Feeding the Homeless in the Face of Opposition

Post a Comment » Written on August 19th, 2008     
Filed under: News
MERCER ISLAND, WA (August 19, 2008) – Members of Mercer Island Covenant Church are eagerly serving meals to residents of a controversial tent city for homeless people in this upscale community, says pastor Greg Asimakoupoulos.

A week ago Monday more than a dozen members served dinner to the roughly 95 people who are living in what has been called Tent City 4 by organizers. The members made baked chicken, mashed potatoes, and green beans at the church and then brought the food to the site. Other church members also have signed up to help in the coming months.

Tent City encampments have settled in several area communities since 2004 and commonly stay in one location for three months. Approximately 100 people reside in the current Tent City on the parking lot of Mercer Island United Methodist Church, which is located about a mile from the Covenant church.

SHARE/WHEEL, an advocacy organization for the homeless, is sponsoring the Tent City. It assists residents in their search for work and housing. The organization has said the average stay for a person is six weeks.

The encampment has drawn heated criticism from some local residents. When Mercer Island granted a temporary use agreement that allowed the camp to set up on the church property, residents filed a lawsuit seeking an injunction to prevent the move.

Tent City is self-governing, and organizers say it follows a strict code of conduct. Residents are screened for sexual convictions and for outstanding warrants. Drugs and alcohol are prohibited, and rules forbid loitering in the neighborhood. The camp provides around-the-clock security for the protection of its residents and neighbors.

Still, the petitioners argued that Tent City would increase area crime and be an eyesore. Tent City is a stark contrast to the rest of the community. Mercer Island has 22,000 residents and a median housing price of $1.2 million. Residents include Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen.

Asimakoupoulos is president of the Mercer Island Clergy Association and announced plans more than a year ago to bring the encampment to the area. Although not an official sponsor of Tent City, the association has worked closely with SHARE/WHEEL to provide a location for the ministry.

Asimakoupoulos says he respects the opinions of people who have expressed opposition but adds, “My concern is we have people who have real needs.”

He concedes that several people, including some who have worked with the homeless in other venues such as rescue missions, have left the church because of its support of Tent City. Others have stayed in the church but have expressed their disapproval.

Opponents in the community also have suggested that many of the Tent City residents don’t deserve the assistance for various reasons. Asimakoupoulos counters that even if that is the case, “What an awesome way to live out giving what may be undeserved. That’s what grace is all about. How would it be if God didn’t do that for us.”

In a column for the local newspaper, Asimakoupoulos wrote of a woman in his congregation who was once homeless.

“Last month, I had a member of my congregation approach me and ask to be part of our church’s Tent City task force. When I asked this well-to-do Island resident why she wanted to help, she told me her story.

“When she was five, her father died, leaving her mother with four little girls and a monthly income of less than $150. Her mother quickly remarried a man who frequently lost his job due to alcohol. They stayed in makeshift campgrounds, under bridges with other ‘campers,’ in decrepit motels, and slept in their station wagon for weeks at a time.

“Today, Emily (not her real name) is a living example of one who survived homelessness and has become a contributing member of our community. She credits her faith, opportunities, and people along the way who cared for her. Her desire to flesh out the words of Isaiah 58 is rooted in memories of what it is like to be fearful, hungry, and poor. It is also based in the knowledge that she can make a difference.”

Asimakoupoulos says working with the homeless also helps break down stereotypes local residents may have of the Covenant congregation, which he says is more conservative than most other churches in the community. All too often, people think conservative churches are not compassionate, he explains.

Money given to the church’s general fund is not being used to pay for assistance to Tent City, Asimakoupoulos says. A donation box has been set up in the narthex so people can give directly to the cause.

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