WENATCHEE — A Wenatchee church’s proposal to house homeless college students is being met with pushback from the community.
Grace Lutheran Church is considering building 12 cottages to serve homeless college students on its Washington Street campus in conjunction with renovations and a potential expansion to its existing building.
“It’s certainly in the idea stage at this point,” Pastor James Aalgaard said, adding that there is no timeline for the project. “There’s still a lot that’s unsettled in terms of actual construction or whether or not the project will go to completion.”
The cottages, which would cost an estimated $700,000, would include power, water and sewer and would likely serve single students, especially former foster children, or single-parent students and their children.
In a 2019 national assessment of college students, 20% of Wenatchee Valley College students participating in the survey reported experiencing homelessness in the previous year, 40% reported experiencing food insecurity in the prior 30 days and 47% reported experiencing housing insecurity in the previous year.
John McQuaig, chair for the church’s Fox Trust committee, said non-students experiencing homelessness would not be eligible for the housing. However, the church has discussed housing for visiting nurses who work at Confluence Health or low-income seniors.
“There would be no revenue to the church from this,” McQuaig said. “It would be a gift to the students that need housing. It is our church’s response to the gospel in trying to give a hand up to those that cannot attend college without housing.”
The church applied for a state Connecting Housing to Infrastructure Program (CHIP) grant in December to help fund the cottages but did not qualify for it. Aalgaard said the church is open to looking into other funding sources but is not pursuing any currently.
“We have some fairly positive feedback from some community leaders,” Aalgaard added. “We do also have some concern throughout our neighborhood — and we are really taking that to heart as we think about what our next steps might be.”
Katy Boreson, who lives across from the church, does not support the project and has delivered nearly 100 flyers to notify her neighbors.
One of her main concerns is the church’s ability to manage such an endeavor. She said last summer the church allowed a mother and two children to stay in an RV in its parking lot for 10 days but did not manage the situation. Boreson said there was public urination and defecation in her front yard and that she picked up glass; used condoms; and drug paraphernalia, including needles.
“It wasn’t managed, and it was literally parties in the church parking lot and no one cared except us in the neighborhood,” Boreson said. “The lack of management and the lackadaisical approach to it makes me very uncomfortable with how they would handle 12 cottages.”
McQuaig confirmed the church doesn’t have the capacity to manage the cottages but said the intention is that they’d be managed by a third party, such as Wenatchee Valley College or Women’s Resource Center.
Boreson is also concerned about property values and, on a personal note, the quality of life she and her family would experience. She and her family moved into their current home almost three years ago to be closer to her husband’s family while Boreson was going through breast cancer treatment.
“I put chemo on a credit card to be able to buy this house for my family so if I wasn’t here, they had a place,” said Boreson. “Now you’re gonna tell me I’m gonna leave them across the street from a homeless camp?”
She is reaching out to an attorney about the project and stressed that while the cause is great, the location is not appropriate. Bob Stirling, a retired Wenatchee resident who lives about three blocks from the church, agrees.
“There’s definitely a need to address the homeless situation in Wenatchee, but nobody wants this in their backyard,” said Stirling, highlighting the fact that the church is located across from Washington Elementary School.
“The congregation gets to meet a couple hours every Sunday and feel good about everything,” he added. “Then the neighborhood would be left with the camp 24/7, 365 days a year.”
Mayor Frank Kuntz said the church is within its right to build the 12 cottages.
“From a city perspective, it’s really a permitting issue. It’s not a land-use decision, not something that the hearing examiner would see, not something that will come in front of this council,” he said during a city council meeting Thursday night. “I’m trying to be upfront with the neighbors who basically want us to stop it.”
Because the church is located in a residential moderate zoning district, there is nothing in city code that would prevent the building of the 12 cottages as long as they meet city design and safety standards.
“No matter what our personal feelings are, we cannot do anything else but what our rules are,” Councilman Mike Poirier said during the meeting.
In a pre-application meeting with the city, the church described possibly including a shelter facility in the basement of its existing building, which would not be consistent with the location’s zoning. However, McQuaig said the church is no longer considering that option.
The church has a congregational meeting on Sunday to consider a motion regarding the project. McQuaig said it there’s a favorable response at that meeting, the church will schedule a meeting with the neighborhood within a couple of weeks.