Saturday, December 03, 2005

An Open Letter to Bellevue Council Member John Chelminiak

Dear Bellevue Council Member John Chelminiak,

Thank you for taking the time to respond to several people who have written to you in protest of Bellevue's restrictions against Temple B'nai Torah. I'm glad you've taken the time to respond to the concerned citizens, but I'm perplexed by much of what you are writing. Your answers seem disingenuous, to say the least, and often even cynical. Here are some quotations from one of your e-mails, along with our response:

Quotation #1 "It is unfortunate but Share Wheel and the Temple sued the city, not the other way around. After months of listening to representatives of the Church Council claim a constitutional right, they are howling that we've asked the court case be decided in Federal Court, where the limits of that constitutional right and federal law can be determined."

   As you well know, Mr. Chelminiak, the Bellevue ordinance is crafted so that any appeal of a tent city decision must go to King County Superior Court. Temple B'nai Torah was following your rules -- so pointing the blame at the synagogue seems pretty self-serving. Yes, we don't understand why Bellevue chooses to move the case to Federal court. We suspect one potential reason is that the Washington State Constitution is even more adamant about freedom of religious expression than the US Constitution. Here's what the Washington State Constitution says about religious freedom (Section 11) "Absolute freedom of conscience in all matters of religious sentiment, belief and worship, shall be guaranteed to every individual, and no one shall be molested or disturbed in person or property on account of religion." Washington's choice of the words "absolute" and "guarantee" place a high bar for governmental interference in religious affairs -- too high for Bellevue?

Quotation #2:"The city has offered a number of suggestions for ways S/W and the Temple could attempt to meet the city's requirements for basic human hygeine, which quite frankly is not much more than hot running water. In fact, if the Temple simply opened its doors to allow the residents to use their indoor facilities, its likely much of the issue could be resolved. Perhaps the Temple has offered that and S/W has refused. I'm not privvy to their discussions.

   Be honest, Mr. Chelminiak, you require a whole lot more than hot running water. Case in point: you want to limit the size of tent city to 40 people because of your desire for two additional showers -- that's a lot more than a "suggestion" and it's a lot more than just "hot water." Apparently avoiding shower sign-up lists is more important than the warmth, dryness, shelter, and safety provided by tent city. The cost of your regulation is another 60 homeless people without shelter. With homeless people dying on the streets for lack of shelter, the shower requirement sounds pretty heartless to us, particularly when a warm shower with a short sign up list has worked just fine for Tent City 4! Mr. Chelminiak, you're right on one thing: if TBT did open its doors and host TC4 in its worship space it would solve the problem. Why? Because Bellevue has no shower requirements for indoor homeless accommodations! Since TBT has a synagogue to run, it doesn't have the indoor space available for sheltering 100 people 24/7. If it did, there'd be no need for tent city. Please stop trying to make TBT look like the villain in this. It doesn't make sense for government to attack people who are trying to help solve a real human problem.

Quotation #3:"Sixty days was a choice made by the council after listening very carefully to everyone who testified. We also considered carefully the history of Tent City 3 in Seattle where a number of congregations have been able to minister to TC 3 in time periods of less than 60 days.

  What's TC3 got to do with it? It's been in operation for nearly six years and has dozens of congregations willing to host it within the less nervous environs of Seattle, Shoreline, and Tukwila - where it's a non-event for its neighbors. Because of opposition from suburban opponents of TC4, like the Bellevue council majority, the Eastside religious community has far fewer congregations ready to host it. In other words, the reason 90 days is important specifically to TC4 is because of people like you, Mr. Chelminiak, who are trying to discourage religious communities from hosting it and therefore making longer stays more necessary. The truth is that your 60 day requirement makes it more likely that TC4 will be without a church host, throwing its residents back out onto the street. Because of this, you've left us no choice but to fight your restriction. If you'd really listened, you'd have read and responded to the letter from leaders of all our major denominations pleading with you for full 90-day stays for TC4 in Bellevue.

Quotation #4:The council spent almost six months and hundreds of hours researching the facts about tent city and homelessness. Our health regulations are not out of line. Rather, they are backed up by health data gathered by advocates for the homeless and from the King County Department of Public Health.

   We'd like to see the official health requirements that specify 3 showers are required for 100 homeless people. Fact is, the King County health department has no such requirement and makes regular visits to TC4, finding no adverse health or sanitation conditions. Bellevue's shower requirements are solely Bellevue's requirements and are not reflected in King County Health Department guidelines. Period. Mr. Chelminiak, we think you should substantiate this claim before including it in your notes to constituents.

Quotation #5 "And yes, I have visited Tent City and met residents. I went out the night after the move in. No fan fare. No delivering meals so I could get a photo in the newspaper. It just seemed the right thing to do. I have been struck that the most ardent supporters of Tent City have testified this it is not a solution to homelessness. I'd rather work on those solutions."

  Sorry, Mr. Chelminiak, there are other reasons for delivering meals to tent city than having your photo in the paper -- reasons like, well, compassion for instance. Your response shows a troubling level of cynicism about compassion, which I hope is not indicative of your general attitude. Yes, everyone knows tent cities are not the solution, but most people also know that they are a worthwhile first step to get a few homeless people off the streets. We'd say that if you really want to make a dent in homelessness, you ought to donate Bellevue's $250,000 legal fund to a homeless shelter. That'd provide a real solution for dozens of homeless people. But, never mind. It would also probably get your picture in the paper!

Please do begin to help the homeless, Mr. Chelminiak. Please help by stopping the fight against Temple B'nai Torah, please help by allowing it to host tent city without arbitary and frivolous government intervention, and please stop the wasteful expenditure of public funds on an unnecessary court case. Let's join hands in helping the homeless, first with tent city and other emergency measures, then with permanent, safe, indoor shelter right in the City of Bellevue. As I've offered in the past, the Church Council will help Bellevue build high quality, safe, clean, permanent indoor shelter for the homeless in Bellevue. If you're serious about real solutions, let's start working together.

Rev. Sandy Brown
Church Council of Greater Seattle