Passions boiled over at Thursday night’s town hall as the discussion focused on some attendees’ opposition to the potential of King County’s Health Through Housing program coming to Federal Way.
Over 150 people attended the July 15 meeting at the community center, including city officials, city council members, community members, and the 30th Legislative District representatives.
The meeting was prompted by Council President Susan Honda and City Councilmember Linda Kochmar as a way to connect with the community after more than a year apart.
“The only time that things get changed in this community is when people, when volunteers step forward and get involved,” Kochmar said. “They need to hear from you.”
Officials from various city departments provided updates about crime statistics, impacts of new police reform laws, encampment cleanup efforts, and community development projects.
Federal Way police
Federal Way Police Chief Andy Hwang said homicide rates in King County are spiking with a 36% increase in the first three months of the year. In Federal Way, there have been three murders and one manslaughter so far this year.
The department has nine officer vacancies, though the department is authorized for 137 officers. At times in the past year, dozens of Federal Way officers were out due to COVID-19 infections or exposures, he said, and some officers were hospitalized.
“It’s been a really challenging year for us in law enforcement,” he said. “It’s also been a very violent year for us in 2020.”
Federal Way is averaging about 50 reported burglaries a month, he said.
Later this month, new police reform laws go into effect and will change operations. Going forward, Hwang said, there will be a decline in police pursuits unless probable cause of a particular violent crime is developed. Physical force will no longer be used on shoplifting suspects without probable cause, he said for example.
Speakers during public comment noted their disappointment in the 30th District legislators for the police reform bills.
Rep. Jesse Johnson said the bills are aimed for de-escalation and to make the community safer for all people. When the bills were first introduced, Johnson said he received over 1,200 emails in support of the bills and less than 50 emails from those opposed.
Body-worn cameras will be implemented for all Federal Way officers beginning in 2022.
In terms of felony drug possessions, a person caught with drugs will be given two warnings before action is taken, Hwang said. There is no statewide warning database, he said, so an individual could receive two warnings in several different cities without getting a third strike for drug use or possession.
“We are in another drug epidemic,” said Hwang, adding that drugs are flowing into the community.
Hwang’s presentation drew feedback from the crowd. During the public comment period, many spoke in support of the police department and against the new legislation that has affected officer operations.
Community Development Director Brian Davis discussed nuisance properties in the city. The city receives an average of 3,633 complaints annually, most of which are resolved within a month, he said.
At the upcoming Federal Way City Council meeting, Parks Director John Hutton is asking the council to approve finding a contractor to clean up various encampments within the city, he said. On July 15, a 12-person parks department crew cleaned an encampment near the S. 348th Street and 9th Avenue Park and Ride lot, he said.
Most encampments that are found on city property are not in Federal Way parks, he said.
Encampments comprise a human side and an environmental side because several encampments have been found near or on protected wetlands, said Deputy Chief Stephan Neal, head of the homeless encampment initiative for the Federal Way Police Department.
Since its start in 2016, the department’s Special Operations Unit has grown to four officers working seven days a week addressing homelessness issues, he said.
Health Through Housing in Federal Way
At times, tensions rose during discussions about the county’s Health Through Housing program. A few crowd members interrupted speakers, shouting their questions and opinions from the audience.
Leo Flor, King County Director Department of Community and Human Services, said prior to the pandemic, there were an estimated 12,000 homeless individuals with 6,000 of them living outside.
“We have every reason to believe that number has increased dramatically over the last year,” Flor said.
In recent weeks, King County has purchased four hotels to be transformed into permanent housing with treatment resources for individuals experiencing homelessness.
Health Through Housing hotels are in Redmond, Renton and two locations in Seattle. The William J. Woods house for veterans in Federal Way is a similar facility to the program’s hotels, Flor said.
Flor listed the contributing factors found to cause homelessness, such as housing that is too expensive or people don’t make enough money. But crowd members cut him off with murmurs of “drugs.”
Flor, a veteran of the U.S. Army, has spent time in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I have never seen people living like they live in King County in the encampments right now,” he said. “For every person that you might say doesn’t succeed in housing, many more do.”
Attendee opposition, support
The public comment period began with speakers lining up to talk at the microphone. No timers were used for the first several speakers, many of whom are candidates running for upcoming election positions and used their unlimited time to promote their stances on drugs, crime and homelessness.
“This is our city,” said community member Ken Blevens, who requested the city council ban King County’s purchase of any Federal Way hotels. “Caring for people may not be giving them what they want.”
Another speaker, Marita Rosales, said she lives four houses away from the Extended Stay hotel and often walks to work. In recent months, her children have warned against her walking alone in Federal Way, she said.
One speaker said they see the Health Through Housing hotels as re-branded safe injection sites.
Ferrell attempted to simmer the crowd when community members spoke out of turn, but outbursts continued throughout the night.
The Extended Stay has 101 units and is a county decision with a private property owner, Ferrell said.
Some speakers discussed their support of the hotels.
“Anybody here could be one health crisis away from being homeless,” said community member Lana Bostic, who has lived in Federal Way for over 40 years.
Community member Allison Fine asked: if we don’t want people on our streets, where do we want them to be?
After the meeting, Mayor Ferrell said he supports the King County program and their use of Federal Way hotels.
“I think people are less likely to seek treatment when in a tent in the woods,” he said. “This is the kind of model that works.”
One of the final speakers of the night was longtime Federal Way business owner Jim Ross.
“This huge crowd here is telling you ‘help us,’” Ross said, adding his opposition to the county program. “We’re here because we don’t see help coming.”