Kennewick cracks down on church-sponsored homeless camp

The older man walked slowly into the kitchen of a central Kennewick church, anticipating a free lunch.

“How are you?” a volunteer asked as the man took a seat at a long table.

He rubbed his stomach and smiled.

“It’s a good day when your belly is full,” he said.

It’s been a year since Dayspring Ministries, a nondenominational ministry serving inmates at area jails and prisons, expanded its mission to include feeding Tri-City poor and homeless and later, to house them as well.

State law grants religious organizations wide latitude to serve the needy with minimal government interference.

But conditions at 2625 W. Bruneau Place, near Vista Way and Highway 395, have prompted the city of Kennewick to consider a new ordinance to gain some control over the situation.

“This encampment just showed up in the middle of the city,” Lisa Beaton, the city’s attorney, told the City Council at a recent workshop.

Dayspring leased a church-owned building, and with support from volunteers and donors has served three meals a day, seven days a week at the Bruneau location for about a year. It estimates it serves 100 meals each day, more on Fridays when dinner comes with a side of music and preaching.

Late last summer, it added a homeless shelter — a makeshift second-floor room that can accommodate up to 50. The city closed the shelter for building code violations. Camping continues in the parking lot.

‘It’s a hot mess’

Almost as soon as Dayspring and its rough-edged clientele arrived, complaints began pouring in to the city — loitering, camping, drug dealing, fireworks, garbage, human waste, panhandling and alleyway brawls.

“It’s a hot mess,” said one business owner, who asked not to be identified out of concern his customers might avoid the neighborhood if they realized what was happening behind the respectable faces of the businesses between the Chase and Umpqua bank branches on Vista Way.

Bill Price, chaplain for Dayspring, defended his organization, saying it inherited many of the problems when it leased the space from River of Life Metropolitan Community Church.

The area was already known for crime and drug dealing, and the property was a drop-in center for the homeless with little supervision.

“This was way out of hand when we got here,” said Price, a recovering drug and alcohol addict who credits Dayspring and God with keeping him out of prison after his last release. “We live right in the middle of dope central.”

Dayspring has curtailed the most disruptive behavior by giving people with nowhere to go a place to be, Price said. Its bathroom is available during the night. It calls police when it can’t solve disputes itself.

Price even moved into a small living area behind his office, where he monitors sidewalk activity via security cameras. Campers have been pushed to pick up garbage in the parking lot.

“We’re not 100 percent, but we’re close,” he said.

The neighboring business owner says he has seen no improvement.

The two sides agree on one thing: Kennewick police and code enforcement officials have been valuable allies in efforts to keep the peace at Dayspring, which is flanked by businesses on one side and residences on another.

City concerned about safety

While state law is clear that religious organizations may accommodate the homeless, cities can step in to regulate health and safety. That’s what the City Council is considering.

It is fast-tracking an ordinance that, if approved, would give it more control over church-sponsored homeless encampments.

The ordinance wouldn’t prohibit encampments, but would allow Kennewick to limit duration, size and other aspects of how they operate, including checking IDs against sex offender databases.

Seattle, Lynnwood, Kirkland and Bothell have adopted local regulations to manage homeless encampments. Lynnwood, for example, has a 100-resident limit, bars unaccompanied children and caps encampments at 90 days. It also requires a 20-foot setback to protect neighbors.

Kennewick council members reviewed the problem and possible solution at a workshop in February and expects a recommendation from the planning commission in 60 to 90 days.

Mayor Steve Young said he wants the ordinance expedited, citing safety issues and business complaints.

The city’s options are limited.

Spokeswoman Evelyn Lusignan confirmed the city has fielded complaints and until now has addressed them through police and code enforcement.

When Dayspring converted the upstairs room into a shelter last year, the city inspected and discovered numerous code issues, including bad wiring and lack of proper egress to ensure people could get out if there was a fire.

“First and foremost, the city is concerned about safety,” she said.

Price ignored the city when it ordered the shelter to shut down, or “tagged” it. It was too cold, he figured. A month ago, the city moved in and closed it down.

The move put 35 homeless people on the street when it was still cold, Price said.

When asked where they went, he simply said, “I don’t know.”

‘We need a place for them to go’

Dayspring embraces the city’s move to set parameters. Price wants to renew its camping permit, which expires March 15, for a year. That would let him fence the camping area.

Without assurance he can keep going, he sees no benefit to spending money to fence property he only leases.

“We’re trying to be an asset and a blessing to the community,” said Price, who is guided by a passage in the Book of Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

Not all neighbors are critical.

Barbara Culver, who operates a tax preparation business nearby, parks on the Vista Way side of her business, opposite from Dayspring and its clients.

She seldom sees the people her neighbors talk about. And she’s sympathetic to those who are looking for food, shelter and a place to clean up.

“Where are they going to go, for Pete’s sake?” she wondered.

Dayspring moved to central Kennewick from a spot on Columbia Drive, near Zips Restaurant, exactly a year ago. Its old lease expired and it moved in part to support its growing ministry. Formed in the 1960s, it ministers to inmates in area prisons and jails. It served breakfast in downtown and dinner on Friday and Saturday.

With the move, it expanded its ministry and found itself serving an unexpected clientele. About half of those who eat or sleep at Dayspring have mental health issues. One volunteer said several local police agencies regularly drop people off at Dayspring in lieu of other options.

Price and his volunteers aren’t equipped to handle mental health challenges, he said. A counselor from Lourdes was a blessing, but he was hurt in a fall a few weeks ago and Dayspring is eager to for him to recover and get back to work.

“We need a place for them to go,” he said.

Contemplating the future

For Dayspring, reopening the closed shelter would go a long way toward cleaning up the neighborhood by giving homeless people a place to be at night.

Price estimates it would cost at least $60,000 to install fire sprinklers and a new stairwell, a seemingly insurmountable amount of money for a nonprofit with a $54,000 budget fueled entirely by donations in 2015, according to its current filing with the Internal Revenue Service.

He didn’t solicit donations to cover the cost, but does credit a higher power for keeping Dayspring’s pantry full.

“Every meal we serve, we’re aware God is providing it,” he said.

Wendy Culverwell: 509-582-1514, @WendyCulverwell