Header photo courtesy of the CoLEAD program and Minea Herwitz
This month is the 25th anniversary of REACH. Throughout the month we will be interviewing the four new REACH directors to highlight each of REACH’s mission areas.
Febben Fekadu is the new director of housing at REACH. She has been working at REACH for eight months, but only recently became a director. Prior to this new role, Febben served as LEAD program supervisor. We sat down with Febben seven days into her new role to learn more about her vision for the future of housing with REACH.
So Febben, how are you feeling seven days into your new role?
It’s going well so far! I’m still transitioning out of my role as LEAD supervisor as well, so I’m balancing both roles right now, but I’m very excited to start implementing new ideas, getting to work with the housing team and continue learning about all the amazing work REACH does.
Do you have a personal connection to REACH’s mission?
Yes I do. I’ve committed my whole life to caring for others and I’ve been working with Seattle’s unhoused population for five years now and 14 years in social services
My personal connection to the mission comes from family. I have a family member who lives with schizo-affective disorder and it can be a struggle getting him resources and keeping him safe. The culture and systems around how society cares for mentally impaired or unhoused folks needs to change.
As a society, we are struggling to figure out how to work with, support, and integrate folks with severe mental illness and substance use disorder into society, so I identify with REACH’s philosophy of caring for the individual person and meeting them where they are, and also working to change the systems and worldviews of the society around them to be more supportive.
Looking back at your career thus far, is there anyone you worked with or served who has made an impression on you or set you on your career course?
Honestly, almost everyone I’ve worked with has impacted my career in some way. One woman I worked with comes to mind. She came to the United States as a foster refugee at the age of 16 and when she got pregnant, she was kicked out of her brother’s house and ended up in a shelter in Seattle.
By the time I got connected with her, she had gotten pregnant again and I could see how deeply she cared about the wellbeing of her children but didn’t know how to care, connect or financially support them. She was facing a Child Protective Services report which could have led to her children being separated from her. I helped her find safe and supportive housing, parenting support, and a part-time job that ensured her children could remain with her.
This can be a thankless job, but after she got settled, she called me and thanked me for supporting her and believing in her when she didn’t even believe in herself during the hardest part of her life.
How do you envision your program aligning with ETS’ renewed focus on health equity and community and racial justice?
First of all, housing is a healthcare crisis. If someone isn’t housed, they can’t afford to focus on caring for their other needs. When we look at the unhoused population, there is a huge disparity between racial groups. This isn’t to say that there aren’t white people out there also going through hell, but statistically, folks of color are disproportionately affected.
We are working hard together with other programs to find housing for people of all identities and backgrounds. Housing is in such short supply so that work feels both rewarding and very frustrating at the same time.
The ultimate mission – I hope for all homeless service providers – is to be able to lock up shop one day and never have to open our doors again because everyone is housed.
We’re approaching the 25th Anniversary of REACH. Looking forward another 25th years, where do you hope REACH will be? What world will REACH help build?
Since its foundation, REACH has seen a huge growth in programming. It started with four employees, including Kelley Craig and Chloe Gale who continue to lead the organization, and now we employ over 150 staff members! Programmatically, we will continue to do the work we have been doing, from long term, intensive case management to directing people towards housing and resources.
I’d like to see REACH have a stronger voice in the political system around advocacy and policy so we can use the system that exists to help our clients as much as possible. Right now, it’s Chloe Gale doing most of the advocacy work talking to deputy mayors, the press and has been a great spokesperson for our mission. I would love to see REACH not just advocate but have a seat at the table where we can have power in decision making around policy and laws.
Eventually, we’ll be able to expand our services. Many cities and counties already need the support, but with more funding and resources, we can assist even more communities.
Why did you choose to work in housing? What makes it special to you?
Having a place to call home isn’t something you earn, it is a human right. I started as a housing case manager, then when we started working with the Ethiopian population, I brought some expertise. I knew immigrants have a harder time navigating systems to secure and find affordable housing and I also understand that having a roof over your head is the foundation to having a successful life. It’s important to me that we make that happen so people can focus on doing what they need and want to do in life.
The people we work with here are the some of the most vulnerable people in the world, but most people don’t see them that way. At REACH, my colleagues are here to help and not judge. This organization humanizes the population we work with when the rest of the world often doesn’t, so I could see myself here for a long, long time.
Ok, so what about outside of your work? What do you do for fun?
I love hanging out with my people! My family and friends are what I value most in life. As long as I am out in my community, I don’t care what we’re doing – although I do love going to Lake Washington when it’s this hot out! (We spoke to Febben right after the record-setting heat wave.)
What do you wish the average person knew about homelessness and REACH’s work?
I want people to understand that our clients are humans. Someone’s child, brother, sister, partner and friend. They need help. This housing market and expensive city aren’t making things any easier. My goal is for our city and community to empathize with the unsheltered community.
Most of the folks out there struggle with substance use, or severe mental illness. They have faced a lot of hardship in their life and they deserve empathy and compassion. Trauma impacts everyone differently. I want people to act with understanding and compassion for that trauma and that pain for the population we work with. We need to be patient, supportive, and kind until we get there, because these people deserve to live too.