Federal Way will not transform into the next Seattle, Mayor Jim Ferrell advised the crowd last Thursday evening at the city of Federal Way Neighborhood Connection meeting.
The meeting, held on April 25 at Green Gables Elementary School, covered a range of topics from city crime rates to homeless camp cleanups to the direction of Federal Way’s future.
The Neighborhood Connection meetings are a way to bring city government right to residents’ doorsteps, said the mayor’s Communications Coordinator Tyler Hemstreet.
To a crowd of approximately 50 attendees — including Deputy Mayor Susan Honda, council members Hoang Tran and Martin Moore, Federal Way Public School board member Luckisha Phillips, community members and various city staff — Ferrell explained his take on the “desperate and frightening situation” of being homeless.
“As harsh as this is going to sound, it’s not the responsibility of the government,” Ferrell said. “The responsibility of the government is to run the government. I really feel strongly about this: That it is not our responsibility. People don’t become our responsibility simply because they decide to plop a tent on city property.”
Comfort is the enemy of change, Ferrell said, and the city is taking steps to clean up homeless camps on both private and public property — the exact opposite of what Seattle is doing.
These steps include permitting private property owners to clear brush for a temporary path to reach the camp, or trimming brush back so that it increases visibility; responding to identifications of encampment whereabouts; following up with resource options; and posting notifications at encampments for cleanup timelines.
According to Ferrell, the city has cleaned up “literally dozens” of homeless camps. The city has cleaned up nearly 30 encampments over the last two years; some sites have been cleared multiple times due to encampments returning to some sites, Hemstreet said.
Most of the camps the city has encountered have been abandoned, Ferrell said, adding the city provides packets of information to those they do encounter. The information outlines community resources such as free meal locations, showers, laundry, medical services as well as a plethora of phone numbers and addresses.
While other factors do contribute to homelessness, at the core is drug and alcohol abuse, the mayor said.
People are not homeless because of the state of the economy, Ferrell said, rather “they’ve gotten themselves into a situation, in large part, probably because of mental health, but a lot of it because of … opioid addiction.”
Drug or narcotic offenses have fallen in Federal Way, down 12% from 370 in 2017 to 324 in 2018, according to the Federal Way Police Department data presented at the meeting collected via the FBI National Incident Based Reporting System.
“We can’t allow that to fester. If we allow this to fester without doing something about it, this community will be overtaken,” Ferrell said regarding homeless camps.
He said although the intent is to be compassionate, not prosecuting people for drug activity is not humane at all, adding that if his loved one was experiencing homelessness, he would “be there every day to drag them out of that camp.”
“I have no idea what in the world the leaders of Seattle are up to,” Ferrell said in regards to Seattle’s policy pursuits and their “refusal to prosecute” small amount of drug charges.
“You cannot allow the standards of our community to fall to where this free flow of drug activity and homelessness and camping in the parks that the [King County] Courthouse is allowing … it’s a failure,” Ferrell said.
Crime is the city’s “number one, two, and three priority” and it is the “core responsibility of any government, at any level, to keep you safe,” Ferrell said.
Federal Way’s crime rate citywide has dropped 11%, but robberies throughout the city have increased 38% between 2017 and 2018 data, Federal Way Deputy Chief Kyle Sumpter reported to the crowd.
In 2018, total NIBR crimes documented 8,113 crimes while in 2017, there were reportedly 9,113 crimes recorded in Federal Way.
Although on the decline, the largest category of crimes charged in Federal Way is larceny, theft of personal property, with 3,722 crimes in 2017 and 3,095 in 2018.
A main concern brought up by community members is the increase in obvious shoplifting at local stores such as Lowe’s, Fred Meyer, Rite Aid, and Safeway among others.
“We respond to everything that we are called to,” Ferrell said on behalf of the FWPD.
Ferrell said he is kept in the loop of every major crime committed in Federal Way, but said he hasn’t witnessed mass shoplifting although he frequents stores in the community.
Sumpter noted that years ago, major stores facing shoplifting problems used to hire security guards to control shoplifting.
“More and more and more stores have become afraid, more afraid of stopping somebody than losing their property and they have made policy choices to let the stuff walk out the door,” he said.
While FWPD does respond to shoplifts, the company policies of “let them walk,” often allows thieves to flee before police arrived minutes later, Sumpter said, getting there “way too late to matter.”
It comes down to the willingness of store owners to stand up to the shoplifters, Sumpter said.
“Maybe we need to gather the major retailers and … put some steel in their spine to make sure we’re working together,” Ferrell said, while an attendee pointed out this issue may need to be tackled at the corporate level.
Ferrell agreed, noting it should be the mayor’s responsibility to contact the corporate chains higher up and “that’s what we’ll do.”
The Federal Way that residents have seen and lived in for decades is on the brink of changing forever, Ferrell said, adding that changes to the downtown core will reflect the monetary investments being made.
In 2024, the Sound Transit light rail is expected to reach Federal Way.
Location wise, light rail is set to traverse off South 317th Street and across 320th into the northeast corner of The Commons mall parking lot, taking out the Red Robin and Azteca restaurants that are currently at the site.
“They’re going to be relocating, hopefully, very closely,” Ferrell said.
Properties and businesses in the potential path of Sound Transit, such as the ARCO along South 320th and the Denny’s next door, closed earlier this year.
“That’s because Sound Transit is purchasing these properties,” Ferrell said. “I communicated to [Sound Transit CEO] Peter Rogoff that we cannot, as a community, allow these properties to sit empty for five years while light rail is being constructed …”
There’s been a “great deal of communication” between the city and areas in the path of Sound Transit, Ferrell said.
“ARCO closed sooner than we thought, they cut a deal with Sound Transit and just closed their doors. Actually Sound Transit doesn’t even own Denny’s yet, but they just shut their doors as soon as they came close to a deal,” Ferrell said.
Meeting attendees brought up the uncertain fate of Deseret Industries Thrift Store, located near South 320th Street near Wendy’s.
The “tens of millions of dollars” invested into Federal Way’s downtown — reflected in the Performing Arts and Events Center, Town Square Park and the downtown staircase — have been made for the residents of Federal Way, Ferrell said.
“If you let your downtown die, the rest of the town will,” he said.
As Federal Way builds downtown, these investments must not be indicators of “blight and distress,” such as secondhand stores and pawn shops, Ferrell said.
The city has reached out to Deseret Industries, Ferrell said, and the city is “going to work with them to get them another site, hopefully in Federal Way.”
Another transformation investment Ferrell mentioned is the university initiative, which seeks to bring a joint higher education campus of Highline College and the University of Washington-Tacoma to Federal Way. The city has been working on this initiative since 2016.
In partnership with University of Washington-Tacoma, Highline College, and Federal Way Public Schools, “the HUB” will be located initially in the Hillside Plaza, a strip mall north of the PAEC and former Target property.
Ferrell said his vision for the HUB building will be for it to eventually be housed at the former Target site.
The HUB is expected to open in fall 2019 with a potential soft opening in the summertime. No official opening date has been provided at this time.