Federal Way Council reviews city's response to cold weather events

City of Federal Way - Courtesy City of Federal Way
City of Federal Way
— image credit: Courtesy City of Federal Way

With Federal Way and Western Washington experiencing their own deep freeze in December, Councilmember Susan Honda asked for a report back on the city’s policies and procedures for sheltering residents and the homeless during such cold weather events.

Director of Public Works Carrie Roe gave the report during the Council’s meeting on Tuesday.

Roe said the city has two plans in place, one in which facilities can be designated as a warming center, or can be set up as a temporary overnight shelter, depending on the severity of the weather and its effects on the city. Another factor is how these policies relate to agreements the city has with Red Cross and the use of the Federal Way Community Center (FWCC) in such instances.

“There are different kinds of shelters, I talked a little bit about warming and cooling shelters, as well as what’s called a dormitory shelter,” he said. “A dormitory shelter is a 24-hour operation for if folks are going to be there over the course of a day or multiple days, and you provide for them holistically.”

Roe said the city’s criteria for a warming shelter is if the temperature reaches 32 degrees or below. In that case, the FWCC is typically designated a warming shelter, where essentially anyone is welcome to use the center to warm up for however long they feel they need. For the dormitory shelter, three criteria need to be met for the city to consider opening up the FWCC for that kind of use, Roe said.

“The first is … temperature, (the second) is displacement of population, as we had in the significant power outage,” Roe said, referencing the snow/ice storm that left much of the city without power for a number of days in early 2012. “And then last but not least is precipitation, snow and ice conditions present in the community.”

When it comes to the dormitory shelter need, Roe noted that the city has a memorandum of understanding with the Red Cross. Using the FWCC to shelter the homeless, especially when the Red Cross and King County Emergency Management are involved, can be problematic, Roe said.

“As we set up the Red Cross shelter at the Federal Way Community Center, there were numerous homeless folks who participated and took advantage of the shelter,” he said. “I received a call at my home during the course of that shelter, and the King County Emergency Management person and Red Cross director told me they were going to shut down the shelter. I listened for about three minutes, and then interrupted and said, ‘The last time I checked, that’s a city of Federal Way shelter, and a city of Federal Way facility, and we’ll decide when it will shut down.’”

Roe noted that about a day later, the temporary shelter at the FWCC was shut down, and there were some issues with the homeless who had shown up.

“I tell you that story because we didn’t make a decision based on the homeless, we made a decision based on need, and it was the right thing to do,” Roe added.

In the most recent cold snap, Roe said New Hope Community Church made its facility available as a dormitory shelter. One of the challenges in communicating with the homeless community, he noted, is that they don’t have access to a phone, Internet or other forms of communication. In this instance, Roe developed a flier informing readers that New Hope was a temporary shelter, and he worked with the Federal Way Police Department to have patrol officers hand the fliers out to any members of the homeless community they may have encountered during their shifts.

“One individual … he didn’t want help, so we tried not to be overly aggressive and be proactive in that regard,” Roe said.

He noted that the city has always tried to defer to community service based/faith-based organizations in the community when it comes to these particular needs, citing the Red Cross’s issues with housing the homeless. There’s a part of the city’s Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan specifically titled “Severe Cold Weather Protocol for Religious/Faith-Based Organizations.”

“We have a significant number in our community, and many of them have the desire to help,” he said.

Roe noted that this particular initiative lost some steam after its original creation because of staffing cuts in city government, leading to a lack of awareness in the community about the initiative.

“I believe it’s viable and we should put some energy behind it … I’d like to encourage us to rejuvenate that program and to focus some funds to the agencies/organizations in our community who are willing to step up and help,” Roe said.


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