Looking to the front desk for access, a woman gets buzzed into the Federal Way Day Center after confirming her identity with the last four numbers of her Social Security number. The room is filled with people relaxing on colorful chairs, starting a load of laundry, or pouring themselves a bowl of cereal. Potted plants rest on the counter and a little blonde girl plays peekaboo with her mom through the door of a day-use locker.
The Day Center, 33505 13th Pl. S., has been the center of heated conversations among city leaders over the past two weeks. A fire on the sidewalk, a woman living outside on a neighboring property and concerns from nearby businesses about property crimes have brought the unassuming building front and center.
Other community concerns about the Day Center are related to the amount of trash near the center as well as who is using the services.
Mayor Jim Ferrell said that business owners nearby are “incredibly frustrated with regard to the trash and the vandalism and the broken windows.”
“This has been an ongoing situation at this location where we get complaints or concerns … whether it’s people smoking drugs right outside the Joe’s Deli or people defecating on the sidewalk in front of people’s businesses or garbage up and down 13th, this has been ongoing,” Ferrell said.
Late on the evening of Sept. 2, the Police Chief Andy Hwang and several members of the city leadership received a video of people congregating around a small fire on the sidewalk next to the Day Center.
Chief Hwang spoke about the incident at the Federal Way City Council meeting that followed, saying that he sent officers over to respond to what the sender framed as a “life safety issue.”
Chief Hwang said that “when the Lieutenant arrived on scene the fire had already been put out. There were Day Center staff on site who had responded prior to the officer and put out the fire. At that time the officer asked the Day Center staff if they wanted the people removed or trespassed from the property. They declined and said that it was okay for them to be on the property.”
A few days after the council meeting, The Mirror spoke with Lady Siufanua, the division director of South King County Shelter and Day Center programs.
Siufanua arrived to the Day Center right away on the 2nd when she heard about the fire. She said she spoke to several people who had been around the fire. They said they had been told to move along already once that night in another part of the city and were directed by police to go to the Day Center. The chief and mayor both stated later that police do not direct people to the Day Center outside of operating hours.
The fire itself was described by multiple witnesses as being lit in a fire pit of some kind, and folks had sand and water nearby for safety. They were grilling meat for someone’s birthday and put it out immediately when asked by the Day Center staff.
The sidewalk is not a legal place to have a fire and the Stage 1 Burn Ban that was in effect at the time meant that they had to be at least 10 feet away from any vegetation.
Siufanua said she remembers that one of the gentlemen near the extinguished fire sat down on the ground and began to cry. When police arrived and asked if Day Center staff would like to trespass the people there, she told The Mirror that “the gentleman who was on the ground said, ‘they’re gonna have to take me … I can’t move anymore.’”
Siufanua said that they didn’t ask people to leave because it was already so late at night by that point. She said that she told the officers that “We don’t have a place to tell them to go right in good conscience. I couldn’t tell people to go somewhere and I had no options for them. It’s late.” She added that “We don’t allow folks to just hang out.”
With the fire out and the Day Center staff not requesting any further aid, the police left the property for the night.
Division Director Siufanua said that many people at the Day Center were upset and hurt by how they were being discussed at the council meeting on Sept. 5. One woman wrote in a letter addressed To Whom it May Concern:
“Not all homeless are drug addicts, mental patients or families with minor children that use the Day Center. Your wanting to penalize the majority trying to get a helping hand up to be sustainable and back on our feet. Not all come from other cities.”
She went on to write that she moved to Federal Way over 50 years ago and listed the schools she attended in town. She said she raised her family here and that she and her daughter became homeless only six months after a work injury made her daughter lose her warehouse job. She is struggling to make a career change and hasn’t been able to find work since. The author said she gets social security, but it doesn’t allow her to even get a studio apartment.
At the city council meeting, Ken Blevens, a 51-year resident of Federal Way expressed an opinion about the Day Center, saying that “I do want to definitely make sure that people are aware and it’s acknowledged that the Day Center is what’s bringing people here … Federal Way does not have people that get homeless because they can’t afford things.”
He stated that in his opinion, “There’s very few people actually from Federal Way that are on drugs … the problem is that the Day Center draws people from all over the country to our city and it’s affecting our city. It’s affecting business owners, it’s affecting everybody that’s on the street, our children that have to see the drugs out in public.”
This common narrative about homeless people not being members of the community is false when it comes to the Day Center.
Division Director Siufanua shared that in a recent assessment out of the “45 folks who consistently come more than nine times a month, 41 of those folks are identified as being Federal Way folks.”
“We have folks who are absolutely connected to this community…they’re really just kind of struggling financially, the cost of living is really high. There are a bunch of reasons why people end up without a place to live.”
One woman recently got ready for her 30th high school reunion at the Day Center.
These numbers are self-identified and Lady Sifuania acknowledged that when someone does not have property or a home, the definition of where someone is “from” can have different meanings. Even from casual conversations with and between Day Center users, she hears consistently from people who have spent much of their lives in this city.
The letter writer also shared that “I have talked with many other clients here that grew up here and also went to local schools. I’ve even spoke with classmates I had growing up here who have used the services too.”
Mayor Ferrell said that it’s important to remember when discussing these issues that “these are human beings. They’re people’s sons and daughters and brothers and sisters…I’m fortunate that I don’t have anybody in crisis right now in my family, but I would hope that there would be a resource if I had somebody that was in my family or was a close friend.”
At this point, Mayor Ferrell said that “Good fences make great neighbors … what that means is that if you clearly set up expectations and set up boundaries, whether it’s a physical boundary or or a clear boundary about what’s acceptable, you’re going to have much better neighbors and better relationships.”
Siufanua shared what those boundaries look like at the Day Center, saying that they frequently have “announced to folks that if they are on the property, camping, or after hours, we will put a pause on service … because we have to be good neighbors. That’s the term that we use. We have to be good neighbors. We’re not allowed to do that.”
Mayor Ferrell said that ultimately “we want people to feel like this community wants them to succeed and to help them.”
The mayor added that, “Sometimes getting access to these services makes all the difference in the world. In getting people out of crisis, getting them a shower, getting them mail service, being able to use a phone, to be able to wash their clothes, all these things contribute to a human being’s dignity. And so I really believe that the Day Center is important.”
One person in the video of the fire is someone known to the community who has lived outside near the Day Center for an extended period of time. She is an older woman who was living in a shelter constructed of umbrellas near the entrance to the Day Center. Chief Hwang shared that one complication is that the property the woman was on is managed by Health Point, but owned by King County. He said that “the Health Point staff told our officers we’re okay with this woman living on our property.”
At the City Council meeting, Mayor Ferrell said that the concern is that the “one-person encampment had actually spawned other people to get onto the sidewalk and that’s clearly in violation of of our city policy and our city or ordinances…that became a police matter to get those folks off the sidewalk and off the right-of-way.”
In an interview with The Mirror a few days later, Mayor Ferrell added that “There are a lot of resources available and I think there are a lot of folks trying to help her and individuals that are, similarly situated…I don’t think setting up a tent out in the public just off the right of way on public property, I don’t think that’s the answer.”
As of Sept. 14, she was expelled from the property after approval from the King County Executive’s Office.
In a message from FWPD Commander Casey Jones about her removal, he shared that “We coordinated with the Mobile Crisis Team for assistance with housing options. The individual refused. More importantly, we also coordinated with an actual County Designated Mental Health Professional (CDMHP) who has the authority to commit someone involuntarily deemed a danger to themselves or others or gravely disabled. The CDMHP says the facts do not support committal at this time.”
Mayor Ferrell shared at the Federal Way City Council meeting on Sept. 19 that the woman is now on the Day Center’s property. Staff there have reached out to her mental health provider and and a culturally relevant resource to continue to try to work with her to get her services and ideally, housed.
Siufanua was familiar with the woman and said that “We’ve offered housing options or shelter options, but she wants to be in the city… she identifies as a native woman and she feels very strongly about the rights to be on the land. And she really is wanting to stay in the community.”
She also went on to say that she was dealing with medical challenges for a while and was in the hospital. At another point she stayed in a shelter in Federal Way.
Multiple council members expressed concern about her well-being. Councilwoman Linda Kochmar said of the woman, “now that one really breaks my heart. She’s obviously mentally ill and she needs help. We can’t move her elsewhere because she will be attacked. She’s already been attacked in the woods.”
Carolyn Hoover is a local resident who said she is familiar with the woman and spoke about her during public comment at the Sept. 5 council meeting. She said that she has been “exactly where she is now under a piece of plastic for almost a year. She was on the sidewalk out in front of the grassy area between the sidewalk and the Day Center.”
Hoover said that she was even there “in the dead of winter when it was 22 degrees. People brought her blankets and different things to try to keep her warm. Police came there, but since she didn’t want to go, they had to leave her there.”
She said that she then moved “to the side of the Day Center and caused a bit of a ruckus because she does have some mental health issues. She got kicked out of there, she also was next to a container, then got sick and went to the hospital and somebody burnt her tent down there.”
Siufanua said that sometimes the issue is that because the Day Center isn’t open on weekends, sometimes if a sweep of an encampment occurs on a Saturday or Sunday, the staff will arrive Monday to a mess in the parking lot as folks who don’t know where to go end up waiting there for the center to open.
The Day Center staff are continuing to ensure that the parking lot stays clean and free of trash. Siufanua said that often clients of the Day Center volunteer to clean up and that they provide materials to help people keep their belongings contained.
The Mayor said in an interview that he thinks that the Day Center has been very receptive and doing everything they can: “They’re great partners and we really appreciate the work they do every day.”