King County Executive Dow Constantine’s initiative Health Through Housing program needs local leadership from mayors and council members to be successful.
Where once cities could fight homelessness by packing the homeless into community centers or churches, COVID-19 made that model unsafe. Constantine noted that with the coronavirus, there was not much travel and many hotels were vacant.
It takes a lot of money and a long time to build affordable housing. Why not buy those empty hotels, which are paid for with one tenth of one cent of sales tax revenues and available almost immediately? Even though homelessness is a regional issue, based on new research from the Urban Displacement Project at the University of California, Berkeley, the neighborhoods most at risk of loosing housing and becoming homeless locations are clustered in South King County in Auburn, Kent and Federal Way.
The Health Through Housing program has purchased three hotels and another residential building in Seattle, in addition to hotels in Redmond, Renton, Auburn and Federal Way with over 800 rooms now available. The program tries to fill the housing need first, before they start treatment or employment, because the homeless are unlikely to seek social service assistance from a homeless encampment.
But it was community reaction to the potential purchase of the Extended Stay Hotel in Federal Way, and the recent purchase of the Clarion Hotel in Auburn, that highlighted a significant difference in community reaction and local leadership. In Federal Way on July 15, a community meeting was held where the majority of the crowd was against the hotel purchases and “passions boiled over” as the crowd wanted the city council to oppose the purchase. The crowd interrupted speakers and on occasion booed speakers they didn’t agree with. The crowd was also intimidating because it appeared to include many of the people that participated in entering a homeless encampment and filling over 40 shopping carts to line 320th Street as a form of protest.
Those that feel the homeless need help and support had ideas on how to assist the homeless, whereas those opposed had little in the way of constructive suggestions other than “don’t buy the hotels.”
For the two councilmembers who organized the meeting, there was hope that common ground could be found by putting everyone in the same room. Though misguided in retrospect, it became apparent no common ground exists. Although at least one person mused that the meeting may have been designed to give the protesters their own forum, even though the evening was to provide community comments to the mayor, city council and state legislators in attendance.
Those opposing the purchase of the hotels in Federal Way, along with the county needle exchange program, spoke as though they represented the entire community, although we have almost 100,000 neighbors. There appeared to be about 150 people in attendance with the crowd split 60-40% in opposition to the hotel purchase. Not surprisingly, some candidates for office used their time at the microphone to campaign and agree with the loudest voices. It was a conservative crowd that also took issue with much of the police accountability legislation that passed this past session. Leo Flor, King County director of the Department of Community and Human Services, represented King County and explained that there was likely more than 6,000 people who had experienced 12 months of sleeping outside or in shelters.
Jim Ferrell has been mayor of Federal Way for almost eight years and we still don’t have a plan to end homelessness in Federal Way. Despite an opening to demonstrate leadership in support of the homeless, Ferrell appeared to distance himself from the controversy by stating that Health Through Housing was a county program, not a Federal Way program, and the Extended Stay purchase was a decision between the county and a private property owner — although he did acknowledge the new use would meet city zoning. After the meeting, the mayor said he supported the King County program, although that message was delivered too late to have the impact that was needed. More recently, he even seemed to back away from that support by saying “all sides need to be heard.”
Auburn provides an interesting contrast because it appears committed to finding a solution to their homeless challenge. The city started by hiring a staff person to work with the homeless and match them with the services they need. Then the program expanded under Mayor Nancy Backus’s leadership to add a model Community Court to hold the homeless accountable while addressing their legal problems, and Auburn’s new resource center will work in conjunction with the Clarion Hotel for the homeless. In another contrast, on July 20, one week after the Federal Way public meeting, Backus with the support of her city council took King County Executive Dow Constantine on a tour of the Clarion Hotel and posed for pictures, as had the Renton mayor.
Ferrell said there was no time where he was available that matched Constantine’s schedule for a picture. Then in a more recent meeting of the Federal Way City Council on Aug. 10, the same hostility to the Health Through Housing program was apparent, even though Leo Flor again explained the program with some new information such as the homeless would contribute to the cost of their room.
But the opposition still thinks its demands should be followed, even though there were several people who offered support of the program. Even though homelessness is a regional challenge, there was more concern about getting other cities’ homeless moving to Federal Way, apparently forgetting that Ferrell tried to send Federal Way’s homeless to Burien a couple of years ago with legislative money secured by former State Rep. Kristine Reeves. There were subtle election threats, but the city council did not react. However, they also lost the opportunity to lead when Ferrell didn’t. The city council needs to be clear where they stand on the issue, just as Auburn’s council was. Do we want a solution to homelessness or not?
Two different communities with the same challenges, but two different styles of leadership: One appearing to appeal to protesters and one actually trying to solve problems.
Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.