Dirty hands would be the first thing you’d see when you meet “Slim.” His real name is Bryan Berto, and he’s come to be known as a bit of a regular at the Federal Way Day Center.
The next thing you’d notice about the 40-year old is his hat. A snapback, sitting crooked on the top of his head.
He wears baggy clothes and a blue jacket with soiled spots along the arms and shoulders, and he slouches in chairs when you sit across a table from him.
He’s lived in Los Angeles, Seattle, Auburn and Federal Way. And he’s been homeless for about five years now, caught between living with his brother in section 8 housing, and living in homeless camps in Federal Way, sometimes with his physically disabled cousin.
“He’s got [multiple sclerosis] right now and he can’t really walk,” Berto said.
He used to live with his girlfriend, but he said she was physically abusive and getting more involved in drugs so he decided he didn’t want to be around her anymore.
The first time he left, he bought a six-person tent to live in. Later on he bought a 12-person tent.
Sometimes homelessness was his choice, he said.
For a long time, Berto struggled with a methamphetamine addiction after being introduced to it by his former abusive partner. He’s still coping with it, trying to go from using every day to now only twice a week.
It’s a work in progress, but he’s willing to put in the work.
Because Berto has four children, he told the Mirror. And he wants to do whatever he has to so he can see them again. Fighting addiction is an uphill battle, though, and not one Berto has always been able to resist.
“It makes you feel like you can’t accomplish anything,” Berto said of meth.
And despite his current situation, there is a lot Berto wants to accomplish. He has goals of finishing nursing school and starting his own landscaping company.
To help him work towards that, Berto’s working with Day Center staff to get into affordable housing, which he’s hoping to get approved for soon. He’s also taking odd jobs wherever he can to make some extra money.
Even homeless and struggling with addiction, Berto said he never understood why people would stoop to theft.
“Just work at it, don’t take it,” he said.
It’s harder for him to get a full-time job without a phone though, so he looks for smaller jobs like cooking for people or cleaning cars.
“I want to work for money.”
Despite his eagerness to earn money and try to pick himself up, Berto said it’s difficult to see people looking down on him when they find out he’s homeless.
“I just fell for a minute.”
His status as a homeless person isn’t the only reason Berto finds it hard to work.
Not too long ago, he was the victim of a violent robbery and ended up getting shot in both his left hand and left kneecap. He walks with a slight limp and lost the ability to use two of the fingers on his left hand.
“Someone tried to take my life over some gum, some money. Money ain’t worth life,” said Berto, who smokes marijuana regularly to help him with the pain.
Berto said he is very thankful for the work the Day Center does, and he’s seen several of his friends get into permanent housing because of the help they get at the center. He thinks the Day Center helps reduce criminal activity as well.
“While they’re here they’re not out doing crime,” he said.
If the Day Center lost their funding, Berto said he thinks the homeless population in Federal Way would skyrocket.
“The [Day Center] is awesome,” he said. “Everybody loves it.”
Living in the camps is another story altogether.
Berto said one of the hardest things he has seen inside the camps is mothers shooting up heroin in front of their kids.
“That’s the bad part I don’t like.”
The worst part of living inside the camps, in his experience, is how some police officers treat them.
“Cops have personal problems and they take it out on us,” he said.
Berto described how he’s witnessed officers come into the camps, cut up tents, and trash the inhabitants’ belongings.
“There’s a lack of respect,” he said. “Big time.”
He recalled one instance of an officer allegedly tasing his friend. After witnessing it, Berto said he was upset and told the officer to send him to jail too. While en-route to SCORE, Berto said he was concerned his friend might need medical attention after having multiple seizures.
Berto said before he became homeless, he didn’t realize police officers allegedly acted like that.
“We’re sick of cops,” he said, though he noted he respects Federal Way Chief of Police Andy Hwang who treats the homeless with compassion.
Berto said the reason the camp areas look destroyed after inhabitants leave is because of how the officers allegedly treat them when they trespass them from the property.
“If they were nicer to us, every time we move we’d make sure it’s spic and span,” he said. “We’re leaving the garbage for the cops.”
In the Mirror’s first installment of this series, Federal Way police Commander Kurt Schwan responded to similar accusations, saying officers make every effort to honor the rights of property owners and be compassionate and helpful towards those who live in the homeless camps.
“Our officers do not damage items located at the encampments. They simply enforce the rights of the property owners and attempt to provide assistance and resource information, from our numerous community partners, to the homeless they contact in the encampments,” Schwan said.
Schwan told the Mirror in an email that some homeless people have told Special Operation Unit officers about other homeless people damaging tents and belongings, however he said homeless people reporting these incidents were rare occurences.
Hwang agreed that officers simply do not treat homeless people’s belongings in that violent a manner.
“There’s an enforcement piece, but we obviously want to be very compassionate,” Hwang said.
Berto said one obstacle keeping him from finding permanent housing is the increasing housing costs. Here, like in Seattle, rent prices seem to keep going up.
According to the September 2017 Federal Way Rent Report released by Apartment List, Inc., rent prices increased 7.3 percent in Federal Way since August 2016. According to the report, renters on average paid $1,360 per month in 2017. That cost has continued to rise and is currently around $1,500, according to RentCafe. Seattle renters on average pay approximately $2,000 per month.
The number of people experiencing homelessness in the area also shows no signs of stopping. King County’s annual count in January 2018 found 12,112 people experiencing homelessness in King County, up 4 percent from 2017’s tally of 11,643.
Like King County, Seattle also has a large homeless population. However, some similarly-sized cities are finding ways to combat rising homeless numbers.
According to GeekWire, Seattle had over 12,000 people experiencing homelessness with 52 percent without shelter.
Columbus, Ohio has a similar population to Seattle, 800,000 to Seattle’s 700,000, but their homeless population is significantly less. During the region count, Columbus had a homeless population of 1,807 with 16 percent living without shelter of some kind.
Columbus also only spends about $31 million on homelessness, whereas Seattle spent $68 million in 2017.
The report also addressed what cities like Columbus were doing that Seattle wasn’t. One of the findings was cities had more success in reducing their homeless population if they used a housing first approach, according to the report.
Federal Way may be heading towards this type of approach.
The council unanimously voted on Feb. 19 to enter into an interlocal agreement with King County Housing and Homeless Partners to help ease the homelessness crisis.
Community services manager Jeff Watson presented the council with information about the agreement, stemming from a Dec. 4, 2018 council vote to use $26,000 per year in 2019 and 2020 to participate in the initiative.
The purpose, according to Watson, is to enhance the ability of involved cities to meet housing and homeless needs in South King County. The agreement would also ensure there is housing available at all income levels, Watson said.
“It’s creating new staff capacity and ultimately a new capital fund to develop a range of strategies to develop new housing and preserve existing housing,” he said.
Currently Federal Way is one of 10 initial partners including Auburn, Renton, Normandy Park, Covington and Des Moines.
Staff for the agreement include a program manager and housing specialist along with an administering agency.
Needing a job, help and forgiveness
Finding affordable housing is only one step of the journey for people like Berto experiencing homelessness. He still needs to find a secure job.
“I’ll do anything. I want to go to school to be a nurse though,” he said. “I like to help people.”
And homeless or not, Berto said that everyone needs help sometimes.
“Some people just need a push in the door.”
They also need forgiveness. He holds up a gold crucifix pendant that he wears on a chain necklace.
“I’ll be in a bind or something, He’ll come through,” Berto said. “As long as I show him I love him and I’m trying.”
He said sometimes it feels like both God and the devil have a hold of him and they’re playing tug-of-war. But he isn’t worried; he knows God will win in the end, he said.
As for his homeless situation, Berto said he is excited to get some positive news about permanent housng soon. The Day Center is helping him get back on Supplemental Security Income so he’ll be able to acquire housing.
“And then I’ll have a place, I can start over.”
Read the first story in the Mirror’s “Humanizing Homelessness” series here.