Like many Western Washington residents do every day, Shoreline’s Brad Lancaster walked by a crowd of homeless individuals. But unlike many in the region, he stopped and asked them to follow him home.
“I have convictions about us being humans together,” Lancaster told KIRO Radio’s Jason Rantz.
In November, Lancaster discovered that a church nearby his home could no longer host a homeless encampment it was running. The Shoreline lawyer then decided to take it upon himself to provide a place for those people to go — his backyard. And some, he took inside his home.
“We have some vulnerable people in our group. Those sleep inside,” Lancaster said. “We have four school-aged children, the oldest being 12. And a pregnant woman with some health issues. She and her family stay here, inside the house.”
There is also a man with advanced emphysema who stays in his home because exposure to colder weather worsens his condition
There are about 14 people experiencing homelessness that have set up tents in Lancaster’s backyard. The camp is technically illegal and runs afoul zoning regulations. Some neighbors have supported the effort, KIRO7 reports, offering to cook meals and run clothing drives for the folks in the backyard camp. But at least one neighbor complained to the city, forcing Shoreline to investigate.
Lancaster hopes to keep the camp operating through March, when another church is ready to host the homeless camp. But he is facing a legal battle to keep the camp in his yard. Local zoning regulations do not allow for people to host homeless camps on their property. In response to the City of Shoreline’s attention on his yard, Lancaster has applied for a temporary use permit to keep the tents on his property. He hopes the city will allow them to stay until March.
As Lancaster sees it, it’s not just an issue about hosting a homeless tent camp, but also about too-strict regulations in Shoreline.
“The problem is in Shoreline the zoning code prevents us from being willing (to help),” Lancaster said. “It’s actually illegal to care about your neighbors under the Shoreline zoning code unless you have a temporary use permit, which costs $700.”
“There’s not a single square inch where you can pitch a tent in Shoreline,” he said. “Oddly, it’s actually illegal to have your grandchildren sleep in your backyard in the middle of summer in Shoreline, because no one can sleep in a tent outside in Shoreline.”
As a lawyer, Lancaster has a long explanation as to why setting up a tent in Shoreline is illegal. It comes down to zoning regulations that all towns have, aimed at keeping different land uses safely apart. For example, factories are usually kept apart from housing developments.
And as Rantz notes, there are other considerations.
“I think it is reasonable to suggest that putting a homeless tent city in someone’s backyard, especially when talking about 14 people, might not be the most sanitary way to house individuals we all want to be compassionate toward,” Rantz said.
For Lancaster that is not an issue. He has set up a couple of portable toilets in the yard, but the tent residents can also use the bathroom in his home. They can also take showers there and use the laundry facility. And the camp itself isn’t just a crowd of tents on his grass.
“(The tents) are covered with tarps to keep them dry, they are set up about 8 inches off the ground on pallets, the pallets are levels with pieces of wood … I have a 400-square-foot covered patio at the back of my home. They are using it as a place to get warm and dry and eat together and socialize,” Lancaster said.
Lancaster said that he understands if neighbors are concerned about what he is doing. In fact he respects their opinion and would be concerned himself is anyone else was doing what he is. But he argues that he has taken on the matter from a safe perspective. He ran background checks on his back-yard residents. No one is a sex offender or has warrants out for their arrest. He even took copies of their IDs. To him, these are his Shoreline neighbors; they went to school in Shoreline, they work there, and they live there despite not having a roof over their heads.
“These people are homeless, but I don’t think anyone can say they are chronically homeless. They all have various situations that have given rise to their current homelessness in America,” Lancaster said. “They have come here from another place like the Marshal Islands or Guam, they have chronic illnesses, they have substance abuse problems that are under control but they haven’t recovered from it.”
“They are not out in the work force making sufficient funds to make a first and last security deposit in the rental market and have any money left to pay the rent,” he added. “Most of them are working. All of them, seem to me, to be people that are trying to be as good of human beings as they ought to be. We are trusting them to take care of us, and we are taking care of them to the extent we are able.”