Catholic Church on Tent City: Privacy Concerns Were Valid

As residents of Tent City seek emergency shelter after a split over sex-offender background checks, the local Catholic archdiocese says they're sympathetic to concerns that the checks violated residents' privacy.

By Erica C. Barnett November 21, 2012

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As we've reported, a group of residents at Tent City 4, the homeless encampment that has been run, until this week, by the homeless advocacy group SHARE, has voted to split from the group after SHARE leader Scott Morrow refused to agree to a request by the encampment's host, St. John Vinney Church in Kirkland, that it perform weekly criminal background checks on residents. 

The church's request came after a Tent City resident was arrested at the church on child-sex-abuse charges. Morrow and SHARE argued that weekly background checks would violate residents' privacy; the group already does background checks of prospective residents. The church told Tent City residents that they couldn't stay if they didn't allow the background checks, but that they also couldn't stay if they weren't under the umbrella of SHARE.

Since then, Morrow and SHARE volunteers (22 of Tent City's approximately 100 residents opted to stay with SHARE) have removed all of the shelter's amenities, including tents, food, tarps, sleeping bags, and towels. The Tent City residents are attempting to regroup as a new nonprofit called Camp Unity and relocate to Lake Washington United Methodist Church in Kirkland. Currently, with no tents to shelter them, the 67 Camp Unity residents are living in temporary shelter at the church.

"We are working with the city of Kirkland to secure a permit for the temporary encampment as quickly as possible, while following the necessary protocol, including community notification and community meetings," Lake Washington UMC pastor Kelly Dahlman-Oeth said in a letter

I talked yesterday to Seattle Catholic Archdiocese spokesman Greg Magnoni, who said the debate about whether SHARE should be allowed to stay was up to the local Catholic parish, not the archdiocese. "The parish has two commitments—to provide a humane housing alternative to homeless people in our area, but also to keep the parish and surrounding neighborhoods safe and secure," Magnoni said. 

(Father Ramon Santa Cruz, the parish priest, referred all questions to Magnoni). 

Magnoni was unwilling to blame SHARE for the falling-out, noting, "I don't know what their rationale might be" for refusing to allow weekly background checks. "I do know that they have concerns about the privacy of their residents, and they also have expressed concerns about disqalifying people for very minor issues," like warrants for unpaid parking tickets. 

SHARE posted a statement about the split on its web site this week. It reads, in part: "No one is automatically subjected to Sex Offender Checks before moving into a neighborhood when buying a house, leasing an apartment or checking into a hotel. And no one checks for the Sex Offenders already living in a community before moving into it, either. Imposing random sex offender checks on individuals because they live in a homeless encampment isn’t based on the record; it is based on fear."

Morrow has not responded to multiple attempts to contact him. 


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