Roegner: Fear not, open homeless meetings

The national homeless crisis has been on Federal Way’s doorstep for at least four years.

But there does not appear to be consensus in the community or among members of the new homeless committee, appointed by Mayor Jim Ferrell, about what the problem is and how to solve it.

You may have read the letter to the editor April 27 from my good friend Matthew Jarvis, who holds very strong convictions about the problem that is contrary to mine. My view is that homelessness is a multi-faceted problem requiring a multi-faceted solution rather than the “run them out of town” approach we have seen from City Hall the past few years. My hope is that the committee will design a new approach and help those who need and want help, starting with putting a roof over their heads.

Jarvis’s view is justifiably different, as it has been shaped by the negative impact on his business and therefore his family. The neighborhood where Jarvis has his financial business contains the Day Center for homeless adults, along with the Multi-Service Center, which also serves those in need. In an odd twist of city planning, it also contains a children’s day care center.

At one time, Jarvis felt the Day Center was put near him in retaliation for his “If I were Czar” column he wrote for the Mirror that was frequently critical of Ferrell. His support for Ferrell’s conservative police tactics may be one of the few times he has agreed with the mayor. The homeless gravitating to places near these businesses was a predictable outcome of Ferrell’s approach to closing their encampments that were located on either public or private property. There was no other place for them to go.

Jarvis and his neighbors have had several bad experiences with the homeless and feel it has hurt their business.

Several weeks ago, the Greater Federal Way Chamber of Commerce convened a meeting between the businesses and the city to try and sort through some of the issues. Emotions on how to handle the homeless challenge run from compassion to anger.

It is not an easy problem to correct, as many homeless individuals with ties to Federal Way are in desperate need of a place to live, a job, food and social services. Some may be in the situation through no fault of their own, while others may not want any help. But one of the most important ingredients to the recipe for a solution is open dialog that provides a mechanism for education and growth on both sides – factual discussion of the issues, not preconceived emotional anecdotes.

The sharing of ideas and concepts with the broadest possible audience can educate the community at large, not just the 30 people on the committee. Right now, the process does not include the public – the most important ingredient of all.

Ferrell says he wanted the new committee meetings to be closed to do their work. That lack of transparency is troubling for such an impactful issue, and not all committee members agree with Ferrell.

The new committee appointed by Ferrell includes several professionals who have knowledge of the problems and some ideas on how the community should react. Some believe there is significant educational value in an open dialog that the Mirror newspaper could write about and the public could learn from.

Most adults have kids, jobs and responsibilities and likely wouldn’t attend or even take time to read the minutes of the meeting. But they might read the local newspaper or learn from a neighbor who attended a meeting. They could learn about differences of opinion among knowledgeable professionals in the social welfare, public safety and legal arenas. Social welfare professionals tend to want to provide services, while public safety professionals may view that position as enabling. But the debate is worth having, hearing and reading about, even though some may be hesitant.

But there are two other possible reasons for excluding the press and the public.

Some committee members have said that emotions from some residents are so strong against the homeless that they fear disruption, intimidation, or worse, possible physical harm to some of the committee members if the public is allowed to attend. We hope that is an overreaction. But it is also easily remedied.

The committee includes the deputy police chief, who should be able to handle any situation, or if needed assign an officer to attend. There is also no need at this time for community testimony. The public could attend, listen and learn.

There will be time for testimony later in the process. The committee could even invite a Mirror reporter to go on some of the visits to other cities, which would again add to reader and resident knowledge.

The other theory behind the closed meetings is that City Hall, Ferrell or others might want to continue the current “homelessness is a crime” approach and do little or nothing, thus using the committee for political cover. Fear of disruption, intimidation or violence to committee members in pursuit of good public policy should not be used to avoid the opportunity and responsibility to make a difference.

Will the committee choose to make the community in which we all live better and safer for all concerned? That includes residents, businesses and those who are homeless. They should use all the assets at their disposal, and that includes educating the public they are trying to serve. Open the meetings.

Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn and retired public official. He can be reached at bjroegner@comcast.net.

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