Will council challenge Federal Way mayor on homeless issue?

Closing 27 homeless encampments in less than a year sends a bad message.

Bob Roegner

Bob Roegner

It is getting cold outside and time to question where the homeless will sleep this winter.

Readers will recall that after several years of a “run them out of town” approach, Mayor Jim Ferrell set up a citizens committee to look at the homeless issue in our community and make recommendations to him by mid-December this year. The committee includes social service providers who have a grasp of the needs of the homeless, but they were balanced by committee members whose thoughts are not as charitable toward the homeless. While some citizens are hopeful that solutions will be found, others fear that the committee might become just another photo opportunity for Ferrell that looks good but doesn’t accomplish much. Some residents pointed at the Violence Prevention Committee that appeared to be more of an election ploy for 2017, and received minimal city financial support.

From the beginning there were two major problems with the Homeless Committee. First was its lack of transparency. Ferrell made it advisory so the committee didn’t have to comply with the Open Meetings Act and it also meant that questions from the media, and pesky council members, would be kept at a distance. Ferrell installed political ally Sharry Edwards as the chair. However, her appointment also gave some residents hope that real solutions and real money might be available to implement any recommendations.

The second major problem was that no budget was provided to the committee and its report is to be delivered to Ferrell in mid–December, after the 2019-2020 city budget is set to be approved.

Ferrell finally relented on some transparency by having the committee minutes posted and giving staff reports to City Council committees. According to insiders, Ferrell only allowed that after pressure from several council members. The meetings are still not open to the public and the media. But since the committee is advisory, Ferrell can control the process as he chooses. Despite Edwards’ appointment, it’s still Ferrell’s committee and his key advisor Yarden Wiedenfeld is in the background steering.

Another worry to some observers is that the city has continued to close homeless encampments forcing the homeless to just keep moving to different parts of the city, but never really solving the problem. The mayor’s communication staff person says the city has closed 27 encampments this year, but has not kept track of the actual costs nor what services have been provided to the homeless. The police simply hand out a flyer with information.

Recently the mayor and council — feeling flush with the almost $3 million they think they will have to spend after the city leaves SCORE, the regional jail facility, and hoping to win the utility tax law suit with Lakehaven — were talking about expenditures they could make. Council members noticed that time to approve the budget was getting closer. Council member Hoang Tran inquired as to whether or not Ferrell was planning to set aside some money to implement the recommendations of the Homeless Committee in the 2019 budget. It’s not the first time that question has been raised. To the surprise of few, and the shock of many, Ferrell said no, and felt the city should get state money for the homeless challenge. Given the statewide significance of the homeless problem, that may be possible. However, with the educational fiscal challenges still under debate, state money is not a certainty and they may want cities to handle their own problems. Redmond, Auburn and Olympia among others have stepped up with local money.

Some residents feel Ferrell has never been committed to funding solutions to the homeless challenge, and his answer seemed to support their fears. Recall that the council had made the homeless issue its third-highest priority and Ferrell had tried to outflank them and keep control of the issue by implementing the Homeless Committee as an advisory committee to him.

But the council hasn’t been waiting for Ferrell, they have been working on their own plans. Council members have told Ferrell that they want to see a completed study in November, not December, so they have time to add their ideas to the budget. Insiders say that Ferrell’s original timetable for the study completion was actually spring 2019.

One council idea is to try a pilot project of 30 tiny homes for mothers with children, and those with disabilities, with an estimated cost of $40,000. The housing would be transitional. Another idea is an employment program that would hire the homeless and then help them transition to other jobs. An apprenticeship program that could help many youth, not just homeless youth, has also been discussed.

These are relatively inexpensive options that won’t solve the problem, but would demonstrate commitment. Ferrell and Edwards have never been fans of the tiny home idea, but to truly make an impact the number of units would need to be doubled or tripled. The concept has the advantage of providing a roof, and also puts the homeless in one place, where they can get the social services they need, while also reducing the impact on most businesses and neighborhoods. The council should also consider providing a shuttle to and from the Day Center where many homeless go for food and assistance. The council needs to consider more ideas if they are serious about having an impact on the homeless situation that exceeds a photo op. The money currently being spent on closing homeless camps could be better spent on actually helping the homeless rather then continually pushing them around town.

Ferrell has never deviated from his “if they are on public or private property they need to leave.” But closing 27 homeless encampments in less than a year, while the mayor’s homeless committee is meeting to look for solutions, sends a mixed — but mostly bad — message. The question for residents is: Will the council be able to stand up to Ferrell and actually get new programs in place to help the homeless?

Because every day gets colder.

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

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