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Stepping of f of the streets | Part two of our homelessness series

An abandoned campsite near a Poulsbo park was recently discovered by local police. Left behind were chairs, tents, blankets, cans, and trash.  - Richard D. Oxley / North Kitsap Herald
An abandoned campsite near a Poulsbo park was recently discovered by local police. Left behind were chairs, tents, blankets, cans, and trash.
— image credit: Richard D. Oxley / North Kitsap Herald

POULSBO — The options for those experiencing homelessness in Kitsap are limited.

A car can often provide shelter. Many stay on a variety of couches at friends’ homes. Homeless camps are increasingly found in the wooded areas in and around cities and towns.

There are a few shelters in the county where a person can find a roof over their head, mostly in Bremerton. Shelters are few but a valuable asset for stepping off of the street.

“I would say we are a great resource to come in for a first step,” said Jacob Wischoff, director of the youth center at Bremerton’s Coffee Oasis.

Coffee Oasis operates coffee shops in Bremerton, Poulsbo and Port Orchard. They are the face of a larger organization and cause that aims to help homeless and at-risk youth between the ages of 13 and 25. Coffee Oasis offers a shelter and programs for youth to gain employment, housing and more.

“If you’re a youth and you need to do laundry or take a shower, you can come in and do that,” Wischoff said.

Resources

Poulsbo Police community services officer Don Kennedy is the city’s man charged with seeking out and cleaning up homeless camps within the city limits. Campsites are often found abandoned, but not always. Kennedy has a method of dealing with homeless campers he encounters.

“When I talk to them I try to be nice and say that the biggest problem is that it’s against the law and also they are gonna leave trash there that I’m gonna pick up,” Kennedy said. “It’s a sanitation issue. Where are they going to use the bathroom? Things like that. They are also building campfires too, which can be scary this time of year.”

He added, “One thing I try to do, if they are receptive, is not say, ‘Hey, get out of there.’”

Kennedy notes that if residents come across a campsite, they should not approach it, but rather call police to handle the situation. This is mainly because Kennedy has resources to offer those experiencing homelessness.

“From the chief on down, we want to work with these people,” Kennedy said. “When I talk to them, I try to find out whey they are there. Is it drugs? And I try to line up some services for them. I got numbers for them.”

Numbers for resources such as shelters or other help.

Kitsap has a handful of shelters. Georgia’s House in Bremerton provides overnight shelter for low-income and homeless women and children. Catholic Community Services operates Benedict House for homeless men and men with children; services include emergency shelter and transitional housing.

Bremerton is also home to the Kitsap Rescue Mission, which offers a range of programs for homeless residents.

Kitsap Community Resources, also based in Bremerton, offers people assistance in finding housing and emergency shelter.

In North Kitsap, there is Fishline. Working with local motels, it offers homeless housing for up to five nights. Fishline also operates a safe park program for single women living in their cars. The program provides a safe place to park and stay.

Fishline also offers other assistance such as home share programs and eviction prevention.

“How a lot of it works is demographics,” Wischoff said about the various shelters. “If a woman comes in and needs housing because her boyfriend is beating her up, I would look to the battered women’s shelter. If a guy comes in and he’s over the age for Oasis, I’d call the Benedict House.”

Coffee Oasis’ shelter has a total of eight beds for ages 16- to 21- years old. There is a waiting list for the shelter, and youth must pass a background check to get in.

“When a youth comes in they have to have a clean record, no sex offenses or outstanding warrants [or] a history of violent crimes, stuff like that,” Wischoff said.

When Coffee Oasis takes a youth into its shelter, the goal is to enroll them in one of its programs and ultimately into a job and permanent housing. But the shelter, with eight beds, has a waiting list.

“We’ve been consistently full for months on end,” Wischoff said. “We have a waiting list of youth; once someone leaves, we have another one come in.”

It’s not uncommon, according to Donna Pledger, case manager from Coffee Oasis in Poulsbo. Other shelters often have waiting lists and run out of beds quickly, Pledger said.

Location is another hurdle for homeless youths, Pledger noted. For those in North Kitsap, she said, making the trip down to Bremerton isn’t an option.

“Most youths don’t want to go down into Bremerton,” Pledger said. “Bremerton feels like a whole world way.”

Reasons

Homelessness is a nexus for a range of causes, and in turn it produces a variety of outcomes, from living in cars to couch surfing. For Kennedy and Wischoff, it is difficult to pinpoint one exact reason for homelessness.

But common causes are observed.

“The issue of homelessness is caused by poor economic conditions, inability to get a job, [and is] sometimes is exacerbated by health issues or drug-related issues,” Pledger said. “It’s not necessarily a choice. There is a small population that it’s the lifestyle they choose, but it’s not a deliberate choice for a majority of people.”

For others, homelessness could be the result of drug addiction, mental health issues, or simply being at the lower end of the economic scale.

“The ones that are [camping] in groups, more often than not had serious drug problems,” said Ian Woodson, who writes a column centered on homeless issues for the North Kitsap Herald.

Woodson spent his late teens homeless, sometimes living in North Kitsap forests. At times, he would cross paths with others setting up camp in the unwatched forests.

“They would panhandle and get booze, weed or drugs,” he said. “They are just trying to forget something or be numb.

“Drug addiction is a big part of it,” he said. “Mental illness is second to that.”

Kennedy agrees with that assessment.

“Almost all of [the camps] have had some sort of hypodermic needles or something in there. It’s pretty prevalent,” Kennedy said. “I think it plays a lot to these people’s situation. I’d say at least 70 percent of [camps] have some sort of drug paraphernalia in them.”

Kennedy added, “A lot of this also has to do with mental health. It’s usually drugs or mental health issues.”

Pledger said drugs and mental health play a factor in what she’s seen too. But often, home life is also a cause.

“A common scenario that I’ve seen is that kids turn 18 and get kicked out of their house,” she said. “I would say an overwhelming majority of all the kids I deal with just have general lack of stability in their home life, if they even have a home life. These aren’t kids that are necessarily rebellious.”

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