Center’s Network Explores the Role of FBOs in Tent Encampments and the Intersection of Race and Homelessness

3x3 Mosaic of Nov2017 Network Meeting
November 21, 2017

At the November 8th meeting of the Center for Religious Wisdom & World Affairs’ Puget Sound Network, the Center team, Network members, and Graduate Student Affiliates, gathered along with five key community partners working on homelessness and affordable housing issues: Mr. Jim Dean, Executive Director of the Interfaith Association of Northwest Washington; Mx. Shaun Glaze, community organizer with the District 7 Neighborhood Action Coalition; Ms. Kathleen Hosfeld, Executive Director of Homestead Community Land Trust; Rev. Lawrence Willis, Pastor of True Vine of Holiness Missionary Baptist Church; and Mr. Mark Putnam, Director of All Home King County.

Center Director Dr. Manuel Mejido opened the meeting by reminding participants that the aim of the Center is to explore how faith-based organizations (FBOs) can more effectively address intractable social issues, like homelessness. He also reflected on the significance of the Center being part of a school of theology and ministry:

We’re no doubt asking questions that our colleagues in sociology, law, or public policy might ask. We’re interested in how FBOs foster social capital; how they negotiate Free Exercise issues; and how they contribute to social service delivery. But we’re also interested in the theological and ethical perspectives that underpin the community engagement of FBOs. In fact, we believe that this gets to the unique contributions FBOs make to society. It’s the conviction, for example, that homelessness cannot be reduced to a problem that needs fixing. That it needs to be understood in terms of restoring right relationships. Our approach to FBOs is part of an important tradition in American social thought that runs from Alexis de Tocqueville, through Robert Bellah, up to Cornel West. It’s the idea that communities of faith function as schools of citizenship. That public theologies and prophetic voices are essential to a flourishing democracy.


Communities of Faith and Tent City 5

Marilyn-and-Maggie_cropped-FIXED-800pxDuring the first part of the meeting, the Center’s Community Engagement Manager, Rev. Maggie Breen, provided a historical overview of homeless encampments in the Puget Sound region and moderated a discussion around the contributions FBOs have made to this movement.

The group considered the important role the Ecumenical Support Network (ESN) played in the recent decision to allow Tent City 5 to use Port Authority Land. Center collaborator and Rector of the Church of the Ascension, Rev. Marilyn Cornwell – who was instrumental in creating and leading this network of seven congregations – reflected on her experiences and shared lessons learned.

Center_for_Religious_Wisdom_001-FIXED-800pxWhen discussions around finding a new site for Tent City 5 surfaced in the summer of 2017, ESN effectively mobilized a broad partnership of local stakeholders – which included encampment residents, faith leaders, businesses, and grassroots groups – to advocate keeping the encampment in the neighborhood. In September of 2017, the Port Commissioners unanimously voted to allow Tent City 5 to use Port of Seattle land in Interbay, near the Magnolia Bridge.

Rev. Cornwell, and Mr. Shaun Glaze, a community organizer with District 7 Neighborhood Action Coalition, shared with the group what they considered to be the three key capacities faith communities brought to this process:

  • Affirming the moral dimensions of citizenship. By articulating a vision of neighbor love, ESN elevated the principles of civic responsibility and the common good shared by stakeholders. This, among other things, undercut the not-in-my-backyard mentality (NIMBYism).

  • Building coalitions across difference. Leading from a conviction that partnerships should be grounded in mutual trust made ESN a credible interlocutor in the eyes of the other stakeholders. ESN was able to leverage this social capital to build a broad coalition across ideological and political differences.
  • Empowering encampment residents. The aim of ESN was not so much to represent those living in Tent City 5, but rather to provide these individuals with the necessary resources and channels to effectively voice their needs.

After examining Rev. Cornwell’s case study, Rev. Breen invited the group to reflect on some questions:

What can we learn about the capacities needed as FBOs engage encampments?

Mr. Mark Putnam, Director of All Home, commented that this case study was “a fantastic example of why government can’t do this alone.” The Port of Seattle could really see – thanks in large part to the faith community’s leadership in developing a broad-based coalition – that the community was for the most part behind this encampment. He also pointed to other ways that FBOs can support the unhoused – by, for example, recruiting landlords, sponsoring backyard cottages, and providing host homes for young adults.

In thinking about these capacities the larger group affirmed the importance of being led by those we serve. Ms. Kathleen Hosfeld of Homestead Community Land Trust said, “this isn’t about us running in, doing something good and running back out.” Rather, when we choose to be in relationship the opportunity exists for transformation on both sides.

How do FBOs understand the role of encampments?

The group discussed the established view that many individuals experiencing homelessness prefer encampments to shelters because the self-governance structure allows for greater agency and the living arrangements for greater dignity. For example, tent city residents are Center_for_Religious_Wisdom_004-FIXED-800pxgiven the opportunity to participate in decision-making processes, couples can live together, pets are allowed, and there is more adequate storage.

As President of Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission, Mr. Jeff Lilley has worked with both sanctioned and unsanctioned encampments. He stated that a person finds community in an encampment – something we all yearn for. “It provides a sense [of community] that [residents] are not getting elsewhere. So that is a huge thing.” He talked about the development of healthy community as a place where FBOs can come alongside the residents of encampments.

Through his collaboration with the Low Income Housing Institute and the Seattle Vocational Institute, Rev. Lawrence Willis works closely with residents and neighbors to build tiny houses for encampments. Reflecting on this experience, he argued that tent cities are communal spaces where housed and unhoused neighbors can come together to problem-solve and build interpersonal relationships. Rev. Willis further suggested that these interactions provide educational and vocational resources that can boost job opportunities.

Mr. Michael Yoder, Executive Director of Associated Ministries, brought the discussion to closure by noting the timeliness of the topic as Tacoma and Pierce county start to grapple with sanctioned encampments and the permitting of shelter on church property.

Conversation with Center Scholar Laura Stivers


In the second half of the meeting, Dr. Mejido introduced Dr. Laura Stivers, a Center Scholar and Dean of the School of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at Dominican University of California, who joined the group through video conference.

Dr. Stivers outlined the main arguments of her work, Disrupting Homelessness, in which she challenges the conventional understanding of hospitality to include not only charity but also a concern for justice that addresses the systemic causes of poverty and inequality. She then provided an overview of her current research project for the Center, which looks at the intersection of race and homelessness in the San Francisco Bay Area, through the examination of housing and zoning policies, prison and military populations, wealth and income disparities, residential segregation, and educational equity.

After this presentation, Dr. Mejido moderated a conversation between Dr. Stivers, Network members, and guests.

Mr. Jeff Lilley recognized the devastating impact of structural racism on communities of color as well as the challenges posed by the resource constraints and extensive service mandate facing FBOs. He asked how FBOs could address the issue of racism in their day-to-day work. Dr. Stivers acknowledged these challenges, particularly for individual congregations and FBOs engaged in direct service. She encouraged building and leveraging networks and coalitions with other FBOs to have “power in numbers” and impact policy. She made the point that if policy is not addressed, FBOs will continue to be overextended.

Center_for_Religious_Wisdom_007[1]-FIXED-800pxRabbi Ruth Zlotnick of Temple Beth Am noted her congregation’s struggle to negotiate the tension between its historically marginalized Jewish identity and the privileges conferred by its assimilated (largely) white middle-class status. She asked Dr. Stivers how her scholarship might speak to those who have histories and belief systems different from their Christian counterparts. Dr. Stivers asserted that beneath the Christian theological language, ethical principles and notions of justice underpinning her work translates across religious traditions. Her comments sparked a debate in the group around how to articulate a shared vision whilst retaining our distinct theological grounding and cultural identity. Dr. Stivers affirmed both Rabbi Zlotnick’s assertion that we must lift up and learn from our differences as well as Mr. Jim Dean’s claim that we need to find a common framework to tackle vexing social issues.

Ms. Hamdi Abdulle, Executive Director of Somali Youth and Family Club asked Dr. Stivers, how her current research might address the unequal access to opportunities facing communities of color, and how we might address their fear of retaliation for challenging the gatekeepers of local resources and knowledge. Dr. Stivers called for white congregations and neighborhood organizations to listen deeply to and stand alongside communities of color, who know the issues and organizing strategies best. Rev. Kelle Brown of Plymouth Church UCC highlighted the importance of using the term “white supremacy,” rather than “white privilege,” which she insisted has become too comfortable of a term.

The next Network meeting will take place on January 10, 2018. During the first part of the meeting, Puget Sound Network member, Rev. Kelle Brown, will present a case study that explores the tension between the agency of homeless individuals and the accountability of FBOs in the context of intersecting oppressive structures. During the second part, Center Scholar Paul Blankenship, a doctoral student at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley and adjunct faculty at Seattle University, will share some of the preliminary findings from his ethnographic research on the spirituality of people experiencing homelessness in the streets of Seattle’s Capitol Hill district.