The city of Federal Way is facing backlash again for allegedly sending local homeless people out of the city.
In the most recent instance, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan called out Federal Way for spending $1,000 on bus passes to send their homeless to the metropolitan city for shelter during the recent snowstorm.
During a video press conference on Monday, Durkan said Seattle put a lot of effort into opening shelters to help bring people inside during the storm. However, she said not all nearby cities were either able or willing to do the same.
“For example, there was one local city whose response to the snow was to authorize $1,000 in bus tickets to Seattle because they knew we have shelters,” she said. “We can’t have that. We need a regional response.”
When asked which city she was referring to, the Seattle mayor responded, “Federal Way.”
However, Federal Way Mayor Jim Ferrell vehemently denies Durkan’s claims.
“I would not purposefully bus our people up to Seattle — I just wouldn’t do that,” Ferrell said he told Durkan during a phone conversation on Monday following the press conference.
Council member Mark Koppang also defended the city, lambasting Durkan’s comments as “petty.”
“There was no flood of homeless from Federal Way overwhelming their shelters nor was there a sustained and deliberate attempt to permanently relocate the Federal Way homeless to Seattle,” Koppang said in an email to the Mirror on Tuesday.
He challenged the Seattle mayor to “rise above the impulse for political grandstanding and airing of petty grievances after a time of crisis and be the city and regional leader she was elected to be by the citizen of Seattle.”
Council member Martin Moore agreed that Durkan’s comments were allegedly unfounded.
Moore reminded Durkan that Seattle does benefit from Federal Way constituents’ tax dollars since Federal Way is part of King County.
“Seattle has continued to throw millions of valuable taxpayer dollars at unsuccessful policies that fail to address the root issues of homelessness,” Moore said in an email.
He also said he found it ironic the Seattle mayor, who has spoken against building a border wall, “seems to be creating her own wall.”
Moore said Durkan should be as open to helping her regional neighbors as she is to helping those outside the U.S.
“Instead of building a wall around Seattle, and unwillingly providing temporary services to the homeless from around our shared county, I invite her to be an active partner to South King County,” he said.
Despite this, Moore said Federal Way and Seattle have a working relationship and they share resources regardless of what city those resources are located in.
Durkan did not respond to the Mirror’s requests for comment.
Ferrell believes the incident was a misunderstanding over a Feb. 8 post on his Facebook page that contained misinformation due to a staff error.
The post states: “I’ve also authorized up to $1,000 in emergency spending on bus passes to get people to a shelter in Seattle, the only place in King County that has guaranteed not to turn anyone away.”
Ferrell also noted in the post that Reach Out continued to provide shelter in Federal Way for single men and women and had been operating at capacity.
“Durkan probably saw that post and had some strong feelings about it,” Ferrell said on Tuesday. He continued, “I’m sure if Mayor Durkan had that moment over, she probably wouldn’t have done it in that way.”
Ferrell said he initially authorized the city to spend $1,000 on ORCA bus cards on Feb. 8.
“So the snow’s coming down really hard and we don’t have the criteria to open up the community center,” Ferrell said of what prompted him to authorize his staff to purchase the bus cards. He later authorized his staff to spend up to $2,000 on bus cards, if there was a need to do so.
The city spent $918 in total on 48 ORCA cards, which were given to police officers on the street to hand out to those who needed transportation services, he said. Officers ended up handing out 12 cards.
Ferrell noted that he did not provide any directive to officers to tell homeless individuals where to go to seek shelter.
“I also heard that the only shelter that still had capacity was in Seattle,” Ferrell added. “But the purpose of the bus passes was to provide people humanitarian help to go wherever they wanted to go.”
However, Federal Way’s two homeless shelters were apparently not full during the storm.
In a Feb. 11 email, a volunteer with the Reach Out organization, which operates overnight shelters for men and women in Federal Way, expressed concerns about the bus passes to the city’s senior police advisor Yarden Weidenfeld. The volunteer said their “numbers were down” in both shelters.
Weidenfeld explained the need for the bus passes, and noted in the email that “Seattle was included on the list since it was the only city in King County guaranteed to not turn away anyone in need.”
Deputy Mayor Susan Honda also said that the mayor told her the city was purchasing the bus passes for the homeless, and that “Seattle had shelter beds.”
Sending homeless to Burien
The city also faced criticism last December for trying to send local homeless mothers and children seeking emergency shelter out of the city. The city had aimed to allocate the $100,000 that lawmakers secured from a state grant to house the city’s homeless at the Mary’s Place shelter in Burien. Lawmakers and a local nonprofit had criticized the city for not approaching most of the local human service providers to consider them about providing shelter for homeless mothers in children right here in Federal Way.
However, city staff said they selected Mary’s Place because they had emergency shelter services that were available immediately.
“I’m very exasperated with the money that was provided to us to provide shelter for homeless mothers and children — not a penny of it has been spent in the worst snow event in February since 1910. That’s disappointing,” Ferrell said on Tuesday, noting the council is still “wrangling” over how to spend that money. He continued that the council “opted not to spend it when it was cold and now you want to work on something long-term. You had the opportunity to help people and we didn’t, so now it’s a different conversation.”
Ferrell said the backlash the city has received over the appearance of sending their homeless to other cities “plays an unfortunate narrative.”
“The people of Federal Way should not have the impression that we are trying to move people out,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is help people the best we can with the resources that we have and we’ll do so with integrity and transparency.”
Improving city’s snow response
The Federal Way mayor said this incident over Durkan’s claims is “an indication of greater coordination that’s needed in Federal Way” when it comes to the city’s response to helping the homeless during inclement weather.
In previous years, New Hope Church in Federal Way had offered emergency shelter to the homeless, however the city could not contract with them this year.
“When the snow starts falling we need to be in a position where we can direct people concretely to a site and work with other places,” Ferrell said. “We need a reliable place to go when there’s a true emergency.”
He noted he is convening some churches and nonprofit groups later this month to discuss this issue. He is also committed to having a shelter option in place by next winter.
Council member Mark Koppang agreed.
“The latest snow episode put a strain on city, county and state resources,” Koppang said in an email. “While there were many heroic efforts by the Federal Way citizens and staff to address the needs that arose during this crisis, it became clear to me the city of Federal Way didn’t have all of the available resources readily available to address the human services needs brought on by this last snow event.”
He said while he was not consulted on purchasing the bus cards, he applauds the mayor and city staff for acknowledging the city’s “human service deficit and providing an alternative for those in need. With no available beds at the overnight shelters located in the city, providing a way for those interested in overnight shelter to get to a shelter outside of Federal Way made sense to me. This was not ideal, nor is it preferable to having a shelter in our city, but it was the best option under the circumstances.”
Looking ahead to the next snow event, Koppang said using city buildings for short-term emergency use is worth consideration.
“Having cots and blankets for use in our community center gym would have closed the service gap temporarily and is an option worthy of consideration,” he added.
Deputy Mayor Honda said she has discussed the city’s response to inclement weather with the mayor every time the weather becomes dangerously hot or cold. She has suggested numerous options, including opening the Federal Way Community Center for temporary shelter or keeping the Federal Way Day Center open 24 hours a day until a snow event passes.
“Well none of those happened,” Honda said in an email.
She agrees that the city needs to do better.
Honda will be discussing this issue with the Parks and Recreation, Human Services and Public Safety Committee at their next meeting.
“I believe that we are not able to provide emergency shelter now but we absolutely must in the future. We have had this discussion before,” she added. “We need to know that when the next weather event happens we can provide shelter for anyone who needs it.”