In North Kitsap, ‘homeless’ has many definitions | Part 1 of 3

Editor’s note: This is the first of a three-part look at homelessness and its effect on the North Kitsap School District. The names in the story have been changed to protect the students’ identities.

NORTH KITSAP — In a big city like Seattle, being homeless can mean living in tents or under overpasses, keeping all one’s worldly possessions in a shopping cart. But in a rural or suburban setting like North Kitsap, homelessness often means living in a car or constantly moving from one couch to another.

It’s a problem that affects hundreds of people throughout Kitsap County, including as many as 100 students within the North Kitsap School District, although numbers vary widely throughout the year.

“You don’t have to be sleeping on the street to be homeless,” said Ben Smith, a senior at Spectrum Community School in Kingston. “If you have a steady place to sleep that’s not your own, you’re homeless.”

Smith’s friend and schoolmate, Ricky O’Brien, also knows what it’s like to grow up without a stable place to live.

“For like the first six years of my life I was couch surfing, because we didn’t really stay at a place more than six months,” O’Brien said. “I got some stability when my mom married my stepdad. We stayed in a house for like a year, but then we started moving around more because rent started going up a lot more.”

O’Brien and Smith said their difficulties growing up were caused largely by their parents’ drug use at the time. Their lives only began to stabilize once their parents overcame their addictions.

“Pretty much all my life I’ve been living with tweakers and addicts,” Smith said.

Smith added that drug use is no longer an issue in his family.

For O’Brien, the road to stability took time. After drugs were no longer a problem, finding a healthy environment became a new obstacle.

“Just recently I had to be living with some bad people that were all addicts of bad drugs,” he said. “We were having to stay in their ‘guest room,’ but it was a garage, pretty much. We ended up having to get out of there because my mom was afraid that she was going to have a relapse on drugs and stuff. So I was like, ‘I’d much rather live in a box than watch you go through all that stuff again.’”

From there, the O’Brien moved in with the Smiths and their situation began to improve further. But O’Brien still has trouble feeling truly at home anywhere.

“I don’t like being home, because I don’t feel like that home is going to be my home for very long,” he said. “I’m so used to being moved around so often, not knowing anybody. This is the first time I’ve been in one area for more than a year.”

For many other young people, homelessness has nothing to do with drug abuse.

“Another thing why kids become homeless is because they get treated like s--- by their parents,” said Kaley Burns, a senior at Spectrum.

While Burns, O’Brien and Smith said they have good relationships with their parents, they have friends who have run away from home fleeing physical abuse.

Even when drug abuse and conflict are not issues, other problems can arise, especially in a struggling economy.

“Also, with people being homeless, it’s because of the economy,” Burns said. “You can’t get laid off all the time. That’s our problem, is getting laid off. And that’s a lot of people’s problems.”

There are several resources in North Kitsap for people of all ages struggling with homelessness or unemployment. Next week, The Herald will take a look at those resources and what people can do to help.

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