We had planned our Feb. 11 visit to Calvary Lutheran church to serve dinner to the homeless for several weeks. But with snow warnings forecast, and actual snow storms Feb. 8-12, and 14 inches at SeaTac Airport and up to 4 feet at North Bend and Snoqualmie, we were treated to a much broader learning experience than expected.
Mirror editor Carrie Rodriguez, reporter Olivia Sullivan and I were joined by Federal Way Mayor Jim Ferrell as the church converts to an overnight shelter after dark. Due to the snow, Ferrell had to pick me up in his four wheel drive since I live at the bottom of several hills.
The shelter is sponsored by Reach Out, part of Catholic Community Services, and dinner was part of the men staying overnight and is rotated among area churches. Sullivan’s story in last week’s Mirror captured the evening’s warmth, sadness and impact on each of us in an insightful manner. The men were very polite and appreciative to us, and the Reach Out staff and church volunteers were helpful and informative.
The Rock Wood Fired Pizza was kind enough to donate the main course and we all donated the milk, salad, cereal and juice for both dinner and breakfast. Ferrell brought fruit of bananas and oranges.
In political leadership, actions speak much louder than words or photo opportunities. I have expressed my view on several occasions that I thought Ferrell’s policy of appearing to try and run the homeless out of town by closing their encampments, while not providing them an alternate place to sleep at night was an insensitive approach to their plight. I noted in previous columns that his Homeless Committee report was not even due until after the budget would be finalized, and he had opposed the council’s effort to set general fund dollars aside to implement any committee recommendations.
I invited Ferrell to be part of the evening so he could see firsthand what the men’s daily experience was like. And while I know, we who have been raised in the Northwest, do not handle the snow as well as our East Coast brethren, three days of snow storms and freezing temperatures in the days prior to our visit provided an exclamation point to how important shelter is to these residents.
We arrived at the church early and stood in the falling snow with the homeless men. We engaged in discussion and learned more about them. I recognized a couple from Sunday services at Calvary.
The politics of the homeless are not easy. Many Federal Way residents volunteer at shelters or the Day Center, and donate food or money. While others ridicule and blame them for their plight. They are not all drug users, or criminals and most had different life dreams and goals for themselves upon reaching adulthood that didn’t include homelessness.
A job loss, medical condition, or a family member’s medical challenges can easily sap limited financial resources. An apartment can cost $1,300 per month and a recent report said a significant number of the working poor could not come up with $400 if they had to, as many live paycheck to paycheck.
The recent political battle over Ferrell’s wanting to send our homeless to Mary’s Place in Burien was still fresh in our minds as we learned more about the system. The city had opened the Federal Way Community Center as a warming center, but it closed at night because we did not have a “displacement event” with power outages, and the more severe weather was farther east.
Activation of Red Cross assistance was unnecessary, though Ferrell did authorize up to $2,000 from city funds for bus tickets to other areas, including Seattle, if needed. This was based on an inaccurate belief that Seattle was the only place that was guaranteeing people would not be turned away. However, according to Sarah Miller, who is the emergency management coordinator from King County in this area, as the storms continued and the information flow became more current, several places still had room including Calvary church and our neighboring city, Auburn.
The issue also held some political discomfort as Federal Way elected officials had previously accused Seattle of giving their homeless bus tickets to Federal Way because we had better services. That does not appear to be true either.
Most of our homeless are here because they have a relationship to Federal Way. That is one reason the evening had a bigger purpose than just trying to educate Ferrell on how many of his citizens are forced to live. We volunteered as part of the Mirror’s commitment to shining a bright light on the struggles that those without housing and food face each day. This was never intended to be a political photo op for Ferrell, or us, and we purposely did not invade the homeless men’s privacy by using them in the pictures. They are not political props, and this is not how most of them want their lives to be. The only pictures were of us working in the kitchen to prepare dinner.
We appreciated Ferrell’s active participation and his quotes of what he learned was part of our expectation for the newspaper coverage. To repeat my earlier comment: In political leadership, actions count more than words. We have a nice new shiny Performing Arts and Event Center we had to borrow money to build, but we have needed a city-led, and financially supported, overnight shelter since the last big snow storm in 2006 and still don’t have one, which tells us a lot about our government leader’s priorities.
Thus the Mirror focus.
FUSION may finally get us the facility the city should have gotten years ago. And even though we didn’t have a “displacement event,” having a contract with Reach Out or some other organization to provide trained staff for sheltering our homeless overnight in Federal Way in our community center would be a good investment. The Public Works staff did a good job on the roads, and the police were visible in helping people, but more is needed.
This was another learning experience for all of us, including city and county emergency management officials. We hope the memories of the evening and the faces of those Mayor Ferrell met will make a difference when he and the council review 2018 budget close-outs in April.
Think about job training, housing and social service assistance. Because to serve the homeless is about far more than preparing a dinner, it is about saving their lives. That is the lesson we all should learn.
Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.