Homelessness continues to be a major political challenge in Federal Way.
According to an article in the Mirror, TOTE Maritime Alaska and its 150 employees became the third business to leave town in the past year due to transient or homeless activity, pointing in part at the city’s inability to solve homelessness. As with any move, there is rarely just one reason and TOTE’s move to Tacoma may actually fit their needs better than Federal Way. But the fact that TOTE, and others, have spoken openly about the homeless challenge should make the city re-evaluate its current policy.
For the last several years, Mayor Jim Ferrell’s policy has been to try and close as many homeless camps as possible in hope the homeless will leave town.
Police show up at encampments on public property and order the homeless to vacate the property in 72 hours. They give the homeless a list of services that most can’t get to, and hope all are intimidated enough to leave the location.
If the encampment is on private property, the city contacts the property owner and requires them to clear the property, which can be expensive for the property owner.
After six years, it is clear Ferrell’s strategy of criminalizing homelessness is not working. They don’t leave Federal Way; they simply move their encampment to another location in town, which is then visited by police and the process starts all over again.
Ferrell has said he does not want Federal Way to become Seattle, which he seems to view as an insult. But Seattle is booming with new and expanding business. And for the homeless who want assistance, Seattle City government actually provides shelter and tries to help them rebuild their lives.
What would have happened six years ago if Ferrell had used city money to provide tents for shelter, or supported more shelters? What would have happened if he partnered with the nonprofit social service agencies to provide sleeping bags, food and help the homeless get assistance, and start moving them to training or a job, rather than moving them from one part of the city to another?
We might have reduced the homeless population and we might still have three businesses providing jobs and contributing to the city’s tax base. Earlier this week, Ferrell rightfully made a big show of Davita joining Federal Way. That’s good news. And politically it is good timing and helps divert attention from TOTE and other businesses that may want to follow them, from the real problem of homelessness.
In a recent letter to the editor, one couple who owned land in Federal Way shared their plight of working with the city when they proposed providing tiny houses a few years ago on their land to give the homeless a roof over their head while they started to get back on their feet. This approach has been met with success elsewhere. They blamed Ferrell and his Homeless Committee co-chair, Sharry Edwards, for opposing the idea. They didn’t want any money from the city, and the details needed some work, but with city support the proposal could have been workable.
It would have been a start, and with the support of the social service agencies, may have put us in a better position than we are now. It may be time for the City Council, who are the ones who set city policy, to step up and lead. Ferrell doesn’t think the homeless are city government’s responsibility, and he rarely admits error.
But we still have homeless and three businesses have left. Ferrell is more likely to dig in his heals and become more aggressive in trying to run the homeless out of town, rather than admit his plan is not working and a new approach is long overdue.
Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.