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The reality of need in Kitsap
By MONICA BERNHARD
and SHANNON PRASCH
As the weather turns cold and the season of giving is upon us, many well-meaning folks are torn when confronted by someone holding a sign asking for money.
Considering our many blessings, we may feel obligated to hand over a few dollars or even be plagued with guilt when we decide to turn away. We know that no one should be on the streets, least of all children, the disabled, and seniors. But, how should we respond in this environment of never-ending need?
Sometimes, it’s easy to dismiss people who are homeless, especially in a society that tends to view them as lazy, drunk, or living off the system. But, these labels often hide the much deeper struggle many have with disabilities, mental illness, domestic violence, addictions and unemployment.
The Housing Solutions Center met with thousands of Kitsap County households this year, including residents of North Kitsap, who are either homeless or facing the imminent risk of homelessness. In our experience, the primary cause of homelessness is economic. In fact, the average household we served was living on less than $700 per month, and nearly a third of households served had no financial resources whatsoever. Whether due to a lost job, reduced hours, extended unemployment, unexpected expenses, or disability payments that barely cover the cost of a room for rent, most individuals are homeless because they simply cannot afford a place to live.
We know firsthand there are honest requests for help by people holding signs on the street corner, where money collected is used for food, shelter, even diapers. We also realize that many folks who panhandle are choosing to remain disconnected from the community services in place ready to assist them with their most urgent needs.
In Kitsap County, we are fortunate to have a strong system of non-profit and faith-based organizations whose missions include providing food, healthcare, emergency shelter, employment, permanent housing, mental health services, and substance abuse treatment. Still, some individuals choose to keep their distance from these agencies, which is their right, of course. But, how then, should we respond?
When considering a request to help pay for a motel room to get them out of the cold, know that there is a severe weather shelter, coordinated by the Continuum of Care Coalition and staffed by volunteers, which is available to all residents in Kitsap County when there is freezing weather or extensive rain in the forecast. All Kitsap Transit buses display when the shelter is open, and food banks and other organizations provide assistance with transportation to the severe weather shelter location in Bremerton.
Food banks across the county assist with emergency food needs and the Housing Solutions Center, which can be accessed through North Kitsap Fishline, helps individuals and families secure emergency and permanent housing.
To answer the deeper question of how to respond to panhandling, it is helpful to examine your motivations and, in the end, trust your heart. If you can offer your assistance from a place of gratitude and sincere desire to help, even accepting the very real possibility that your money may not be used as intended, then by all means give. But if your assistance is offered because you feel obligated, guilty, overwhelmed by the sheer enormity of the need, or just want to do something, then we suggest you consider another path.
The truth is, the single best way to help the most people in crisis is to support the agencies working hard to address the complex challenges of poverty, homelessness and hunger. Whether you contribute to North Kitsap Fishline, Kitsap Community Resources, your local food bank, The Salvation Army, Catholic Community Services, Kitsap Rescue Mission, The Coffee Oasis, or the many other dedicated social services organizations, your contributions will combine to strengthen the community safety net and serve to alleviate the struggle facing our most vulnerable neighbors.
The weather is cold. People are hurting. Families are hungry. And though this may seem cliché, it is true: Every hour of service, every can of food, every child’s toy, every warm blanket, every smile, and yes, every single dollar, will indeed make a difference.
Thank you for your continued support and have a peaceful holiday season.
— Monica Bernard is manager of the Housing Solutions Center program at Kitsap Community Resources.. Shannon Prasch is Housing Solutions Center program navigator.