Community responds to hotels for the homeless

Council discussion focuses on concerns and plans for two properties in Federal Way. Also: New police officers announced.

The Federal Way City Council’s packed meeting on March 19 brought updates on two hotels in Federal Way that are being transformed into resources to reduce homelessness.

The mayor, city council and community members heard from representatives from organizations involved in the two locations that will become permanent supportive housing. The meeting focused on the property at 1400 S. 320th St. that will be managed by the Urban League through the King County Health Through Housing Initiative. Updates were also shared on a timeline for the former Red Lion property at 1688 S. 348th St.

Representatives from King County and from the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle led a discussion that provided time for council questions and public comment regarding the hotel at 1400 S. 320th St.

Health Through Housing focuses on a “housing first” model that identifies the need to stabilize individuals in safe and supportive housing with low barriers. Individuals living there sign a lease and are tenants of the property.

“We are balancing that these are people’s individual homes — balancing that with the fact that they are in a building that is managed by an organization,” said Kelly Rider, interim director for King County Department of Community and Health Services.

Some concerns that have been brought up repeatedly at city council meetings focus on who the program will help. Will they be people from Federal Way? Will there be any screening if proof of sobriety is not a requirement? What resources will be provided there?

Mario Williams-Sweet is the major initiatives manager for the Housing, Homelessness and Community Development Division (HHCDD). Williams-Sweet addressed the question of where individuals in the housing will come from, and explained that 35% to 65% will be local individuals. This starts with 35% local, then 35% from regional referrals, then an additional 30% that they seek to fill with local individuals, but will fill with regional referrals if necessary.

“What we want to ensure also is that we don’t have vacancies,” he said. In other cities, they have filled this second sector with local referrals and haven’t needed to pull from regional sources to fill housing.

An important factor to remember is that “when we talk about homelessness, the definition of residency is nuanced,” said Sarah Bridgeford, human services manager for Federal Way, at the council meeting. Because people who are homeless by definition do not have a place of residency, “local” is something that will be defined in collaboration between the city and the housing providers like Urban League.

The representatives clarified during discussion at the council meeting that while Health Through Housing focuses on reducing barriers to housing, this doesn’t mean there is no screening process. Individuals will be referred from partner organizations to King County, which could include the Federal Way Police Department, the Day Center, or the Multi-Service Center.

King County will then do an initial screening to see if the individuals fit the population that Health Through Housing is trying to serve. This focuses on people who are at or below 30% of the median income, are chronically homeless (meaning they have been homeless for over a year) and are also mentally or physically disabled. After this initial screening, the Urban League will do a suitability screening to determine if the person will be a good fit for their services at that location.

Community response

During public comment at the council meeting, 23 community members shared passionate arguments for and against the opening of the permanent supportive housing location.

Before they spoke, Councilmember Jack Dovey asked Williams-Sweet why he thinks people oppose the project. He said that the people in the room are divided, and asked, “where do you think the disconnect is in the communication? Sitting here listening to you when you gave your presentation it’s like ‘right on,’ ‘this is great,’ you’re doing everything you can and then on the other hand you hear all the things that could go wrong.”

“I think we move at the speed of trust,” Williams-Sweet said, and that “ultimately continuing to engage, to have these conversations, to get shared education, shared awareness around what this actual resource is,” are all key steps to the process. He added that “I think language is really important,” clarifying that their project is to create “housing and not shelter.”

Councilmember Hoang Tran thanked the representatives for coming “providing this critical service to our community” and shared how this project has a personal connection to him.

“As a former refugee person and homeless person by definition, I am grateful for this service that you provide to the community … as a former refugee and a homeless person I can reassure you that we are no threat to the community or to you,” Tran said.

Local social worker Aaron Walsh shared strong support for the project during public comment.

“It breaks my heart when I encounter people who are ready to make changes, but due to the lack of stable housing, it is sometimes almost impossible to access services,” he said.

He elaborated by asking: “How does one remember to go to appointments when all of one’s belongings are routinely stolen and there is no way of telling the date or time? How does one do the emotional and spiritual work of healing from trauma and pursuing sobriety when you don’t know where your next meal is coming from or where you will sleep that night?”

Juan Luis Juarez Ramos, 17, shared that he opposed the housing program because it is not focused on homeless students.

Lana Bostic, chair of senior advisory commission, said: “We have had an issue with homeless people for years now and real little progress has been made,” and questioned what tangible actions the city council has done to address homelessness, other than banning shopping carts.

“There are solutions in our community and we need to work together to solve this,” Bostic said. “It’s very difficult to see people hard sleeping on the streets and to see so many businesses with plywood on the windows. I believe the Health Through Housing program will provide the resources that people need so that we can improve our community.”

Maju Qureshi has worked at the Multi-Service Center for 10 years and spoke about her experience with a similar permanent supportive housing location in Federal Way. The William J. Wood Veterans House has been open since 2016, serving chronically homeless veterans and their families with 44 units of housing.

“We feel that integrating these residents into the community is really critical for their well-being. We do tend to see a reduction of their use in substances when they are exposed to positive relationships, when they are being accepted by community,” Qureshi said. She provided examples of resident gardening and walking clubs, and their bowling league that won two years in a row at Secoma Lanes.

Others were not supportive of the project.

Jewel Lee shared that she owns the home directly behind this hotel, and that “our number one concern is safety. We’re all here because we care.” She supported mandated treatment for residents of the building.

Through her own experience with how substance use has affected members of her family, she said “handing an addict a set of keys to a home is not going to resolve the issue.”

Jacquelyn Copley said that “it’s not that people are heartless, it’s that they want better, for their community and for these people because they care about them.”

Other comments focused on safety and accountability concerns and advocated for a change in the program so that individuals living there would be required to maintain sobriety.

Other council action

• The city celebrated five new police officers who were sworn in by Mayor Jim Ferrell including Justin McKee, Ella Schlegel, Tiffany Parker, Victor Rodriguez and Alamalealof Tulenkun.

• A senior student named Rosemond Pratt from Decatur High School was awarded the Representative Roger Freeman Award for her winning essay chosen in a contest by the Federal Way Diversity Commission, which oversaw the call for entries and selection of the winner.

• The council approved the first four 2024 City Council Goals presented by City Administrator Brian Davis after removing the fifth. That goal was to “continue to highlight air emissions, noise, safety issues and the upcoming SEA airport master plan public process for airport expansion.” The council agreed the goals merited more discussion at a later time.

• The council approved the 2023 Consolidated Annual Performance and Evaluation Report (CAPER). This report is submitted to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and shared with the Federal Way community overall to provide transparency into how Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds and other resources were spent in the past year.

Photo provided by David Solano of the City of Federal Way
A senior student named Rosemond Pratt from Decatur High School was awarded the Representative Roger Freeman Award for her winning essay chosen in a contest by the Federal Way Diversity Commission.

Photo provided by David Solano of the City of Federal Way A senior student named Rosemond Pratt from Decatur High School was awarded the Representative Roger Freeman Award for her winning essay chosen in a contest by the Federal Way Diversity Commission.