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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Asylum-seekers in cold-weather shelter hotels may not leave in protest in Tukwila

Volunteer Jacob Daniels dismantles a tent Thursday afternoon at the Riverton Park Methodist Church in Tukwila Washington on Jan. 11, 2024. Residents of the encampment were being moved to indoor shelters with incoming cold weather.    (Kevin Clark/The Seattle Times/TNS)
By Alexandra Yoon-Hendricks Seattle Times

Dozens of asylum-seekers living in tents outside a Tukwila, Washington, church were moved into hotels to get out of the extreme stretch of below-freezing temperatures that bore down on the region last weekend – the roughly $13,000 bill to do so largely footed by the church.

Now, about 50 of the asylum-seekers who are currently staying at the Homewood Suites by Hilton hotel in Tukwila have threatened to stay past checkout until local governments provide them with warm, dry, safe long-term shelter, according to organizers with advocacy group International Migrants Alliance USA, which is supporting the effort.

While state and local government agencies have pledged to look at ways they could help, none have taken full responsibility for the crisis, as families and individuals continue to arrive at the church almost every day.

The asylum-seekers are protesting the worsening conditions at Riverton Park United Methodist Church, which for more than a year has served as a kind of makeshift refuge for incoming asylum-seekers, and the failure of local governments to alleviate the situation in a meaningful way.

The asylum-seekers are essentially homeless as they await to secure a work permit, which would allow them to legally seek employment while in the process of securing asylum status.

Organizers said in a Monday night news release that asylum-seekers are fed-up with the “inhumane” situation at the church, where some have lived for months.

Hundreds of asylum-seekers have been sleeping inside the church’s offices and social hall, or in rows of tents outside the building in the mud. Heavy rain and frigid temperatures have left residents unbearably cold and wet. On any given day, the church is a chaotic scene, with squealing toddlers playing next to children trying to study and adults cooking meals and passing the time. There are not enough bathrooms and showers to accommodate residents, and illnesses easily pass between people.

A representative from the group of asylum-seekers did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

With the brutal cold snap looming last week, Riverton started moving hundreds of asylum-seekers sleeping in tents on the church property into hotels on Thursday, paying for rooms out of their own pocket, said Pastor Jan Bolerjack.

Initially, Bolerjack had hoped to move residents into severe cold weather shelters operated by the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, but after hours of trying to use the system, only one family was able to get overnight shelter through the program, she said.

The authority funded several hundred spots for people across the region to sleep indoors, but asylum-seekers still had to compete with thousands of people who are homeless and unsheltered on any given night.

The agency does not collect information needed to determine how many asylum-seekers used authority-run shelters, according to spokesperson Anne Martens.

Save the Kids Northwest, a local chapter of a national grassroots organization, stepped in to house about 50 families temporarily at motels, according to Maurece Graham-Bey. Many of those families hailed from South American countries, Bolerjack said.

Meanwhile, the church booked 11 rooms at a nearby Ramada by Wyndham hotel, and another six rooms at an Econo Lodge meant to house about four people each, Bolerjack said. Most of those residents are from Angola and Congo.

On Saturday, the Ramada hotel flooded because a pipe froze and burst due to the cold weather. The city of Tukwila activated its emergency management division to respond to the flooding, helping transport about 50 residents to the Homewood Suites in Tukwila, according to city spokesperson Brad Harwood. The city has paid for four nights for 19 rooms there, Harwood said in an email, but some of that will be refunded by the church.

“We agree with concerns about the safety and health of the families living at the encampment – they deserve better,” Harwood said in a statement. “It’s also important to recognize Riverton Park’s work and compassion in helping to support these asylees. This is a complex issue with no easy solution.”

The church has spent thousands of dollars on just hotel room costs during the cold snap, Bolerjack said, and has extended hotel stays for asylum-seekers until Wednesday morning. The church also paid some transportation costs to hotels, and has continued to buy cold-weather supplies for residents still at the church.

Bolerjack said she’s not heard from organizers working with the asylum-seekers at Homewood Suites or from hotel management.

She said she understands that some residents do not want to return to the church, but that the church cannot afford to pay for more hotel nights.

“We just can’t do it,” Bolerjack said.

Migrants and asylum-seekers, largely from Venezuela, Congo and Angola, have been arriving at the church’s front door for more than a year, despite the fact that the church has never formally described itself as a refugee relief center. The majority are fleeing political persecution or violence in their home country.

It’s not entirely clear why so many have flocked to the church. Bolerjack has learned from residents that some migrant shelters along the U.S.-Mexico border have sent families to Sea-Tac International Airport on planes and directed them to the church, while others learned about the church from friends and family already living on the property.

As many as 500 people were estimated to be living on the property in December, suffering brutal weather conditions, tight living quarters, and long waits for legal and housing assistance. The church has shouldered the majority of the costs of sheltering asylum-seekers, with homeless service organizations, mutual aid groups and local nonprofits helping foot some of the bills.

Meanwhile, city, state and federal officials have been slow to address the crisis at Riverton. The county announced in December it would allocate $3 million to fund 100 hotel rooms through June to house some of the church’s most vulnerable residents indoors temporarily.

As of Thursday, 250 people were living in the county-funded hotel, but church officials and local organizations have noted many are still forced to shelter outdoors.

Representatives with the city of Tukwila and King County said they had not heard of plans by asylum-seekers to remain at the Homewood Suite as of Tuesday, and did not share updated plans on how to house more residents, especially during the rainy and cold winter months.

“We’re inviting people back to where people were before, since that’s all we can do,” Bolerjack said. “We’re just an emergency stopgap shelter and we still have people coming.”