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News / Churches & Religion

Tukwila church tries to keep asylum-seekers warm with little help

By Anna Patrick, The Seattle Times
Published: January 12, 2024, 7:40am

TUKWILA — A large group of asylum-seekers are set to be left outside in record-breaking cold temperatures by local and state agencies.

The pastor and volunteers of Riverton Park United Methodist Church in Tukwila are scrambling to move hundreds of migrants, who are essentially living in homelessness on the church’s property, indoors as temperatures plunge.

Seattle’s National Weather Service is predicting Friday’s high temperature to be 23 degrees with overnight lows dipping into the single digits. Temperatures will likely not return to above freezing until Tuesday, said Kirby Cook, science and operations officer for the Seattle National Weather Service.

About 200 asylum-seekers, including women and children, are living in tents and tarps outside of the Riverton Park United Methodist Church as of Thursday, said Pastor Jan Bolerjack.

About 100 people are already living indoors on the church property, many congregating together in church offices and its social hall.

Migrants and asylum-seekers, largely from Venezuela and Angola, have been showing up to the United Methodist Church’s front doors, asking Bolerjack for help, for more than a year now. As many as 500 people were estimated to be living on the property in December.

Homeless service organizations, mutual aid groups and nonprofits have been assisting the church and its residents for months. Bolerjack is not certain how most of them found the church. Some say by word-of-mouth, while others heard of her from organizations working on the border.

On Wednesday, Bolerjack said, a local nonprofit helped to move some people indoors, but that still leaves many in need.

However, local government leaders have been hesitant to claim responsibility to help.

Now, the Seattle area will see some of the lowest temperatures in recorded history, and the finger-pointing continues.

For people living outside, “they’re very dangerous temperatures,” Cook with the Weather Service said.

The King County Regional Homelessness Authority noted asylum-seekers could use the severe weather shelters opening across the county for homeless people, Bolerjack said. But in addition to finding transportation for asylum-seekers, spots are limited, Bolerjack said.

There are only 144 additional severe-weather overnight beds across South King County for the asylum-seekers and the 2,000 people who were estimated to be living outdoors in South King County in July, according to King County Regional Homelessness Authority spokesperson Anne Martens.

Many of these severe-weather shelters are for adults only, which disqualifies many families living at the church.

Martens said that King County has taken the lead on “meeting the needs of asylum-seekers.”

In December, King County committed $3 million to pay for 100 hotel rooms to move some of the church’s most vulnerable residents indoors temporarily. As of Thursday, 250 people were living in the county-funded hotel, said Katie Rogers, spokesperson for the county’s Department of Community and Human Services. Rogers was not able to say how many of the rooms are occupied — 80 out of the 100 were occupied as of last month — but she said that work continues to fill the remaining rooms.

A county spokesperson also said the $3 million is not for cold-weather shelter and that work is handled by the King County Regional Homelessness Authority.

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Tukwila Mayor Tom McLeod said in a news release Wednesday about the upcoming severe weather: “It’s critical during these type of weather events that we work together to protect everyone is our community, including our most vulnerable.”

As of Thursday afternoon, the city of Tukwila had not announced any plans to assist in getting asylum-seekers indoors.

Public Health — Seattle & King County’s greatest health concern for people living outside during this severe weather is hypothermia, which can cause death, said spokesperson Kate Cole.

In September, Bolerjack was worried about what winter weather could mean for the hundreds living on the church’s property. She told The Seattle Times, “These folks are already telling me how cold they are.”

After The Seattle Times wrote about the hundreds of asylum-seekers finding refuge there, the city of Tukwila declared a state of emergency in October.

Since then, city staff have introduced an encampment ordinance to Tukwila’s City Council that, if passed, would place significant limitations on the church’s ability to shelter new asylum-seekers. The ordinance, which was introduced in a Dec. 11 meeting, is currently on hold after council members said they needed more time to deliberate.

Receiving little government aid as dangerously low-temperatures loom has been a frustrating process, Bolerjack said.

“We’re going to end up housing folks in hotels, just on our own,” Bolerjack said.

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