Federal Way mayor dodges questions on homeless issues

Governments are obligated to share information with residents — this is transparency.

Mirror editor Carrie Rodriguez. File photo

Mirror editor Carrie Rodriguez. File photo

We have questions — dozens of them.

Over the past couple of weeks, we have asked many of them to Tyler Hemstreet, the city of Federal Way’s communications coordinator:

What is the number of shelter beds available for the homeless in Federal Way every day and year-round?

How many of those beds are used year-round and during the winter months?

Is there a notification process if all beds are full and there is nowhere else for homeless people to go?

And our questions continued:

What are the current number of homeless encampments in Federal Way? And how many of those encampments has the Federal Way Police Department’s Special Operations Unit responded to since the unit was formed?

How much of the city’s funding has been spent on homeless efforts, including homeless encampments clean-ups?

The list went on.

Here’s what our staff learned:

Nothing.

As Mirror staff attempted to gather information for this week’s cover story regarding the Ninth Circuit Boise ruling, we reached out to city attorney Ryan Call. He declined to comment.

As Hemstreet noted in an email, “Ryan’s job is to interpret the law for employees and policy makers of the City … He does not represent the citizens of Federal Way. It is not part of his job to explain the law to the media and third parties.”

So our staff reached out to Mayor Jim Ferrell — who does represent the citizens of Federal Way. He too declined to comment.

Instead, Hemstreet, whom the mayor charged with fielding all of our inquiries, emailed us a brief comment on behalf of the city. It generally answered a couple of our questions regarding the Boise ruling. But it didn’t say much.

Our staff followed up with the aforesaid questions and many others. The mayor’s office gave us the brush-off again, noting that some of our questions “might be better addressed through other sources within the community.”

Hemstreet then referred us again to the city’s statement, which did not answer any of our questions. This left us with a story with “declined to comment” statements that seem to diminish our diligence at finding answers.

With his refusal to answer questions, and the lack of information from his staff, it is clear the mayor has stonewalled us on the issue. And this isn’t the first time since Ferrell has taken office that I have opined on the city’s lack of transparency.

This concerning behavior has led me several times before to a quintessential editor’s repeat-after-me for city officials: Governments are obligated to share information with residents — this is transparency. This openness and willingness for agencies to answer questions is how residents make informed decisions. This is how they hold the powerful accountable for how officials conduct Federal Way resident’s business.

This is democracy: Repeat after me.

In our ongoing quest for information on this issue, Mirror staff did a walk-through of a homeless encampment cleanup at the Hylebos wetlands with city staff in January. We solicited many of the questions that we still seek, from our readers via the Mirror’s Facebook page.

Residents asked:

How much does the clean-up cost? – Diana Noble-Gulliford.

Why aren’t we having the homeless clean up some of their mess? – Rick Cook

Where did the homeless move to? – Sheri Smith

Were people living there given advance warning so they could remove their belongings? Were social workers involved to offer them spaces in homeless shelters, should they want it? – Pastor Chelsea Globe.

Whether it’s issues regarding homelessness or anything else that impacts residents, we as journalists need to have access to our government officials to seek the facts.

After all, these are ultimately questions that we ask on your behalf in our role as government watchdog.

We invite the mayor to join us in our mission to represent the citizens of Federal Way. And we urge Ferrell to provide some answers — dozens of them.

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