Are we our brother’s keeper? As we approach the Easter season, the question has more meaning than it otherwise might, but the answer may have become caught up in local politics. And the last City Council meeting may have given us a reality check on our priorities.
Advocates for a day hygiene shelter for the homeless have been trying for many months to get the city of Federal Way to support the purchase of a building that would have services for the homeless. The facility would have showers, beds, laundry facilities and access to other services that the homeless might need.
Currently, many of the area churches share in providing meals and places to sleep. On very cold nights the city has opened the Community Center for homeless people to sleep in. Although their compassion and generosity provides a cornerstone to our community life, churches and their volunteers shouldn’t be left to shoulder the responsibility alone.
But there is a growing undercurrent of concern among some homeless advocates that the needs of the less fortunate are being given only “words” and that expected financial support from the city may be starting to wobble.
Homeless advocates have been under the impression that the city held the needs of the homeless as a high priority and were willing to lead efforts and join other local social agencies in the purchase of a building for the shelter, estimated to cost approximately $400,000.
However, many homeless supporters were disappointed that the city chose to buy the former Target building for $8.2 million when the annual debt service alone could have almost paid for the shelter. They also noticed that the city wants to ask state government for financial support, when the city appears to not only have cash that could help, but according to a recent press release, they have ample debt service capability.
To some, it felt like a stall and a shift away from local support. That, in turn raised the question of community priorities.
Some advocates even noticed that City Hall officials have started using the phrase “regional” more frequently when discussing shelter needs. Since the building they identified is in north Federal Way, “regional” starts to sound like “any place but here.”
Adding to the advocates’ concern, some Federal Way residents have expressed a fear that a homeless shelter in Federal Way would become a regional magnet for homeless people from other areas.
But Rev. James Kubal-Komoto, from the Saltwater Church in Des Moines, said at a recent council meeting, “The majority of the homeless have roots in Federal Way. Exporting our homeless to Seattle, Tacoma, Kent, or Auburn is not a solution.”
And since there are already 26 other shelters in South King County, having one in Federal Way would seem more like an equal sharing of responsibility.
State Sen. Mark Miloscia also announced at the council meeting that he was adding $100,000 to the Senate operating budget. But the operating budget hasn’t passed and the money would be used for “planning to develop” a shelter. While advocates appreciate Miloscia’s support, the real need is to buy the building.
At the meeting, advocates were under the impression that they would be making a presentation about the need for the hygiene shelter to the city council. That didn’t happen. Instead, the city staff made a presentation that highlighted the city’s support for social service needs at about $500,000 from the general fund. Although hopefully unintended, it gave the appearance of trying to justify a “we already give plenty” school of thought and support shifting the issue to the state. Homeless advocates had to make their views known during public comment.
In a striking contrast, the big news for the evening was the supporters of the Performing Arts and Conference Center giving the city a check for $600,000 from their fundraising efforts. Performing arts center supporters have every right to be proud of their efforts as they have worked hard to see their dream of a local facility become a reality. And it may have been an unfortunate coincidence in scheduling that these two polar opposite issues were brought up on the same night because it only added to the growing community debate about priorities.
Performing arts center supporters donating $600,000 toward a $30 million city obligation welcomed hoopla and photos with the mayor and council, while homeless advocates, whose dream is a Federal Way hygiene shelter, received only three minutes each during public comment.
Maybe the city isn’t backing away from helping to purchase the hygiene shelter. Maybe “regional” isn’t code for “not here.” Maybe asking the state for money, rather than using city money isn’t a side step. Maybe there was some miscommunication when the hygiene shelter advocates were supposed to make their presentation to the council. Maybe. There’s one way to find out.
Federal Way is a town with a lot of needs, a lot of potential and a lot of heart. But if we can step up to vote for our schools and if our city government can vote to build a performing arts center, a downtown park and buy the former Target building, then the answer to the question, “Are we our brother’s keeper?” should be easy.
We are an inclusive community that cares about the less fortunate among us and city government can demonstrate its commitment by approving the money to fund a Federal Way hygiene shelter. Easter would be a nice touch.
Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn: email@example.com.