Thanksgiving is a wonderful time of the year for those of us with homes, fireplaces, food and a bed to sleep in. Not everyone is so lucky.
The first sprinkling of snow and temperatures in the 30s remind us that winter is coming, and we still have many homeless people sleeping outside. Many are there through no fault of their own. And it would surprise you to find out how many people you know, who appear to have a nice middle-class life, are only a few missed paychecks from being homeless.
Federal Way isn’t the only city with the challenge of what to do with its homeless population. But it is one of the few whose government has shown a less-than-compassionate response. Other communities have established small house villages or implemented other creative ideas. In Federal Way, our policy has been to close their encampments, apparently in hopes that they will move elsewhere.
Police officers have told the homeless to vacate properties as they hand them a piece of paper about community services, which most have no way of getting to. The city did help with some funding for the Federal Way Day Center, but it has no overnight sleeping available. And the new Performing Arts and Event Center has always seemed to be the highest on the priority list for funding in city government, though it will operate at a substantial loss for the first few years.
But a glimmer of hope came upon the scene last January as Mayor Jim Ferrell announced his Homeless Mothers and Children Initiative as a partial response to the growing problem of homelessness in the city. Due to the lack of funding for the program, however, the gesture seemed more based on election-year posturing than any change in city policy.
The goal seemed simple. Try and have an overnight facility ready for the winter of 2017. Ferrell appointed Sharry Edwards and council member Susan Honda as co-chairs of the new effort. Both have a nursing background and have a common cause with the homeless.
However, any project of this complexity needs a lot more thought given to the details if the plan is to succeed. Insiders and city documents suggest that the mayor’s HMCI plan lacked not only money, but organization, planning, research and direction. No preliminary work had been done to identify goals, objectives, staffing, budget and stake holders.
The plan gave the appearance of an impulse directive, not an unusual approach at City Hall, rather than a well-conceived strategy to solve a serious problem.
In fact Yarden Weidenfeld, Ferrell’s senior adviser, didn’t even know about the HMCI, though it was his understanding it was in his area of responsibility.
There were internal complaints about who got to know what information, and the two co-chairs seemed to take on the role of staff, which, though well intended, may have inadvertently added to the confusion. Some of the service providers in the city also felt left in the dark about Ferrell’s plans. Weidenfeld did help with much of the work, as did some technical staff, who actually appeared knowledgeable about factors to consider.
Then some controversy occurred with competing proposals. Honda became interested in an idea proposed by a Des Moines couple, the Litowiczes, who owned property in south Federal Way. They wanted to pursue a tiny house village that would eventually include a dorm and community center. Though their plan lacked detail, they had already approached the school district, since the property was near a school, and the police department seeking support. They did not offer the property to the city but did want officials to cooperate in changing the zoning.
While the city had some legitimate questions about the project, officials were unwilling to consider a zoning change, and the proponents didn’t feel a warm welcome from city leaders. Additionally, Edwards was uncomfortable with the tiny house concept, while Honda was more open to pursuing the idea. Edwards and Ferrell wanted to engage Mary’s Place, a well-known regional program based in Seattle that has opened housing options in other suburban locations. But Mary’s Place needed funding and a large building to make the concept work.
And, not surprisingly, there were political implications. Edwards, with Ferrell’s support, was planning to run for the City Council in the position being vacated by Jeanne Burbidge. And Susan Honda was planning to run for mayor against Ferrell.
Cooperation became a challenge at times.
Almost a year has passed, and as the mornings become colder, we are reminded that winter is again almost upon us. Do we have an overnight facility for our homeless families? No, and with any good planning mechanism, we should have.
But for the first time, we may be a little closer.
Ferrell has always seemed to view the homeless through the prism of a former prosecutor as drug addicts and trespassers. While many may have drug problems, they may also want help. And Mary’s Place notes that 97 percent of families who are homeless will only experience this challenge once in their lifetime.
Last week, Ferrell called together representatives of the community churches to talk about ways to partner and how to integrate Mary’s Place into the community. The churches have been the ones to step up the last few years and provide food and a place to sleep for many homeless, and this meeting should have occurred last January.
But it is measurable progress. And Ferrell, Honda, Edwards, Weidenfeld and other city staff should be congratulated for finally getting something moving. They will need a building of about 10,000 square feet and possibly $100,000 or more. Ferrell was reluctant to quote a dollar figure for the city to invest, but if city leaders can spend millions subsidizing the PAEC, surely they can find a way to provide a roof for those in need. They should also encourage the tiny house proposal for the Litowicz property as a parallel plan. It should receive the same cooperation as Mary’s Place, and we may need both. What if Mary’s Place doesn’t happen?
It may be a difficult winter, but hopefully it will be our last Thanksgiving without a full-time roof over the heads of our homeless.
Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn and retired public official. He can be reached at email@example.com.