Hometown Hero: For FUSION director, it’s about helping the kids

Harrison started volunteering for the nonprofit in 2013 and became director last year.

FUSION Executive Director David Harrison said his passion for the homeless housing nonprofit comes down to the kids that pass through its doors.

“The little kids need to have a positive experience, and escape homelessness,” he said. “It breaks my heart to think about … the five year old kid … (when) it’s 28 degrees outside, and he doesn’t have a coat. That’s not acceptable. They should not be cold, and they should not be hungry.”

Just this year, they’ve held a trunk-or-treat event for Halloween and a brunch with Santa at the FUSION emergency shelter, chartered a bus to Point Defiance Zoo for Zoolights, and in July, a group of nine teens led by Harrison and outdoor experience nonprofit Peak 7 Adventures went on a four-day hiking trip on the Olympic Peninsula.

So many of the kids “had never been out in the woods, had never put on a pair of boots,” Harrison said. “They fell in the river. We saw bears, elk, eagles, rabbit. We slept in tents on the ground and talked around a campfire at night.”

Now a little over a year in the captain’s seat of the Federal Way-based nonprofit, Harrison, 62, is working with a team of volunteers and sponsors that served more than 150 families experiencing homelessness in 2022. He is also the Mirror’s Hometown Hero for December 2022.

Prior to working at the nonprofit, Harrison spent about three decades building a career in corporate America. He came to FUSION around a decade ago as a volunteer when his girlfriend’s mother, a board member, asked if he would lend a hand with some of the leaky sinks and plugged-up toilets at FUSION’s rental properties. Harrison joined FUSION’s board of directors in 2017 and was elected to board chair in 2020.

Harrison became FUSION’s interim executive director in September 2021 after former executive director Robin O’Grady left to run the Kitsap Rescue Mission in Bremerton. And on Dec. 29, 2021 — almost exactly a year ago — the nonprofit’s board of directors voted to remove the “interim” from Harrison’s job title.

Longtime FUSION board member Bob Wroblewski, who is retiring from the board on Jan. 1, was among the board members who voted to keep Harrison on as the executive director.

He described Harrison as an aggressive, willing-to-try kind of leader who goes to bat for FUSION’s work and who happily took on the work of helping convert the former Econo Lodge into the Pete Andersen Family Center.

“What I was impressed with was his total commitment and willingness to do whatever it took,” Wroblewski said. “In my last board meeting … near the end of it, I looked at David, and (I said), ‘I can’t imagine anybody doing better than you.’”

FUSION uses housing, shelter and case management to help families solve the practical issues that keep them from having a stable place to live. They can’t help everyone, but their focus allows them to better help the people they do work with, Harrison said.

“I tell people that this is the right origination, with the right mission, at the right place, at the right time,” he said.

To that end, FUSION operates several local programs: Its transitional housing program puts families in a condominium or single-family home for six to 12 months while those families get job training and other resources.

In 2020, FUSION opened the Pete Andersen FUSION Family Center, an emergency shelter that brings in families for a two-to-three month span. It’s temporary, and it’s not housing — but it’s also not the street or the inside of a car.

“When you say the word ‘homeless,’ a lot of people (think of) a guy pushing a shopping cart down the street,” Harrison said. “That’s one part of it. But the lady in line behind you at QFC with three kids in the shopping cart, she (might) be homeless too. They’re just trying to hold it all together, couch surfing, living in a car, staying at a motel or with family and friends. What leads to it … is a wide variety of factors.”

For over half of the families at the emergency shelter, Harrison said, one of those factors is escaping domestic violence. Mental health, addiction, job and financial skills and transportation can all contribute too.

The Family Center also opens up to anyone experiencing homelessness during weather emergencies, like the winter storm that hit the region last week.

FUSION founder Peggy LaPorte credited Harrison and the volunteers at the nonprofit for showing that kids can enjoy their childhood, and don’t have to feel different from their peers, while they’re staying at the emergency shelter.

“He [Harrison] goes the extra mile to make sure the families are being provided with everything they could possible need … and to give them opportunities to enjoy life,” she said. “When FUSION began, we didn’t really want to put families in a shelter. … We wanted to put them in homes or condominiums … where they would blend in and live a normal life, and wouldn’t be labeled or singled out as homeless. David has done the exact same thing, and even though they are in a shelter, quote un-quote, they are given the opportunity to enjoy life.”

FUSION also operates a boutique furniture store that supports their work with homelessness. In January, the nonprofit aims to re-open the Poverty Bay Café, the coffee shop donated by its owners in 2020 to FUSION. Harrison said they hope it will be a place for families to learn food service skills that could springboard them to a career in the restaurant industry.

FUSION currently has 20 transitional homes available and plans to add four more by the end of 2023.

“When I started, we had capacity to serve 18 families at a time, and now we can serve 50 families at a time,” Harrison said. “So it’s grown tremendously.”

There are resources available for families struggling to provide for their children. The federal McKinney-Vento act requires kids and youth experiencing homelessness to have the right to stable services, transportation and school programs even if they couldn’t afford those things on their own. Parents who want more information should contact their child’s school and ask for the McKinney-Vento advocate.