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Churches have options to be neighbors to homeless

In a recent exchange on the PNC Google Group listserv, one pastor asked what to do about a homeless person who was sleeping on the steps of her church in Seattle.

Among those responding was Bill Kirlin-Hackett, executive director of the Interfaith Task Force on Homelessness, whose published a workbook to address just such questions, “The Stones Would Shout: Homelessness and Place and Faith.”

RV is being towed from a right-of-way (top). Lake Washington UMC offers safe parking. Photo courtesy of  Bill Kirlin-Hackett

PNC News offered an overview of it two years ago in an article at

“The question of what to do when homeless people show up or sleep on a church’s property has risen as homelessness is no longer the third or fourth top issue municipalities are facing, but is now the number one issue,” he said. “That is the case because of the failures of cities and communities to address homelessness in terms of funding and priorities,” he said.

King County recently set up the Regional Homeless Authority after three previous priority plans failed, Bill said, commenting, “King County has been trying to nickel and dime its way out of homelessness.”

Recently Governor Jay Inslee and the State of Washington have directed more funding to housing homeless.

“We have an increasing number of homeless people because we have too little housing available for people at 30 percent of the area’s median income,” Bill explained. “We have housing that is too expensive, and we do not have enough housing.

“Jurisdictions are trying to control homelessness on the streets because housing is underfunded, and there are no plans,” he said.

So Bill tells faith communities who own property and want to keep the property and people safe to turn their attention from what is making the property unsafe—people sleeping on the property—to understand why they are there.

“Plymouth and University Congregational know they are in neighborhoods where there are homeless people, so Bill suggests that, like them, other congregations need to keep the persons sleeping there safe, to look out for what they need to do as a mission of the congregation that extends outside the building.

“We need to live our faith to address our neighbors—be it climate change, Black Lives Matter or violence against Asian Americans,” he said. “We need to stand in the tradition of caring for our neighbors.”

He recognized that faith communities may feel overwhelmed, feel too small to address a big problem or may not connect with their neighborhoods. He recognizes congregations do not know what to do, but suggests that it does not take much to change lives.

“Think about how the congregation can care for the person sleeping on their doorsteps,” he suggested. “We need to listen to the person, not criminalize the person. We can act according to what we believe in as a congregation. We can extend our community to include our neighbor, the stranger, the vulnerable.

“We don’t teach that well enough. As part of the community, we are responsible for homeless people and for challenging homelessness,” he said, noting that there are plenty of people like him who can help a congregation talk with a homeless person on the doorstep.

That’s what his workbook, “The Stones Will Shout,” which is available on Amazon, is about. It shares the history of how the Interfaith Task Force on Homelessness started and gives a blueprint for how individuals and congregations can take steps to act.

One congregation with a big parking lot decided to start safe parking for people who had lost their homes. The task force has a flier telling congregations how to offer safe parking.

Bill recently talked with an Episcopal church in Tacoma that not only does that, but also is working with him to advocate for a bill in the legislature, ESHB 1774 in 2012-20.

“Congregations think they need a government permit to practice their faith by providing safe parking, safe camping or safe hosting inside,” he said.

“Federal law says faith communities can do those things, but cities and counties try to use a sledge hammer rather than a scalpel to sweep tents and force people into shelters or to confiscate RVs. That’s illegal based on the 2018 Martin v. Boise decision,” he said.

“In addition, Long v. Seattle declared that people have the right of homestead not to have their RV’s impounded and towed. I was on the phone with a woman, when a towing company wanted to charge her $2,200 to return her RV. She offered $1,500. I wasn’t going to try to negotiate when she might be left without the RV in 36-degree temperatures. I provided that, but then went to the city because by law the most they can charge is $270. The overcharge was a clear violation. I wrote the city attorney to oversee such excess charges.”

Bill consults with both the National Homeless Law Center and Columbia Legal Services.

“Homelessness is caused by a circle: half is funding and the rest is land use,” he said. “Local governments sweep camps with no conscience, even though there is low harm by the camps. Then they criminalize homeless people,” he said, urging communities of faith to write letters to mayors and go to city council meetings to challenge those actions.”

Faith communities may not have the skills to talk to a homeless person, but they can bring in people who do know how to talk with homeless people who can offer they paths out of homelessness.

Bill, who started with the Interfaith Task Force on Homelessness in 2004, encourages communities of faith to find out who are “our neighbors” in terms of who is homeless and who are other communities of faith doing something others can learn from within their denomination or across denominations and faiths.

“It’s not rocket science,” he said, telling of four wisdom statements he has cleaned from Inspector Gamache in Louise Penny novels.

The words of wisdom are:

“I’m sorry.”
“I was wrong.”
“I don’t know.”
“I need help.”

Bill applies all four in his work and urges others to use those to express their willingness to be helped,” he said. “Homelessness is our problem. We sustain it with sweeping camps, rather than assuring people have homes.”

In King County, Bill said there are sweeps twice a week on people living in vehicles—RVs and cars—and there are sweeps two or three times a week on those tenting in homeless camps.

“Faith communities need write their mayors and city councils to say that this is cruel,” he said. “It makes no sense for people to be forced to leave their RVS to go to a shelter. An RV is a legal habitat, so we help many with fees when they are impounded, but there are so many we do not hear from. Many lose their RVs when they are towed to a lot. Few lots are guarded, so the RVs are ransacked.

“Without their RVs, people are on the streets. We could start with providing safe lots for RVs, nesting groups of people living in RVs, such as parking five or six in a row in the right of ways, so we can visit them and help them find a path to housing,” Bill said.

He is advocating for legislation to change the laws in every jurisdiction to end the harmful practices.

Bill has done vehicle outreach on the streets with teams and seeks to train more younger people to do that outreach so he can focus on advocacy.

The Interfaith Task Force on Homelessness has since 2011 been working with the University Heights Center, a larger nonprofit, as the fiscal agent for the vehicle outreach. Bill seeks to transition to be a consultant trouble shooting with them and training new people, while he looks ahead to spending more time in advocacy.

For information, call 425-442-5418 or email


 Winter Pacific Northwest Conference United Church of Christ News © December 2022


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