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Homeless camps come and go in North Kitsap’s forests
POULSBO — Somewhere under a tree line in North Kitsap, campers settle in for a few days in the outdoors. The fire is warm, the air is fresh, a nearby creek trickles, and the tents are set for a crisp rest.
But these campers aren’t nature enthusiasts. They aren’t hikers or outdoor recreationalists. They are homeless. And the area’s wooded corners have become temporary lodging for residents lacking a roof over their heads as homeless campsites come and go.
“They are pretty creative. They’ve got them in places that are hard to see,” Poulsbo Police Officer Don Kennedy said.
Homeless camps in Poulsbo are not a new phenomenon. The subject comes up in passing conversation across the City Council’s dais and at the police station. Camping within Poulsbo is not allowed, according to city codes. When camps are found, whether abandoned or occupied, the job usually falls to one man: Officer Kennedy.
Kennedy is Poulsbo’s community services officer. He’s a friendly face that tackles duties not apt for patrol officers, such has managing the area’s home monitoring program, or organizing community service projects for residents who cannot pay off city fines.
“Most of the time when they leave, they don’t even take their tent,” Kennedy said. “A lot of times I pick up tents and blankets.”
Kennedy notes that abandoned campsites contain a lot of trash and other items. A recently discovered campsite near Highway 305 took Kennedy and a community service work group nearly five hours to clean up, ultimately filling an entire dumpster.
“There was an old tent, old clothes, cooking utensils, a bathroom area that they were using there,” he said. “Of course, we found some needles and some drug paraphernalia.”
While the camps are not occupying a considerable portion of Kennedy’s time, they have become more prevalent.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a problem, but it’s a growing thing,” he said.
The camps began blipping on Kennedy’s radar around eight months ago. A resident walking on a trail would spot a tent and report it to police. Or officers would come across a camp while chasing a suspect through a wooded area.
“Now, in my spare time, I’m walking a lot of trails out there, just to get a heads up on it,” Kennedy said. “It came to light, so now I’m trying to be a little more proactive on it. If I can catch them early enough, we can eliminate the mess of garbage we have to haul out of there.”
Kennedy has found sites near parks and wooded areas, but other factors can come into play when choosing a spot.
“The locations have to deal with accessibility,” said Donna Pledger, case manager with Coffee Oasis. “Often, I think you’ll find them in wooded areas near transit locations.”
Coffee Oasis is a cafe with a mission: outreach to homeless and street-oriented youth. Pledger has contact with the North Kitsap homeless community through programs at Coffee Oasis.
She said that locations near resources, such as stores and bus lines, have been popular choices for campers.
Homeless in Kitsap
“Around here we got a lot of unfenced land, and a lot of unwatched land,” said North Kitsap resident Ian Woodson, who writes a periodic column on homelessness for the Herald.
Woodson knows the plight of homeless in the area. He first became homeless at age 17. Like many others in his situation, addiction led the way into the woods.
“When I became homeless, I chose a bit of unwatched forest in Indianola,” he said. “There was a trail and I went about a half a mile off of it to set up my camp.”
Woodson said that most youth he came across while homeless did not like camping in the forest. Most people he met in the woods were nomadic, traveling around the county.
Living in cars is more preferable, he said. Couch surfing can have benefits too. But camping does have an upside.
“It’s easier to hide out there and not be bothered by police or whoever can be looking for them,” he said. “It’s like a safe ground or sanctuary for homeless.”
For camping groups, strength in numbers comes into play, Woodson noted.
For those experiencing homelessness, like Woodson did while fostering a heroin habit, forests can also mean privacy.
But the combination of addiction and homelessness was not sustainable for Woodson.
“I fell into a really bad crowd,” he said. “I wish I had gone the route of turning to a church to get help so I wouldn’t have had to go through half the stuff that I did. I got put into the position of being a drug dealer. It happened quickly.”
He supported himself by selling drugs while on the streets. But he came face-to-face with the law at age 19. Now, more than a year later, he has steadily worked toward recovery. Raising awareness of homelessness and addiction has become his mission.
Kennedy said many campers he encounters are young, like Woodson.
“It seems like it’s the younger crowd,” Kennedy said. “Not always, but a majority are probably under 30. Some are just 20-year-old kids and they are down on their luck.
“It could be somebody who is couch surfing and ran out of friends and is just looking for the next spot.”
Whether on a couch, in a car, or in the forest, Woodson is letting the community know that homeless people are here in North Kitsap.
“It is prevalent in our community, but we don’t see them as much, because they go out into the forest, or in their cars, or are couch surfing,” Woodson said.
“Otherwise, they are driving around or walking the streets. Any person you pass on the street could be homeless. It’s more or less taboo to talk about things like that, being at that desperate point.”