Homeless, desperate and frightening in Federal Way

If the homeless all registered to vote, would that get Federal Way Mayor Jim Ferrell’s attention?

To find yourself homeless must be a shocking and scary position. Some have simply fallen on hard times, others have disabilities or mental heath issues. Despite the view of some in city government and in the community, they are not all hooked on drugs or alcohol and should not be treated like criminals. Many just need a hand up.

I was at a recent neighborhood meeting at Green Gables Elementary and heard Mayor Jim Ferrell say being homeless must feel “desperate and frightening.” I thought we might actually have a breakthrough and see some compassion from our mayor.

Maybe those two homeless committees over three years were more than just more photo ops? Maybe serving pizza to homeless with the Mirror staff at Calvary church had awakened a community spirit deeper than the Performing Arts and Event Center, or the new grand staircase?

What we heard was Ferrell finally telling us his true feelings about the homeless.

In one of the most shocking things I have ever heard an elected public official say, Ferrell, in referring to the homeless, said: “As harsh as this is going to sound, it is not the responsibility of the government.”

With that statement, any question about Ferrell’s compassion or concern on social challenges ceased. He can never again form a committee to improve our social fabric with any credibility.

When a local pastor asked the logical follow-up question: “Then whose responsibility is it?” Ferrell answered that the city spends a significant amount on the homeless. However, most of the money he was referring to is from grants, and block grant funds that are primarily passed through the city to local nonprofit organizations to help community social needs.

The real commitment, and money, to solve the homeless problem lies in the discretionary general fund. The mayor tells us each year what his priorities are by what he recommends for funding out of the general fund, and only a small amount goes to the homeless. It would have been less, if not for the City Council. Ferrell’s answer on finances may have been accurate, but it was also a political spin intended to satisfy the questioner while not telling the full story.

But Ferrell went on: “I feel strongly about this; it is not our responsibility. People don’t become our responsibility simply because they decide to plop a tent on city property.”

Beyond the callous unfeeling thought the statement suggests, it is also inaccurate. For most issues, you are considered a resident of the place you sleep and where your personal belongings are located. And that would include plopping a tent on city property. For voting, the homeless can use the address at the Day Center to actually get their ballot. If the homeless all registered to vote, would that get Ferrell’s attention?

If you sleep in the city limits, be it a tent, car or park bench, you’re a resident. And your City Hall should do more than harass you into going someplace else. Ferrell’s quotes and actions on the homeless all came back to me: “No tolerance,” “cannot be on public or private property,” starting a fight with our legislators over trying to send our homeless to Burien with money that was expected to be spent in Federal Way, the dust-up with Seattle over appearing to try and send our homeless to them.

At Green Gables, Ferrell also said, “It is the responsibility of the government to run the government.”

Most residents probably have the view that government exists to provide services that people need and can’t provide themselves. In some cases, that might include those without a bed, food or clothing, in addition to streets and police.

But Ferrell also answered that with a statement: “Comfort is the enemy of change.” And we certainly don’t want our hungry neighbors, who are sleeping outdoors, to get comfortable. Particularly in the winter snow or rain. The people sleeping outside are just as much Ferrell’s responsibility as the rest of us, maybe more. He is supposed to be the mayor for all the people.

After six years, it should be clear that pushing the homeless from one encampment to another every few days and then closing it, is a failed strategy to get them to leave.

Insiders say Ferrell will never support a city-sponsored shelter because his “get tough” approach is what his conservative political base wants from him. Despite the fact that the nonprofits and churches don’t have any extra money, he will always look for them or someone else, such as the state or county to be responsible.

Ferrell claims he showed leadership by getting the churches together. However, since the city is choosing to sit on the sidelines and only coordinate which church will provide space in a 12-14 night schedule, when 30-40 nights should be on the schedule, it sounds more like an abdication of leadership.

The city only allows the Federal Way Community Center to be used as a warming center. The council should move quickly to overrule Ferrell and look for a way to open the community center after business hours rather than send the homeless back outside to sleep. A contract for night staffing could be arranged with one of the local nonprofits. And a trained social worker should always accompany police to encampments to identify sources to help them, and a shuttle should be used to connect them with the service they need. Then a place to sleep and food. That is the start of transitioning the homeless who want help to productivity. Then let the professionals do their job and link the homeless with training or a job. That will start to have an impact.

The city complains about the cost of cleaning up the encampments, but whose fault is that?

Th “run them out of town” strategy might be good politics for Ferrell, but it simply moves the camp from one part of the city to another and then back again. And every winter day that goes by that people are still sleeping outside we are gambling with someone’s life.

Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn. Contact bjroegner@comcast.net.