Federal Way mayor punts homeless to churches, nonprofits

Our homeless need 120-150 nights of shelter, not 12-15, and they shouldn’t have to look forward to another winter without government providing them shelter.

Bob Roegner

Bob Roegner

On March 27 I attended a regional breakfast meeting at Valley Cities in Auburn arriving at 6:45 a.m. I noticed about a dozen people with sleeping bags crossing the street leaving the overnight homeless shelter. The temperature was cool, and I wouldn’t have wanted to have slept outside. My thoughts reflected what professionals in the social service world have said, “Federal Way needs additional year-round shelter beds for the homeless.”

I was scheduled to attend a noon meeting the same day at Federal Way City Hall for churches and nonprofit organizations called by Mayor Jim Ferrell to talk about the snow, and the city’s shelter needs. Ferrell has appointed two groups to study the problem of homelessness, but after the press release and photo-op, he has consistently avoided taking responsibility for providing the budget to help with solutions. I feared it would be more of the same at the noon meeting.

Even though it is cold here from October through March, and with all that talent in the room, Ferrell’s goal for a shelter was for only a temporary severe weather location for 12-15 nights each winter. He gave the churches and nonprofits a questionnaire that asked them for money, equipment, food, and volunteers, along with taking turns providing overnight shelter for those limited days.

Most of the churches don’t have big budgets and some already rotate as shelter hosts. The nonprofits have to rely on government funding, grants and community fund raising to survive.

Ferrell offered nothing on behalf of the city, other than to co-ordinate which nights the churches would provide shelter. Although he did mention that at a council committee meeting the night before the council had recommended a small amount, $15,000, to help. While only a point in time reference, according to Count Us In, and a member of Ferrell’s homeless committee, Federal Way had 106 homeless in 2017 and 176 in 2018. The school district estimates the homeless population among students is 699 all of whom qualify for free or reduced meals. Many students and their families rotate between the homes of friends and relatives. This suggests the need for more year-round, or at least October-March, shelters.

A participant asked, “What would it take to open the Community Center during the winter after regular business hours?” That question has been asked several times by community and council members. The answer is, the council can direct it through a policy change, but would need a contract for a staffing source. Catholic Community Services, FUSION, and the Multi-Service Center could probably provide that option.

But Ferrell was not interested in any discussion about options. He wants minimal city government involvement and cost. The current community center plan requires a “displacement event,” such as extreme weather, along with a power outage to activate the Red Cross and use the Community Center. The center would continue to be used only as a day-time warming location. Ferrell saw the city role as convening the meeting and being a clearing house for the churches and nonprofits to actually do the work and spend their time and money.

The council had previously allocated a small amount of money in this year’s budget to help, although it was over Ferrell’s objections.

Ferrell has opposed any expenditure from the general fund to support the homeless and has used pass through block grant funding of approximately $300,000 for the nonprofits. The city of Auburn which has a smaller population, spends more money on the homeless, including a year-round shelter, than Federal Way, from both its general fund and block grant allocation.

FUSION recently purchased a building to be used as a shelter and applied for the money our state legislators obtained for our homeless. It was approved by the council and in an ironic twist, will be used to help get through the city permit process. FUSION also asked for money for staffing the new shelter, but that was not approved. Insiders say Ferrell is still unhappy with FUSION over criticism he received when he tried to send our homeless to Burien.

As the meeting adjourned, some participants were pleased to try and help out. Others who struggle with homeless clients daily were very disappointed with the lack of support for use of the community center and pushing the problem on to the churches and nonprofits. Ferrell suggested the group meet again in August to make sure the 12-15 nights are covered by the churches in preparation for winter.

This is Ferrell’s sixth year as mayor and we still don’t have a city-sponsored shelter. There have been two committees appointed by Ferrell, but neither received city general fund financial support and still no shelter. Insiders say Ferrell will never support using general fund money for a shelter or to assist the homeless. In a follow-up story in the Mirror, Ferrell confirmed that position.

According to documents from a former city staff member, only a small number are homeless due to drug use, while most have low wages, lost a job, have had medical challenges or are victims of domestic violence.

And according to the draft city report, one person from Federal Way dies every month from sleeping outside. As we approach Easter, our city leaders should be mending broken spirits and working to improve the lives of those less fortunate. Our homeless need 120-150 nights of shelter, not 12-15, and they shouldn’t have to look forward to a seventh or eighth winter without their city government providing them a city-sponsored shelter.

Several days later I attended the ground breaking for the grand staircase next to the Performing Arts and Event Center. The city says the $3 million for the staircase can’t be used for the homeless, but I was struck by the sense of misplaced priorities. A $30 million dollar PAEC we have taken loans to pay off, and a $3 million staircase? Yet we have residents sleeping outside in the winter.

Have a wonderful Easter, but give some thought to the adults and children who won’t have an Easter egg hunt, or a place to live, and what’s wrong with that picture?

Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn. Contact bjroegner@comcast.net.

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