Survival mode in Federal Way

Homeless woman who lives in woods shares stories of encampments, struggle finding job.

Editor’s Note: This article is the first story in the Mirror’s year-long series called “Humanizing Homelessness.”

After hearing shattering news that a friend and member of the homeless community recently died, individuals at Federal Way’s Day Center embrace one another and wipe tears from their eyes.

It takes Lemoé Tautala-McGruder a good half-hour to shake the grief and cold for a moment before settling in to a back room at the Day Center on a recent frigid Friday afternoon.

Despite the blow to her afternoon, Tautala-McGruder looks on the bright side of her day — and her living situation.

“We live in a tent in the woods,” the 33-year-old says. “We call it camping because it’s not that hard but it’s not that easy also.”

Tautala-McGruder has been homeless since February 2016. She shares the woodsy encampment abode with her husband, her younger sister, and her sister’s husband not far from Federal Way City Hall.

There are fleeting moments of joy, but a majority of the day-to-day life is a struggle, she said.

“Having this life here is hard. It’s cold, it’s hot, it’s irritating, it’s annoying,” she said. “But we do have our happy moments … we have our moments we joke about.”

In early 2016, Tautala-McGruder’s family attended her mother’s 50th birthday in California and ultimately moved there.

“I stayed behind and they went to the birthday party with my kids,” she said. Tautala-McGruder has nine kids; her youngest is five months old.

She was earning a place to live by working at a local motel, but the steep room rental cost of approximately $475 per week became too much to afford, she said. As she was ousted from the motel, she took to the streets to panhandle and what she calls “boosting.”

“Survival mode skills came up and I used it,” she said. “Everybody boosts different. It’s their own way of trying to get what they want, what they need. Some people are drugs, some people it’s cigarettes. I smoke cigarettes … Whatever it is, I don’t judge. We’re already down.”

People experiencing homelessness will stand by the closest store or restaurant that’s going to open soon for warmth, she said. Once open, they’ll use the bathroom, wash up and be on their way.

She plans most of her days with endeavors to accomplish before nighttime.

“A typical day is waking up, coming to the Day Center, get dressed, get ready, try to look as less homeless as possible,” she said. The Federal Way Day Center and the Multi-Service Center are vital parts of Tautala-McGruder’s life, providing access to clean water, showering and laundry services, meals and community.

Stocking up is her top priority, preparing for the day ahead, following night and any important meetings later in the week. Most of the time, this means trying to find food and warmth. Tautala-McGruder said the trick is to find things to burn that provide warmth — but yield no smoke, which could signal to police where their encampment is located.

Each person has their vices, too, she said.

“I’m smoking way more cigarettes than before,” she said, mainly due to the increased stresses of homelessness. “It used to be a pack would last me a week, now I’m going four packs for a week.”

Being homeless adds an air of uncertainty to life, from struggling to get enough money to purchase a meal or worrying about if the police will find you.

“We know what a cop car looks like, we know what an undercover cop car looks like,” she said.

Undercover cops often scope the encampments, looking for foot traffic and locating exits for safety, prior to serving trespass notices, she explained.

Police have visited several camps Tautala-McGruder has lived in. She hides as the police arrive to deliver trespass notices, citing “complaints” from neighbors, despite the encampments being miles away from anyone else.

“They tried to open some of the tents, but they couldn’t,” she said. “They get so angry when nobody’s in there …”

When police trespassed one of Tautala-McGruder’s encampments, their actions went beyond upholding the law, she said.

“They don’t want to take anything … what I’ve seen worse is they’ve cut down tents,” she said, gesturing a scissor-cutting motion with her hand. “They will cut it down … You know we’re going to go get adhesive spray or tape just to put it back together until morning comes.”

The Federal Way Police Department Special Operations Unit responds to complaints regarding homeless encampments throughout the city, said Commander Kurt Schwan.

“On a regular basis during the investigation of these complaints, our officers locate the encampments but find no one at the site,” he said. “When this occurs, officers post a warning letter at the site using a paper binder clip.”

Schwan said there is a very delicate balance between enforcement and providing assistance for the people contacted by the SOU officers at these encampments.

“They routinely find themselves making every effort to satisfy the rights of the property owner being violated by the trespassing while also showing empathy for those occupying the encampments,” he said. “Our officers do not damage items located at the encampments. They simply enforce the rights of the property owners and attempt to provide assistance and resource information, from our numerous community partners, to the homeless they contact in the encampments.”

Some homeless individuals have told Federal Way’s SOU officers about other homeless persons damaging and cutting tents at encampments when they felt their living area was being encroached upon, Schwan said.

“However the victims of this malicious mischief rarely, if ever, report these incidents to our officers,” he said.

As for the trespassing warrants, Tautala-McGruder said they use those as fire fuel.

“All we’re going to do is burn it up to start our fire and keep warm,” she said. “There’s nothing they can do that can hurt us by touching our stuff or taking it away from us.”

Sometimes, Tautala-McGruder said, homelessness is a life or death situation.

“Not too long ago, a friend of the Day Center … she had a brain aneurysm,” Tautala-McGruder said as tears welled in her eyes.

Since she became homeless in 2016, there have been eight deaths in the local homeless community — as far as she knows.

According to the city of Federal Way’s draft homeless report, one Federal Way homeless person dies every month. The King County Medical Examiner’s Office’s “Presumed Homeless” report states that between 2012 and 2017, there were 697 deaths across all of King County. The highest individual year of deaths occurred in 2017 with a total of 169 deaths of homeless individuals.

“Some of the illness or the diseases we pick up, most of us don’t have it when we become homeless,” she said, noting that most homeless deaths are due to these transmitted illnesses.

On the streets, survival mode is the deciding factor for everything but the system is designed to single out those experiencing homeless, she said.

“My personal life has nothing to do with my job skills,” she said. “Our job skills have everything to do with our survival mode.”

Every application for housing, jobs or government assistance requires personal information that most homeless people do not have or cannot provide.

“It shuts people down,” she said “Why does it matter to you if I’m receiving food stamps? Why do you care that I’m receiving food stamps? Why is it that these questions come up on applications just to single us out?”

What’s worse, homelessness comes with the territory of blatant mistreatment from others and skewed hiring processes, she said.

“Trying to get a job is very hard when your looks are not appropriate and the address you have is a homeless address,” she said.

Securing a job is one of the most difficult aspects of experiencing homeless, she said. Aside from not having an address to include on a job application, most people without a home also do not have a phone. So even if they are a good candidate for a job, it is challenging for a potential employer to reach them.

“Give us a job, we’ll take it … Give us an application, fill it out, and have an interview tomorrow, we won’t make it. We won’t. I know we won’t,” she said about homeless individuals’ need for on-the-spot hiring.

During his first term, council member Martin Moore proposed an idea connecting homeless individuals with necessary jobs and resources, with emphasis of targeting the panhandlers that occupy many of Federal Way’s street corners.

The city’s Homelessness Task Force recently released its report that recommended such a program. The report outlines a trial program that provides panhandlers with “a chance at change in life” by completing cleanup work around the city in exchange for payment and a free meal. The report states the trial run would cost approximately $50,000 and would be in partnership with a local nonprofit.

While the process and logistics still need to be analyzed by Federal Way’s Parks and Human Services divisions, Moore is hopeful to see these items come to fruition, he said.

“It’s very imperative that we get them off the streets and connected to services and get them jobs,” Moore said.

“Not only are we wrapping our arms around them, but we’re empowering them and we continue to build a strong city …,” he said about the potential job opportunity program. “We need to take care of their needs as a community and equip them with tools and resources and get them off the street [so they can] become a productive member of society.”

In the encampments, there’s a strong integrity and bond between members of the homeless community, a social organization of its own between the trees.

There’s a support system, confrontation when needed, problem solving and protection.

Encampments are mainly full of adults, but there are families in the mix, Tautala-McGruder said. She and her 23-year-old sister were both pregnant while living in encampments.

“She was pregnant the same time I was pregnant, back in the woods,” Tautala-McGruder said. “We joked about it like ‘how are we walking around here homeless with big bellies?’”

“Before I gave birth, I actually turned myself in,” she said. “I was wanted. The bounty hunters were around.”

She was in jail for almost a month.

“I came back out and nothing has changed,” she said. “Still got courtesy, kindness and love for people. My stuff wasn’t missing, that’s crazy.”

Adult members of the homeless camps do their best to safeguard families with children who wind up there.

“The people who have kids, we keep them [far] away from the campsite … we create another trail path just for them,” she said.

There are babies and toddlers, but not often teenagers at the homeless encampments, she said. The families receive the most encouragement and support to obtain housing to “get the kids out of there.”

Families are sheltered from the rest of the adult campsites with separate entryways at the encampment where she lives, generating strict rules that forbid others from going near the family camps.

“We are very protective,” Tautala-McGruder said. “The kids come first.”

Her encampment also includes civility.

“If we see another homeless person down, we are quick to help in any way possible. No questions asked. We don’t expect anything back; we don’t want anything back,” she said. “Because what you have, what I have, we can share and whatever we don’t have, we can find a way to get it together.”

And members of her community also demand respect from each other.

A few months ago, a new young couple came to the Day Center and disregarded Tautala-McGruder’s personal space. Tensions elevated to the point the young man went outside and threatened to attack Tautala-McGruder with a golf club. She was pregnant at the time.

As soon as the man raised the golf club, every person inside the Day Center rushed outside to protect Tautala-McGruder.

“Standing back just looking at that scene … I was like, ‘These are my people,’” she said.

“We work different, we side different, we’re different people, but we become one when somebody is [threatening] us.”

Protection also comes in the form of choosing family over comfort.

As of late January 2019, Tautala-McGruder was approved for housing and now has a one-bedroom apartment in Seattle.

“My sister got denied, so I’m not going anywhere,” she said. “Even though I have my housing. Once again I choose to [be homeless] because she’s still down.”

Tautala-McGruder hopes to get her infant daughter back from Child Protection Services in the coming months.

As for the bombardment of negativity from society, Tautala-McGruder hears it.

“It’s just words,” she said. “Verbal abuse to a kid is the same as verbal abuse to an adult.”

Instead of casting hate, she hopes that community members will instead provide blessings — not sympathy — to anyone experiencing homelessness.

“Give us leniency but not comfortability.”