February 29, 2024

WA advocates press for state funding to help migrants camped at Tukwila church

Riverton Park United Methodist Church, where hundreds of migrants have been sheltering in recent months. (Grace Deng/Washington State Standard)

Washington immigrant rights advocates want the state to spend $25 million on housing, food and other services for asylum seekers, including hundreds living outside a church in Tukwila.

King County has allocated $3 million to house migrants camped at Riverton Park United Methodist Church. But Martha Lucas, program coordinator at Riverton, said cities and counties won’t be able to provide the kind of funding they need to support asylum seekers.

“We need the big dollars,” said Lucas, who also represents the Washington State Coalition of African Community Leaders.

The state funds advocates are requesting would go to the Office of Refugee and Immigrant Assistance to contract with nonprofit organizations that provide services to asylum seekers, such as food, housing, employment education and legal services. Funding would also support staffing so the office can coordinate a “statewide approach” to providing these supports.

Asylum seekers first started arriving at Riverton after a Seattle police officer asked the church’s pastor to house a migrant family at the church’s tiny house village for chronically homeless people in January 2023, Lucas said. Word spread from there, and the church’s asylum-seeker population eventually grew to around 500 people. 

“Even prior to the media coverage, people would have [the pastor’s] number at the border of Mexico,” Lucas said.

Initially, aside from families finding their own way to the church, city officials were dropping people off, Lucas said. That’s stopped, but now, nonprofit groups are leaving families there, regardless of whether the church has space. Many groups just don’t have the funding to handle the influx of migrants, advocates said.

Gov. Jay Inslee’s supplemental budget proposal includes an additional $5 million for the Office of Refugee and Immigrant Assistance and $3 million for a grant program helping counties support newly arrived refugees and asylum seekers, a spokesperson for Inslee’s office, Mike Faulk, said.

For this funding to become available, the state Legislature will have to approve it before this year’s session ends on March 7. Faulk said any new money that is approved wouldn’t be available until summer.

The church has had utility expenses as high as $10,000 a month since the migrants arrived, Lucas said. The Seattle Times reported in January that it cost roughly $13,000 to move asylum seekers living at the church into hotels as the area faced below-freezing temperatures — and the church footed most of the bill.

Lucas said private donations have kept the church’s services afloat.

“It’s basically a lot of fundraising, crowd-funding…but [that’s] not really a plan for when those funds run out,” she said.

Advocates also said the funding is needed not just for the Tukwila church, but for migrants across the state who don’t have permanent housing.

“No one should sleep in a tent outside,” Lucas said.

— By Grace Deng, Washington State Standard

Washington State Standard is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Washington State Standard maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Bill Lucia for questions: info@washingtonstatestandard.com. Follow Washington State Standard on Facebook and X.

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