind at the encampment in Kirkland. Advocates hope to create at least two such sanctuaries for the homeless in Kitsap County by this winter.
— image credit: Chad Coleman/Kirkland Reporter

There are no indications that a tent city could be organized in Port Orchard’s to house the city’s homeless anytime soon. Nor has the city council indicated whether it would look unfavorably on such a development.

On the other hand, there may be little it could do to prevent it anyway, which is why Port Orchard’s staff attorney is expected to brief the city council during its next work-study session on what its legal response can — and should — be.

Representatives from the Kitsap Continuum of Care Coalition — an ad hoc affiliation of local service agencies — made a presentation at the council’s Aug. 10 meeting, urging the city to adopt the appropriate ordinances to accommodate a tent city should a local church or nonprofit state a desire to sponsor one.

“We would like for Kitsap County and each Kitsap city to enact ordinances and determine a permitting process for sanctioned tent encampments by churches, nonprofits or property owners by Aug. 31,” said KCCC spokeswoman Terry Schroeder. “This is so we can move forward and hopefully find some sites that are willing to host this.”

She said the group’s goal is to establish at least two tent villages in Kitsap County — one for adults only and one for families — by this winter.

“It’s a pretty lofty goal,” Schroeder said.

The presentation was in response to the adoption June of a House Bill 1956, which prevents local governments in Washington state from imposing “unreasonable” regulations on tent villages.

“The bill only allows a city to enact rules to protect the public health and safety of its residents and the residents of tent cities,” Schroeder said. “It would also prevent a city from assessing permit fees in excess of what’s necessary to administer the program, and it would offer legal protection to cities in the event they were sued because of the presence of a tent city.”

“Cities and counties have every right to protect their residents,” said Leif Bentsen, human services planner

for the Kitsap County Department of Personnel and Human Services. “But they can’t use the law to stand in the way of a religious or nonprofit agency using its property to provide shelter for the homeless.

“If someone wants to create one,” he said, “there’s nothing the city can do to stop it.”

While no one in an official capacity has hinted at stopping creation of a tent city in Port Orchard, Mayor Lary Coppola said he believes the city needs to work with the county and other Kitsap municipalities to ensure standards are uniform throughout, thus discouraging the homeless from seeking out a better situation in a neighboring community.

“In our meetings with the Continuum of Care folks,” he said, “they told us Bremerton and the county were drafting ordinances to deal with sanitation and health issues at these proposed encampments.

“I believe that’s a good idea,” Coppola said, “and I suggested all jurisdictions have one uniform ordinance, so the possibility of people ‘shopping’ for the most advantageous location would be eliminated.”

According to a homeless count performed last year by the county Department of Health, “(Port Orchard) doesn’t have nearly as many homeless families as some other jurisdictions,” Coppola said. “So while we don’t mind assisting the people in Port Orchard and South Kitsap who need help to get through these tough economic times, they need to be our first priority — not folks from other parts of the county.”

Bentsen said with winter just around the corner, he wouldn’t be surprised if a tent city was established at some point in South Kitsap.

At the same time, “I haven’t heard of anything in the works at the moment and it isn’t as simple as it sounds to create one,” he said.

As a practical matter, he said, “It would require a homeless person or group of homeless people initiating contact with a church, or vice versa,” he said. “But since homeless people by definition tend not to be organized or represented by anyone, it’s difficult for one to reach out to the other.”

Kitsap County Health Department Deputy Director Scott Daniels, an advocate of tent cities, nonetheless agreed the chances of one showing up in Kitsap County in the short term is fairly small.

“The law says that churches and nonprofits can’t be directly prevented from hosting a tent city,” he said. “But these agencies still have relationships with their city governments, and they don’t want to jeopardize them.

“If a city makes it clear they don’t want one,” Danielson said, “you’d have a hard time convincing a church to go ahead and sponsor one anyway, I’m afraid.”

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