BREMERTON – The Salvation Army’s motto is “doing the most good.” But another phrase displayed prominently on the charity’s website seems even more apt, considering the state of affairs at Bremerton’s winter shelter recently: “a warm bed on a cold night.”
Bremerton’s emergency winter shelter has seen record attendance over the past few days, Major Scott Ramsey said; it usually averages about 70 people per night during the winter months. On Sunday it hosted 97 seeking refuge from the heavy snow in Bremerton.
“We put some people up in chairs right inside the door,” Ramsey said. “We didn’t have room.”
In addition to providing a place to sleep, mostly with vinyl mats and bedding scattered on the floor, the shelter has remained open around the clock since Friday – providing a refuge from the cold, wet weather and three square meals a day, as well as showers and laundry.
On Tuesday morning more than 50 guests were hunkered down in a large multi-purpose room and in adjoining hallways, playing cards, doing jigsaw puzzles, sleeping or watching a movie.
Some had spilled outside and were smoking cigarettes or listening to music behind the building.
Guests are allowed to bring pets, rare in the sheltering world and a marker of the Salvation Army’s “low barrier to entry model,” Ramsey said. On Tuesday one woman carried a black cat in her arms, while another guest had a well-behaved pitbull mix on a leash, wearing a turquoise sweater.
Paul Davis, 55, smoked a cigarette outside and chatted, while music played loudly from a nearby boombox.
“If it wasn’t for the shelter I’d be sleeping in a car or a tent,” he said.
While many seemed exhausted, there was also an atmosphere of camaraderie present, as many had been there for days. People shared cigarettes under a dripping veranda. Pets were greeted with questions or requests to say hello. There was even a snowball fight, which Davis said he enjoyed.
“They feed us three times a day, and they have enough mats for people,” he said.
“Could use a few more,” he added.
The shelter, which operates only from December through March, relies on $120,000 in county funding through its Homeless Housing Grant Program, as well as underwriting from the national nonprofit and private donations.
Attendance has been increasing in recent years, Ramsey said. In 2016 the shelter saw approximately 30 people per night, while in 2017 it saw about 50. Last year, nightly averages jumped to around 70, Ramsey said.
The Salvation Army is just one of a handful of shelters scattered throughout the county, but it’s centrally located near downtown Bremerton, where homelessness is visible and acute.
Ramsey said the shelter has faced a number of challenges in its efforts to remain open for four days straight. For one, staff fatigue.
“We have a dedicated staff, but there’s only eight of them,” he said, and most hold second jobs.
Staff are usually asked to work three nights a week, but keeping to that schedule has been nearly impossible in recent days.
“We’re caring for people,” Ramsey said, “but the caregivers have to watch out for themselves as well.”
Other challenges: garbage has been accumulating due to a lack of trash collection. Some guests are feeling a bit “stir crazy” after being cooped up so long. And it’s expensive to remain open for 24 hours, as security guards cost $25 per hour.
Ramsey said the shelter has been in “emergency disaster service” mode: it’s primary goal is to get people to safety, and worry about cost later.
He mentioned that the shelter’s efforts would have been impossible without a $5 million renovation of the building three years ago.
“Without any of that, this isn’t happening,” he said.
On Tuesday many of the guests sat on folding chairs in the large multi-purpose room, where the 1997 movie “As Good as it Gets” was being projected on a wall. Few people were paying attention, as there was no sound. Many rested or slept on chairs, while others talked or played tabletop games. One group played with Magic cards.
Ramsey said when he saw the snow accumulation last Friday night, he knew the shelter would have to open around-the-clock. Usually it closes during the daytime to prepare for the evening rush.
“We saw there was a need,” he said. “Once the snow started, they can’t be outside. They’ve gotta have the opportunity to be inside.”
Gabe Stutman is a reporter with the Kitsap News Group. Contact him at email@example.com.