It is good to see the cold weather shelter for the homeless open again (Friday, “Cold weather shelter opens”). Thanks to the city of Lynnwood. That said, the city is flat-out wrong to deny the hosting within faith communities. Washington state law (ESHB 1956-2009) and prior federal law (Religious Land Use and Institutional Persons Act — 2000) allow any and every faith community to practice its mission, including housing homeless persons overnight, with the “least restrictive” oversight by government.
Demanding that any faith community install expensive sprinkler systems, which Lynnwood says is its code, is denying the faith practice unless these faith communities expend large sums of money. Lynnwood might note other municipalities where overnight shelter occurs within faith communities without sprinklers, and has occurred thus for years. Moreover, sprinklers do not prevent fire. Less expensive mitigations, like those mentioned in The Herald article, include fire watch volunteers, smoke alarms, and emergency lighting near exits.
Again, I thank Lynnwood because some jurisdictions chill any indoor shelter, including use of public space, on behalf of what a fire marshal says. The state actually has a pertinent law, RCW 19.27.042, which allows relaxing code for housing the indigent. It is time to start paying attention, keeping people safe absolutely, and restoring the right that willing volunteers in our faith communities have, by law, to keep the homeless safe at night.
For now, Lynnwood is doing the right thing, but even this city has made it clear they expect this shelter to be elsewhere in future years by expecting a faith community to install expensive sprinklers to host homeless persons. What this does is reduce the likelihood that any faith community in Lynnwood can host a year-round homeless shelter, another glaring need.
The Rev. Bill Kirlin-Hackett
Director, The Interfaith Task Force on Homelessness
Member, Snohomish County Homeless Policy Task Force