New series seeks to humanize homelessness

Mirror to tell stories of people in Federal Way experiencing homelessness in year-long series.

A simmering pot of homemade chili.

This is not a typical image that the word “homelessness” evokes for most people.

But this is what the Mirror team encountered when we toured the Federal Way Day Center on a recent Wednesday afternoon. As the big pot sat nearly empty on the front burner of the stove near a bowl of chopped white onions, Day Center clients chatted at tables in the common area enjoying their feast that several clients helped to prepare for lunch.

“Are you hungry?” A man, pointing to the pot, asked me and reporters Haley Donwerth and Olivia Sullivan. “Please help yourself, seriously, there is plenty left for you.”

It was the scene of an authentic community — and perhaps not a top-of-mind illustration for some people when thinking about a gathering place for people experiencing homelessness.

During our visit, another man pulled a Chihuahua named Princess that was wearing a pink vest out of his jacket and introduced her to us. It was a welcoming visit and the clients we met left us with a feeling of warmth on a chilly day on Jan. 2.

But we can’t ignore the contrasting scene we saw weeks later.

On Jan. 24, our team shadowed staff from the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, as well as Federal Way police as they cleaned up a homeless encampment in a wooded area along South 348th Street near the South Federal Way Park & Ride. The police department’s Special Operations Unit had issued a trespass notice to any people who may have been currently camping on the city-owned property at least 72 hours prior to the clean-up. So when we arrived, there was no one at the site.

Garbed in long boots and coats, we trekked down the embankment and into the woods. No sooner had we stepped off the slope into some sludge when city staff alerted us to a disturbing scene. The mud before us was covered in orange-tipped syringes — some that were sticking needle-up.

Our team walked further into the woods, looking closely at our feet as we carefully tried to avoid stepping on the needles. City staff used a tool to pick up the needles one by one and put them into a container for disposal. We walked past an old chair with a stuffed animal on it next to a florescent green “Notice to Vacate” sign.

There were many other signs of life: wet blankets, towels, pillows, shopping carts, empty milk jugs and suitcases, toys, clothes, old furniture, bicycle wheels, cots, a portable crib and more.

Did someone use these blankets to stay warm? Who drank the milk from these jugs? Did a mother set up this crib for her baby to sleep in? Or was this a dumping ground for some desperate people who had stolen these belongings? Did people addicted to drugs pass out here and discard their needles? Or perhaps a combination of each of these scenarios?

Whatever the case, one thing was clear: These belongings were strewn on the ground because some people experiencing homelessness had put them there along the way, most likely over the course of months or even years, as many of the items were encrusted with mud and leaves.

Both scenes of the Day Center and homeless encampment presented a real challenge in Federal Way and one that the Mirror team is setting out to address over a year-long series that we are launching this week on homelessness (please see our cover story about Lemoe Tautala-McGruder, who lives in a homeless encampment in the woods not far from Federal Way City Hall).

We will seek to look deeper into these places at the faces of people who are actually living in them every day. Many of these individuals feel invisible and defined by their circumstances. Our series, called “Humanizing Homelessness,” aims to tell the unique stories of people living right here in Federal Way who are experiencing homelessness, to give them a voice and to demonstrate the wide-ranging causes that lead people to live without homes. The series will also highlight some of the barriers to obtaining housing.

To facilitate our series, we are partnering with the Day Center, who is providing clients for our team to interview. In addition, we are also collaborating with a group of Advancing Leadership participants, who have made a commitment to action by choosing a community service project in support of the Federal Way Day Center. The center provides short-term basic services to those experiencing homelessness, such as showers, mail service, kitchen and laundry facilities, case management and more.

According to a statement from this Advancing Leadership group, the center runs on a limited budget and is currently facing “adversity and growing pains including a $70,000+ budget shortfall, limited human service government funding and the negative perception and stigma against homelessness that includes the dehumanization and marginalization of those perceived as being homeless.”

The group’s primary focus is to help strengthen the foundation that the center was built upon by establishing broader and deeper relationships and a wider base of support within the community. Group participants include Chantel Arnone, St. Francis Hospital; Joseph Bowman, pastor at Integrity Life Church; Kim Brazier Preston, Valley Cities Behavioral Health; Claudia Lawrence, Federal Way Coalition Against Trafficking; Tony Pagliacco, Boeing; and Holly West, vice president of Columbia Bank.

The center serves approximately 50 people per day, including families with children, veterans, individuals with disabilities, mental health issues, substance abuse concerns and more.

During our recent visit to the Day Center, Lisa Christen, division director for the center, recalled a client who was in her 80s and used a walker. She had been able to afford housing between her and her sister’s social security income. However, when her sister died, the woman had to live in her car because she couldn’t afford rent on her own.

“That’s the face of homeless that people need to hear and to see,” Christen said. “It’s that senior who is one check away from being homeless.”

Whonakee King, program director at the center, told the story of another client, a veteran who came by the facility with his cat. He was a big guy and had a very protective presence, she recalled, but she didn’t know much of his story until she later sat down with him. She learned he had lost his housing after his divorce. He had depression and had been living in a woods in Federal Way for eight years.

“The most powerful thing is getting to know these folks,” she said, noting the center was able to eventually help the man find housing in Seattle.

King added that center staff and volunteers frequently address clients by name.

“Just to let you know I see you.”

More information

The Advancing Leadership group invites interested community members who have a heart for service to join them at the “intersection where knowledge meets compassion” for their next Friends of the Day Center meeting at 7 p.m. Monday, Feb. 4. For more information and to register for this event, email your name to: