LYNNWOOD — The tents in the church’s backyard are shielded from view by a 6-foot fence.
A group of five community college students, all of whom are homeless, started moving in earlier this month to the new camp at Good Shepherd Baptist Church.
The camp, called Shepherd’s Village, is a pilot project expected to continue into June. It is funded by the Rev. Jean Kim’s private foundation. She has been working closely with Lynnwood City Hall and the staff at Good Shepherd, which provided the land.
The village is a smaller version of a tent city. It is meant to be a safe and quiet place for the students to sleep and store their belongings. It could be the first of its kind in Snohomish County.
Homelessness has become more visible here in recent years, an issue complicated by poverty, addiction and the failures of an overwhelmed mental health system. The increase in young people abusing prescription painkillers and heroin has fueled more makeshift camps in the suburbs and small towns. Local governments and social service organizations have made clear that police, the jail and the courts alone can’t solve the problems.
Lynnwood isn’t the only city experimenting with new ideas. In the coming years, Everett plans to build 70 units of supportive housing for the chronically homeless, a proposal that is under environmental review.
The tenants at Shepherd’s Village are required to be registered at a community college, such as nearby Edmonds Community College. They range in age from 22 to 50. Each took a pledge to avoid drugs and alcohol. They are allowed on site only at night and in the early morning. There is around-the-clock security.
They share a portable toilet, a storage locker and a small community room.
Kim, an 81-year-old Korean immigrant, is in charge of running and monitoring the village. She has been working with the homeless population for nearly half a century. She dreams of seeing tent villages at churches throughout the county.
“We’ve got five tents in here,” she said. “That’s a good beginning.”
In March 2015, Kim was diagnosed with a life-threatening lung disease. Around that same time, she decided to retool her mission toward ending homelessness by providing opportunities for education. She saw need not just in Seattle but in her own community of Lynnwood.
“I will go as far as I can go until God says ‘No more,’” she said.
For her 80th birthday party in July 2015, she created the Jean Kim Foundation for the Homeless Education. She asked guests to donate to the foundation instead of bringing gifts or cards. People gave a total of $20,000.
Next, Kim needed land. She approached Lynnwood Mayor Nicola Smith about using public property.
“Everything starts small and grows,” Kim remembers saying to the mayor. “Just let me pitch five tents somewhere.”
She was told that under the existing codes, a camp on private land would involve a lot less red tape. Lynnwood already had a policy in place that allows for tent cities, adopted in 2008.
Everett has a similar ordinance. Churches in Everett have asked the city for information about hosting a homeless camp, but none have formally applied. Tent cities are temporary housing, and Everett’s efforts have been focused on longer-term solutions.
Lynnwood’s mayor suggested Kim meet with the Rev. M. Christopher Boyer. In addition to leading Good Shepherd Baptist Church, he serves on the City Council. Homelessness long has been part of his political platform, because his faith teaches him to love his neighbors.
“These are our brothers and sisters, if you’ll pardon the religious imagery,” he said.
Three years ago, Boyer started a homelessness task force within the City Council. As a result of those conversations, the council in 2016 set aside $75,000. The money was used to contract with a social worker from the YWCA. The social worker serves as a navigator for homeless people, helping them make it to appointments and follow up with services. She and Lynnwood police have met with dozens of clients and she has helped at least 10 get into more stable housing.
Good Shepherd Baptist Church already had donated half of its land for affordable senior apartments, a project that was completed in 2011. After hearing from Kim, Boyer decided to speak with his congregation about another kind of housing need.
On Jan. 9, the church sent a letter to surrounding properties, letting homeowners and businesses know that it planned to host a village with five tents.
“Given their focus on their studies and their awareness of their situation, we feel confident that they will be good neighbors,” Boyer wrote in the letter.
The camp’s hosts are making good on that promise. Residents who can’t follow the rules are asked to leave, as happened in one case recently.
The response has been positive so far, and one nearby daycare offered to organize a coat drive for the residents, he said Wednesday.
Kim’s foundation provided thousands of dollars worth of equipment, including tents and sleeping bags. Another $500 came from a local restaurant owner. An Arlington business, Buddy Shelters, donated the tiny building that serves as the camp’s community room.
Last week, a yard sign leaned on the building. Its gold lettering read, “Hope.”
Kim keeps lists of everyone she meets who has shown interest in going to school and also who has signed up. This past winter quarter, she helped 17 homeless students apply to campuses, mostly Edmonds Community College. Of those, 14 remain enrolled, she said. Another 32 have asked for help applying for the next quarter. Others have sought vocational training.
Registration isn’t the end of it. Homeless students have countless reasons to give up on college. Kim’s response is constant monitoring, visits and phone calls. She worries about their phone bills and access to showers and ability to check their school email.
Not everyone will make it. She could use another case manager or two.
Spending time outside doesn’t help her lungs, and she knows no one would blame her for staying home. Yet, she shows up at local churches that offer meals for the homeless, five days a week.
Always, there is somebody new who wants to go to school.
The Jean Kim Foundation for the Homeless Education is seeking a part-time or volunteer social worker or mental health counselor to serve as a case manager for homeless college students. Computer skills are required.
The foundation offers many opportunities to work with the homeless in south Snohomish County. It is funding the Shepherd’s Village camp in Lynnwood, on land owned by Good Shepherd Baptist Church.
For more information on donation and volunteering needs, contact 425-563-3006, email@example.com. For example, an electrician is donating labor, but specific supplies are needed for that part of the project.