Give churches leeway to help homeless

Homeless individuals huddle among their tents and possessions on a vacant lot in the 1000 block of South J Street in Tacoma's Hilltop neighborhood on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2018.
Homeless individuals huddle among their tents and possessions on a vacant lot in the 1000 block of South J Street in Tacoma's Hilltop neighborhood on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2018.

In Pierce County, on any given night, close to 2,000 people look for places to sleep. Less than half find warmth in local shelters; the rest curl up in downtown doorways, under bridges and in the shadows of greenbelts.

At a time when Tacoma is desperate for partners to help with this crisis, some City Council members risk slowing the momentum. They’re pushing for an amendment to new homeless camp rules that would allow people with nonviolent criminal records, including low-level sex offenders, to stay at temporary sites run by churches and other organizations.

Council members were scheduled to vote last week but wisely postponed action. Before they revisit the issue, we hope they weigh the potential risks they’re asking churches and communities to take on.

The effort is led by council members Ryan Mello and Chris Beale, whose sympathy for some of society’s most outcast individuals is admirable. Sex offenders often lose ties to family or friends. Finding employment and housing can be difficult. But putting their needs over community safety could repel willing organizations from participation.

It’s a worry shared by Michael Yoder, director of Associated Ministries, who said being asked to house sex offenders might make religious groups squeamish about signing up. But Mello points out there’s a difference between levels of sex offenders and says these “nuances” matter.

He’s right about the differences. Level 1 offenders are determined to be a low-risk for re-offending. They are often first-time offenders, and unlike those categorized as Level 2 and Level 3, their convictions may not have involved a crime against a child, predatory behavior and/or having multiple victims.

But miles exist between low risk and no risk. Churches often have senior services, youth programs and day care centers on site. They don’t have staff or security to deal with Mello’s “nuances.”

What they do have is the heart and moral calling to help get some people experiencing homelessness off the streets. And now, more than ever, the city needs them on board, because despite the millions of dollars local governments are pouring into alleviating homelessness, such as the stability site Tacoma opened last year in the Dome District, it’s not enough.

The bleak truth is homelessness is not a solution government alone can solve, and nonprofits and faith-based institutions are the city’s most logical partners. Denominations and dogmas vary, but a core love-your-neighbor value runs throughout.

It’s why Bethlehem Baptist Church said it’s willing to open its gym doors to shelter homeless families. No armchair Christians these, the Eastside church takes the gospel of Matthew to heart: “When I was a stranger, you invited me in.”

But it takes more than compassion to run a homeless camp. Rules are needed to keep facilities safe, clean and crime-free.

The council has already crafted common-sense rules for nonprofits willing to host: Camps can only operate six months with a maximum capacity of 100 people. Children under 18 can live there, but must be accompanied by a parent or guardian. Up to six shelters can be up and running, but must be spread across Tacoma’s four police sectors.

Rules are important. No one wants a repeat of last year’s mess at the so-called Jungle under Interstate 705. Authorities had to clear away tons of trash including scattered clothing, rotting food, evidence of drug use and piles of feces.

Ultimately, governments are in the best position to find long-term solutions, such as affordable housing options and greater access to mental health and substance-abuse treatment. Most churches aren’t well equipped to deal with hardcore homeless problems, but they can help house displaced families and others for a limited time.

We urge Mello, Beale and company to give people of faith the latitude they need to fulfill their Good Samaritan mission.