Homelessness continues to challenge Federal Way

Will mayor join me to help at an overnight shelter and experience what homelessness is like?

Bob Roegner

Bob Roegner

For the fourth year in a row homeless deaths in King County have risen. According to information from the “draft” report from Mayor Jim Ferrell’s Homeless Committee, Federal Way continues to be one of the communities most in need of emergency overnight and transition housing for our homeless, and one Federal Way person dies every month from living outside.

The policy and political challenge of solving this problem has been known for several years, but was on full display at the first council meeting of the new year. Ferrell’s strategy has been to close all of the encampments in the city, leaving the homeless no option but to leave town or move to another location, which will also be closed under Ferrell’s zero tolerance policy. And though that policy has continued, and instilled in many in the community a “them versus us” mentality, Ferrell’s appointment of a Homeless Committee had offered a glimmer of hope to many social service agencies that a more compassionate substitute policy might be considered.

There was early criticism about secrecy, when public education was sorely needed, and that the report was not due until Dec. 21,2018, in the middle of winter, and after city budget deliberations had been completed. Ferrell also seemed to undercut his own committee during the budget process by stating he would not support using any general fund money to implement the committee’s report despite council interest.

Ferrell advisor Yarden Weidenfeld, and committee chair Sharry Edwards, provided the official transmittal of the report to the council, which included the recommendation that Federal Way needed to expand shelters so they are available year-round. Some committee members felt the biggest challenge was getting leadership from City Hall, and noted that the section in the draft on “political will” to solve the problem was absent from the final report. But it was Ferrell’s controversial recommendation to contract with Mary’s Place in Burien, and pay them with the $100,000 state earmark our legislative delegation of Reps. Kristine Reeves, Mike Pellicciotti and former Sen. Mark Miloscia had obtained to serve the homeless “in Federal Way” that became the issue.

An in depth story by the Mirror’s journalistic team of editor Carrie Rodriguez, and reporters Haley Donwerth and Olivia Sullivan, had found that not only had our legislative delegation viewed the contract with Mary’s Place as outside the “legislative intent”of what Ferrell and the council had asked for, but none of the local service providers had been contacted to assess their interest or ability to compete for the contract, including FUSION, who was actually working on a local parallel plan that had drawn some neighborhood opposition.

The story also raised questions about what Ferrell knew and when he knew it. And while none of the legislators expect the city to contact them on every question related to state money, the change to another city and another legislative district implied a lack of both courtesy and understanding of the Olympia environment in which the legislative delegation had delivered the support.

True or not, many felt like Ferrell was again trying to push our homeless to another city through the contract. During the council meeting Ferrell tried to bully a hesitant City Council to approve the contract or face criticism for depriving homeless of a shelter. Rep. Reeves and Sen.-elect Claire Wilson reminded Ferrell and the council of what they had requested and that the contract with Mary’ Place did not meet their intentions of service “in Federal Way.”

Ferrell then tried to push Reeves into supporting the contract or face the same criticism. But Reeves didn’t take the bait either and said the decision was up to the mayor and council, but not keeping their word would make it harder for the legislative delegation to win future financial support for the city. Council members were clearly uncomfortable with the out of town location and voted 6-1 to table the contract. Council member Dini Duclos was in the minority on the vote. Ferrell later said he was only interested in getting the homeless served quickly. But it was his actions that created the time pressure.

He has been mayor for five years and closing homeless encampments has been his most consistent policy. City staff have known about the money since May 2018, and the contract was not sent to the council until January 2019, and local agencies were not even contacted about their interest. Of importance, Ferrell’s committee, which included local service providers, was supposed to be consulted on how to spend the $100,000 and that did not happen either.

Council member Jesse Johnson put the issue on the agenda for his committee the following Tuesday, Jan. 8.

Reeves, doing what Ferrell should have done, called a meeting of local service providers for Monday, Jan. 7, to discuss local options for the $100,000 that the council committee might consider. At that meeting several options were discussed, with the group favoring $60,000 in pre-development costs to any group that wanted to pursue a shelter in Federal Way, and $40,000 for staff assistance for City Hall to coordinate the homeless issues.

At the Tuesday committee meeting, Mary’s Place Executive Director Marty Hartman made it clear that her organization would continue to serve any Federal Way residents who needed assistance, but withdrew their interest in the contract with the city, stating they did not want to stand in the way of Federal Way getting its own homeless facility. Mary’s Place usually tries to avoid the politics that discussions about homeless can generate. As if to demonstrate for Mary’s Place the politics of the homeless, several residents were in attendance to voice their opposition to FUSION’s interest in a shelter at the Light of Christ Church. One speaker said the Econo Lodge was up for sale, which caught some attention as a possible compromise, but also raised questions of why Ferrell’s staff hadn’t considered existing local properties, since the council had looked at one building with that option in mind.

At the end of the meeting the committee missed a chance to set the stage for the next full council meeting by not adopting a recommendation,thus leaving all options open.

By weeks end, Peggy LaPorte acting for FUSION had contacted King County Council member Pete von Reichbauer about possibly switching the grant from Light of Christ church to another facility and Johnson had scheduled another committee meeting for Jan. 14, in advance of the council meeting. This time the committee, of Johnson, Mark Koppang and Martin Moore, decided to recommend to the full council 60 percent of the $100,000 for hotel vouchers, along with money for family support, and 40 percent for pre-development costs. Ferrell’s recommendation had also included several thousand for a new staff person.

While it wasn’t pretty, or brief, the council finally had the debate they should have had a year ago. Johnson’s committee recommendation passed 6-1, with only Deputy Mayor Susan Honda, Ferrell’s opponent in the last election, supporting the mayor’s staffing request. The council and state legislators shared a common commitment by affirming Federal Way as the best location for our homeless to get access to service and where a facility should be located. Rep Pellicciotti was out of town attending to a family matter, and Sen. Wilson is new, though all three agreed that Mary’s Place in Burien did not meet the intent of what the city had asked for. Left to carry the message on her own, Reeves emerged as the leader in a difficult situation created by Ferrell’s support for Burien.

But as she organized the social service agencies to meet and come up with a plan, she also met with Ferrell twice to keep him aware of her actions, something he appreciated, but had not accorded her. The process kept the council engaged to find a solution and they did. And we learned more about Reeves. As a child she experienced homelessness and is now a state legislator. Homeless people are like everyone else; when given the opportunity they can succeed. She gave us hope and a reason to take care of each other. Perhaps another state representative, senator, council member or mayor might rise above a difficult beginning at the Day Center or at a new shelter, given a chance.

Ferrell was criticized for closing the encampments and trying to move our homeless to Burien and it was justified. Without considering the implications, he drove the council into a cul de sac with only one way out and they took it. There is still a need for him to step up and truly lead on this issue. But that will require the vision to help a local organization build or buy a local facility and support their operations with local funds. As our leader, Ferrell needs to gain a better understanding, and empathetic view of what it is really like to be homeless.To see and feel the challenges they face every day for food, warmth and shelter. Leaders in other cities have gained that knowledge firsthand by assisting at a facility to see what Reeves already knows.

Far too many of our fellow citizens experience this challenge daily. My church bulletin once said “open our hearts to those in need.” We are a caring community and it shouldn’t be this complicated to provide a shelter for our own citizens.

Question for Mayor Ferrell: We both live in comfortable homes,with heat and plenty of food. Will you join me in helping for an evening at an overnight shelter and experience what homelessness, even for one night, is really like?

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

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