This week we celebrate another Thanksgiving with turkey, potatoes, pumpkin pie and football on a high definition big screen television. We give thanks for our circumstances. But not everyone has those luxuries. On Thursday, after the dinner and football game, we will sleep in a bed with a roof over our heads. The house will be warm. Our children will be safe. But not everyone is so fortunate.
Ask yourself, what stops us from eradicating poverty?
For a moment think how someone else might live.
When I leave church on Sunday mornings I walk near tents where homeless people sleep. They are the lucky ones, they have a roof. Can you imagine what it’s like to worry about where you will sleep at night? How cold will it be? Will it rain? Can you imagine having to worry about where you will find a bathroom? Or what you will do if you can’t find one?
Many of the homeless people in Federal Way are not drug users or criminals and many find themselves in circumstances that are beyond their control. They live outdoors and carry all their possessions in a paper bag and hope it doesn’t get wet. “It’s no shame to be poor, but it’s no great honor either,” says Tevye in “Fiddler on The Roof.” But when the police officers show up it suddenly feels like a crime. They hand you a piece of paper that tells you where to go to get social service help. The police officer says you have to leave the little piece of ground that you sleep on because you are trespassing on public property. You paid taxes at one time, and would be happy to pay them again, as soon as you can find a place to live, or food to eat or a place to wash the clothes you have been wearing for several weeks. That seems like a dream. But there is no housing. You will gladly work that day, but don’t have a car or a way to get to work or even look for a job. So you panhandle instead, for food that night.
Some of the candidates for the state Legislature this year said it was the job of community-based organizations, such as churches, to take care of the homeless. Churches offer a place of respite, warmth, compassion, spiritual guidance and sometimes a warm meal. But they are not equipped to house and feed people on a daily basis. That should be the responsibility of local government, our mayor and the City Council. The day shelter will help, but it doesn’t provide a bed, roof and safety.
One social worker told me that police officers told her she couldn’t hand out some items to help the poor because it makes her an enabler. An enabler because she cared? A speaker on the topic said “enable has become an excuse for not helping.” Have we become that insensitive? City Hall’s policy of closing the encampments to keep them moving and hope they will become someone else’s problem is archaic. City staff reported that it costs $30,000 to $50,000 in staff time to close each homeless encampment. At one time there were 13 homeless encampments. Enough tents and portable bathrooms, along with food, to take care of them would cost a fraction of that. Are our priorities that backward?
Bellevue, Kirkland and Redmond are working together to build permanent shelters. A $23 million facility is on the horizon.
Have we really stood by and allowed a policy of treating those without homes, and those without food as criminals? Have we really allowed a $32 million Performing Arts and Events Center to be built when over 50 percent of the children in our schools need help buying their lunches? Have we really turned our back even when we know there are over 300 children who don’t know where they will sleep tonight?
Mayor Jim Ferrell has proposed a tax increase of $1 million dollars to fund nine more police officers, even though they would not be fully on duty for two years, and our police chief has said we live in a safe town. But no initiative to help the poor and the homeless other than a wish for the Legislature to help.
Mayor Ferrell has said “it is important that they get services,” but all the city does is hand out a piece of paper that tells the homeless where the services are located. If it were important, the city would team with social service staff who could actually help. City staff has no idea whether any of the homeless actually get any help. Ferrell also said “we are going to act like we care about these people, because we do.” If City Hall truly cared, their actions would be much different and compassion would look like a place to sleep, not a police badge.
One of our leaders is a fan of Bobby Kennedy and at times has been known to ask himself, “what would Bobby do?” In 1967 Martin Luther King Jr. asked Bobby Kennedy the same question, “what would Bobby do?” Their joint answer became “encampments for the poor,” and the “people’s march” was born to draw attention to the sheer numbers of minorities and poor people in this country that need help.
Rather than try to push our poor out of town, what would happen if poor people, social service providers, churches and those that care took the problem to the steps of City Hall?
When 300 people show up at a council meeting to complain about a methanol plant in Tacoma, or a fish warehouse on the Weyerhaeuser property, or about gun violence in out community then our public officials listen. Is that what it takes?
Or will it be necessary for the city to face a lawsuit before action is taken? According to the Yakima Herald, the American Civil Liberties Union is threatening a lawsuit against the city of Yakima because “a city ordinance subjects the homeless to arrest if they camp in public places when shelter is otherwise available.” The city of Federal Way’s policy is much the same. Although the major difference is on most nights there aren’t nearly enough beds available. Our city could find itself in the news again for the wrong reasons.
Some have told me they are afraid of City Hall. No one should be fearful of the very government that is supposed to be there to help. If people are afraid, then we have even deeper problems.
And what stops us from eradicating poverty? Simple, political will. We can stop homelessness if we want to; we just need the political will to do it.
It’s Thanksgiving, be thankful for what you have. But until all those that need a place to sleep have one, we still have much work to do.
Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is the former mayor of Auburn. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.