Homeless in Bremerton WA

From devout Christians serving on the front lines to social-service folks targeting funds from behind their desks, West Sound has an army fighting homelessness. But for all their effort, it's not enough. While free meals for the poor and homeless are provided in Bremerton, they are sorely lacking in many other parts of West Sound.
Even more troubling is the critical shortage of shelter beds and low-income housing in all its forms. The need is so urgent that a few are starting to call for a tent city here.

Homeless-persons' advocate Skip Ivie of Advantages Counseling of Poulsbo is one of them. He's angry about the Kitsap County sweeps of homeless tenters from the Illahee Forest. He questions the legality of the sweeps and suggests that instead, a portion of the Illahee Forest be set aside as a tent city.

The location is perfect, he said. "They don't want to look at us. We don't want to look at them either," he said.

A tent city includes central kitchen and toilet facilities and is self-policing. "All levels of crime would drop if they had stability," he said.

Delsie Peebles has added her voice as well. She envisions a tent city in a vacant lot across the street from St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Bremerton, where she runs The Lord's Neighborhood Diner.

Helene Nelson, well-acquainted with the level of desperation among tenters when they are swept from the forest, also is calling for a tent city.

But these voices are scattered and disconnected.

And neighbors of any tent city no doubt would agree with Sister Pat Millen of Catholic Community Services when she cites the possible dangers of placing unscreened homeless people in an unsupervised setting.

HOUSING

The Kitsap Continuum of Care Coalition, made up of social-service agencies, shelters and food banks, believes more transitional housing is the best bet for fighting homelessness. It has made transitional housing its foremost priority for 2004.

The chances of hoisting people from homelessness are highest when those with problems such as drug abuse are given a combination of a place to live and services to overcome their problems, they say.

The coalition advised adding 256 transitional units to West Sound's existing stock of 50 to 75, a very tall order.

On the way to the governor for consideration is a proposal to create an ongoing fund to services to homeless families. The proposal, with $2 million attached for start-up costs, is part of the supplemental budget.

And new government money for housing is raining down locally.

SHB 2060, passed by the Legislature in 2002, created a new pot of funds for operation and maintenance of low-income housing. Funds are collected from a new $10 recording fee for documents filed in county auditors' offices.

In June, the first funds from SHB 2060 -- $825,200 -- will be doled out to about six Kitsap recipients, with more to come in future years.

SOMETHING, ANYTHING FOR TEENS

All agree that homeless teens in West Sound get almost nothing. They tend to congregate in Silverdale because of Kitsap Mall, a sort of teen center where none other exists.

So far off the charts, teens have become invisible, unable to qualify for programs or get jobs. Their culture differs from older homeless people so much that they shun services in Bremerton in favor of trying to make it on their own.

A shelter could help.

"That's one of the things we're going to need in the future -- a teen shelter," said Rudy Muriel, youth program counselor at WorkSource Kitsap County.

JOB TRAINING

Beyond food and adequate housing, the fight against homelessness won't be won without job training and jobs.

"We need to provide employment opportunities that provide a livable wage -- with benefits," Millen said.

Muriel points to many WorkSource job-training programs for the homeless, and, indeed, homeless people regularly are seen there looking for work.

The Pathways to Success program at WorkSource for 16- to 21-year-olds has been getting high approval marks. It provides a chance to finish high school and get some work experience with about 150 Kitsap employers. Sometimes that evolves into a job.

Kitsap Community Resources is one of the other agencies working to match jobs with homeless people.

A LITTLE RESPECT, PLEASE

Perhaps what's needed most in West Sound's fight against homelessness is to acknowledge that its victims are here in our midst.

The homeless are us.

"They're not evil people. They're sons and daughters, moms and dads. That's who they are," said Hoyt Burrows, executive director of Bremerton Foodline.

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OUR HIDDEN HOMELESS

A five-part series that looks at Kitsap County's struggle to care for more than 800 people

SUNDAY: Tenters pitch their lives on the outermost edge of homelessness.

MONDAY: For teens, survival is a squat, something to believe in and a little spare change.

TUESDAY: In giant dining halls and under leaky tarps, the hungry are fed.

WEDNESDAY: An appalling lack of housing seals the fate of homelessness.

TODAY: With the right services, people can escape homelessness.