Working to break the homeless cycle; teen center proposed in Poulsbo

POULSBO — Students at North Kitsap High School spoke of the desperation they’ve seen, of peers that have fallen through the cracks, without a permanent place to sleep at night.

Homeless youth are a sad reality in Kitsap County, and a few organizations have come together to provide a better alternative for those in the North End of the county. The Rotary Club of Poulsbo-North Kitsap and Coffee Oasis, a nonprofit coffee shop and homeless teen center in Bremerton, have teamed up to establish a teen drop-in center in Poulsbo.

“Not all kids who [are homeless] made choice to be homeless or run away,” said Marilyn Larrabee, outreach volunteer with Stand Up for Kids in Bremerton. “The majority of them are teens who have had some horrific family history.”

Stand Up for Kids is one resource Coffee Oasis uses to help at-risk and homeless children. Larrabee was bolstered by the community support she saw for a teen drop-in center at Saturday’s meeting, hosted by the Rotary Club, Coffee Oasis and the City of Poulsbo.

Meredith Green, president-elect of the Rotary Club, said the club hopes the $19,600 it raised in 2011 will be a “catalyst” for a larger effort to bring services to Poulsbo. Green hopes the money will inspire others to help fund and support the center, including the Port Gamble S’Klallam and Suquamish tribes, service clubs, schools, churches, and social services such as Kitsap Community Resources.

More than 150 people attended the forum in the Poulsbo City Hall council chambers. Green and Coffee Oasis director Dave Frederick said they heard more positive testimony for why the community needs the teen center.

Jason Thompkins spoke about spending time on the streets when he was 13. Green said instead of taking him to jail when he was picked up, a Bremerton police officer took him to Coffee Oasis.

“Now he’s the father of three and a productive citizen,” she said. “At least he’s not in jail like a lot of the kids who start out that way.”

Poulsbo City Council member Jim Henry, who works as a greeter at Walmart, said he wants to help those teens who wander Walmart just for the warmth. Green said they know of about 160 teens reported as homeless by the North Kitsap School District, but that number isn’t accurate. Teens who have dropped out or transferred, or whose parents don’t report them, are not included, and those are the teens that Green, Frederick and the other supporters want to help. Robyn Chastain, director of communications for the North Kitsap School District, said the latest numbers indicate around 93 students identified as homeless.

“The idea is to draw them into a place where they have a positive environment and they can learn about setting goals and making some good choices,” she said.

Coffee Oasis began in 1996 as a Christian ministry — Frederick is a minister — and evolved into an organization that does outreach to homeless youth, and provides case management and job training.

“We’ve had great relationships,” with local businesses, Frederick said. “There’s been no increase in crime because of our presence.”

Coffee Oasis is expanding into a overnight emergency youth shelter in Bremerton.

At a Rotary Club meeting in early 2011, Frederick shared what Coffee Oasis is and what he hopes it will become as a resource for North End youth. Soon afterward, Rotary began a fundraising campaign to bring a homeless teen center to Poulsbo.

Green said club members spoke with city officials and found a compatible space — the former Public Works building on 8th Avenue and Iverson Street — for Coffee Oasis.

“The location is an ideal location — it’s vacant, already built, walking distance from school [and] from town, [near] the existing bus line, and adjacent to the library, which provides great resource,” Green said.

Mayor Becky Erickson, who served as moderator at the meeting, said because Coffee Oasis is a nonprofit, the city could offer the 2,000-square-foot space at a subsidized rate of $400 a month, to cover the maintenance cost of the building. The lease would need to be approved by the City Council.The center would not be an overnight shelter.

Erickson said a few community members have asked whether this service is needed in Poulsbo. But at the forum — the majority support from the crowd, and the plan Rotary, Coffee Oasis and the city presented — it seemed the community recognizes the need.

“We don’t have a lot of time to reinvent the wheel,” Larrabee said. “These people are homeless now, they’re freezing now, their getting pneumonia now.“Coffee Oasis is proven to work. We’re all resources that use each other already.”

If the City Council approves the lease, the plan is to remodel the building and recruit and train staff and volunteers by March. Green said she hopes the coffee business can be up and running by May, and staff and volunteer recruitment completed by September.

“I’m excited for this to happen,” Frederick said. “It becomes more than just helping hurting youth, it becomes a community [working] together, embracing this.”

Larrabee added, “If we don’t help these kids now, they may not get a second chance somewhere else ... this is really a prevention. We want to help them become the positive citizens I know they really want to be.”


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