After 17 years living on the streets of Federal Way, Sherry Larsh has taken on the role of mother to the younger homeless population.
The 51-year-old says she sleeps during the day to help look out for others on the streets at night.
“People need to start looking at the homeless as people,” Larsh said. “It could happen to anyone.”
Larsh said the winters are especially tough on the streets as the temperatures drop at night.
“When we get wet, it is so cold,” Larsh said.
At a community dinner sponsored by the Federal Way Caregiving Network on a recent Thursday night at Calvary Lutheran Church, Larsh was bundled in multiple layers that had been soaked through by the rain. Volunteers at the dinner gave her a warm, dry coat, several sweaters and a blanket.
Larsh said she appreciates the services local organizations provide to help the homeless.
“Multi-Service Center has helped. The [Federal Way] day center has helped a lot. The meals are really necessary,” she said.
There is a lot more that can be done, Larsh said, such as providing more overnight shelters.
“There are more homeless women out there than there have been,” she said. “There’s a lot of families and a lot of single mothers out here.”
Reach Out provides overnight shelters for men and women between October and March each year.
Last season, Reach Out served 76 men and 44 women total.
“We are already at our threshold for women and approaching that for men, and it hasn’t gotten cold yet,” Reach Out Executive Director Kathy Varney said.
The shelters re-opened Oct. 2.
The women’s shelter at Church of the Good Shepherd can accommodate 17 women, and the men’s shelter, which rotates among several Federal Way churches, can serve around 30 to 35 men.
Rick Nicholson, who has lived on the streets of Federal Way for 15 years, helps the homeless get connected to the right services. He said there needs to be year-round shelter.
“I think we are heading in the right direction,” Nicholson said about available services for the homeless.
Finding space for shelters is a challenge, Varney said.
“We have been working toward finding a facility or creating a facility in Federal Way,” she said.
The Homeless Mothers and Children Initiative, which was created earlier this year, recently met with leaders of local faith-based organizations to help find ways to address the homeless issue in the city, particularly concerning children and families.
Sharry Edwards, who co-chairs HMCI with Councilwoman Susan Honda, said there isn’t a shelter for families in the city.
“If you have a child and you are homeless, you are not permitted in these shelters,” she said. “It is at no fault of Reach Out. It is the way the laws are written.”
The need for shelter for families has increased in recent years, she said.
“Last summer, we started seeing families that were coming in living in their vehicles,” Edwards said. “If you can imagine this, there was one family with a 2-month-old, a 1-and-half-year-old, 2-and-half-year-old and a 4-year-old, all living in their minivan. …This was new. This was something that we hadn’t seen before, that we hadn’t heard about. It is just the rising homeless crisis.”
HMCI’s top priority is to find a location for a shelter for families with children, Mayor Jim Ferrell said.
“The weather is cold,” he said. “We have been working on this all year. We need to know where they can go.”
Mary’s Place, which operates day and overnight shelters in Seattle and King County, could partner with the city and other organizations to run a shelter in Federal Way.
The Brooklake Community Center building had been considered as a location.
“The walls were bowing out,” Ferrell said. “The old structure of the dance hall, a very historical location in Federal Way, just wasn’t structurally sound.”
Capt. Jeff Bellinghausen, with South King Fire and Rescue and a member of HMCI, said it has been hard to find a facility that will work for a shelter.
“It seems like each time we find a big building someone is doing something with it,” he said. “It is a great thing that we don’t have a lot of large empty buildings that someone doesn’t own and is doing something with for commercial purposes in Federal Way, but it is also hampering our effort to find a building 10,000 square feet, (which) is what Mary’s Place is looking for.”
Ferrell said he expects to ask the City Council for funding to help with a shelter, although he doesn’t know how much the city would be able to put forth.
The other purpose of HMCI is to inventory and streamline the services offered by various community organizations to help the homeless.
“There are so many people … doing so many great things,” Ferrell said. “What I really felt that was missing in our community is true coordination, an umbrella, that we can all operate from. I know that there are in place right now certain umbrellas, but let’s get a big umbrella out. I really want to make sure that we can work together as a community to make sure that kids are not sleeping in cars and that people are not freezing out in tents.”
Number of Homeless children on the rise
HMCI would also like to get an accurate count of the number of homeless people in the city, Ferrell said.
In previous years, the One Night Count, which tallied the number of homeless in King County, broke down the figures by city. For 2017, All Home conducted the count instead of The Coalition on Homelessness, and provided data only by regions.
On Jan. 27, 2017, in southwest King County, which includes Federal Way, there were 1,102 unsheltered people, including those on the streets or in abandoned buildings, tents and vehicles, and 915 in emergency shelters or transitional housing.
In 2016, the last year the One Night Count provided numbers by city, there were 263 homeless people in Federal Way, including 199 in vehicles.
Federal Way Public Schools Superintendent Tammy Campbell said at the HMCI luncheon Nov. 14 that the number of homeless students in the district has risen.
“What really has been alarming is the rate with which this has been increasing over the last two years,” she said. “We usually run numbers between 200 and 300, and over the last two years that number has jumped to over 500 plus.”
Campbell said it is important for the district to work with community partners to address the issues of homelessness so that students can focus on school.
“The impact is simple when you are in a classroom and you don’t know what meal you are getting, where you are going to sleep, your brain is not going to be thinking about math, reading, writing, critical thinking, problem solving, graduating and all of those things we want our young people to be thinking about.”
Liz McDaniel, shelter developer for Mary’s Place, said at the luncheon that 97 percent of people who experience homelessness will only do so once in their lives.
“This really goes to show this isn’t chronic homelessness we are talking about,” she said. “This is a crisis. This is a lost job, a medical concern, a child diagnosed with cancer, two parents losing their job at the same time or, what we see most often, is families that were already on the borderline and their rent was raised $100. We know that results in 100 families that will become homeless for every $100 rent raised.”
Ways to help
Many of the organizations that help the city’s homeless population rely on community support.
Reach Out needs volunteers to help provide meals to the homeless, as well as monetary donations.
For more information visit reachoutfederalway.org, or call 253-854-0077.
The Federal Way Community Caregiving Network provides a variety of services including weekly meals and emergency services offering partial emergency rent assistance, gasoline vouchers, bus tickets and emergency food bags.
The organization hosts three community dinners each week at local churches.
The dinners are from 5:30-6:30 p.m. on Mondays at Christian Faith Center, 33645 20th Ave. S.; 5-6 p.m. Thursdays at Calvary Lutheran Church, 2415 S. 320th St.; and 1:30-2:30 p.m. Saturdays, at Church of the Good Shepherd, 345 S. 312th St.
The Supper Outreach Services Program hands out items to the homeless and needy who attend the community suppers or require emergency services.
High priority items include men’s socks, coats, hats, gloves, hoodies and jeans of any size; baby wipes; tents; tarps; sleeping bags; backpacks, flashlights and batteries; blankets; and toiletries, such as toothpaste, toothbrushes, hand sanitizer, razors, small packages of tissues, deodorant and foot powder. For more information, visit fwccn.org, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 253-661-0505.