Dozens of unsheltered people found warmth and protection from the late December snowfall through a new partnership between the City of Federal Way and FUSION.
Starting on Dec. 26, several inches of snow coated the Puget Sound region. Coupled with freezing temperatures, the snow and ice meant quick solutions were needed to help vulnerable Federal Way community members.
The city partnered with FUSION to secure additional beds for families at the Pete Andersen FUSION Family Center, the only emergency shelter available in Federal Way for families. FUSION’s human services network connections were utilized to provide rooms for single adults or adult couples needing shelter at two hotels in Federal Way and Kent.
“We are at a place where, knock on wood, we have yet to turn anyone away,” said Dorsol Plants, program manager for FUSION who works at the Pete Andersen FUSION Family Center, on Dec. 30.
As of Jan. 4, FUSION helped house 34 people total including four families and 21 individuals in the shelter options, Plants recorded. Several nearby cities supported one another during the snowstorm and did the best they could not to have unhoused families or individuals leave their community to get out of the weather, he added.
In previous years, the city has worked with organizations such as Catholic Community Services to provide congregate, emergency overnight shelters at the city’s Day Center or local churches.
With COVID-19 infections spiking and staffing shortages among human services organizations, Federal Way needed a new option.
“The city understood that and FUSION stepped up to the plate, and said ‘let’s talk and see what we can figure out,’” said Sarah Bridgeford, community services manager for the City of Federal Way. “Without them, this wouldn’t be possible.”
This year’s model allows for the same amount of shelter capacity the city offered in 2020, Bridgeford said, although the numbers of people seeking shelter are higher than the past two years.
FUSION will provide emergency severe weather shelter for the city when needed through the end of 2022 with a plan to return to congregate shelter with staffing by the nonprofit, Bridgeford said. The continued relationship allows for adjustments to prepare for the next weather spell and “make it a smoother process in general,” she said.
The city will also plan for a future hotel option as a backup and in case overflow is needed, she added.
“Because we pivoted the plan so closely to the severe weather event, we hadn’t planned for hoteling,” Bridgeford said of the December snowstorm. “FUSION did the hard work of developing relationships with hotels using some contacts from other providers to make sure there was an option for getting people inside during the freezing weather.”
Dorsol Plants and FUSION Executive Director David Harrison personally provided transportation to some people who were referred to FUSION’s shelter options. These car rides created a space to ask their passengers how they ended up without shelter, learn about their backgrounds and ask what their goals are.
Grocery store gift cards were provided to those staying at the shelter and hotels, and Federal Way City Councilmember Jack Walsh delivered a minivan full of fresh food from the Federal Way Senior Center Food Bank. Several FUSION Family Center workers brought a suitcase and stayed at work for five or six nights, for multiple shifts, Harrison added.
“It’s been a great outpouring of community support from all over the place to make sure people were not sleeping outside, that they were warm and dry, and had something to eat,” Harrison said.
Plants, who has worked in the human services field since 2007, said this severe weather event was an opportunity to treat people right — especially those who may have been harmed by or have not felt comfortable with service providers in the past.
“There’s a real opportunity to show the ‘human’ part of human services,” he said. Some people in the shelters are high-need, and most are struggling with their mental health, he said. It can be hard to keep the human side when moments turn negative, but this is when it matters most, he said.
On Christmas night, Plants was setting up cots and preparing the family center’s lobby for shelter guests to arrive the next day. Several families already staying at the family center came downstairs to find out what was going on and immediately asked how they could help, he said.
Throughout the week transporting people to the shelters, Plants met a man who had lived without shelter in the Federal Way area for approximately 20 years.
“He has a wealth of knowledge. He sees himself as a citizen, he just doesn’t have an address,” Plants said.
As cots were being filled one freezing night in late December, the man was one of the last people to come inside. The man wanted to make sure the people he knew didn’t sleep on the street if he didn’t have to, Plants said.
“When I say the community came together,” Plants said, “that includes the unhoused members too, who we forget can contribute just as much.”