As winter creeps in and cold, rainy nights multiply over the Kitsap Peninsula, the Salvation Army in Bremerton is prepping for what it believes will be the busiest year at its emergency winter shelter.
The Christian nonprofit’s seasonal refuge opens its doors on December 1. Originally conceived as a last resort for the homeless when temperatures dipped dangerously low, it switched to a nightly service soon after opening in 2014, at the county’s request.
“It was still miserable out and very difficult,” even on nights when temperatures stayed above the threshold, Salvation Army Major Scott Ramsey said.
The emergency shelter, at the Salvation Army building on Sixth Street, opens every night from 7 p.m.-7: a.m. during four of the coldest months of the year, from December through March.
About 13,000 square feet – two-thirds of the Salvation Army building – will be splayed with mattresses and vinyl sleeping pads at night, both in the main dining room and scattered throughout the rest of the building, Ramsey said.
On arrival, guests can take a shower and have their clothes laundered. Sweats are provided, if needed.
Ramsey said attendance has been growing steadily each year.
“That first year we had about 30 people per night,” he said. “The next year we had 50.” And last year, Ramsey said, the shelter took in an average of 70 people per night.
What was most surprising to staff and volunteers, Ramsey said, is how many different people used the shelter; last year about 550 people signed into the refuge at some point.
To prepare for the months ahead, the nonprofit has hired security services to attend to the shelter at all hours. Until now, security worked only during the most “active” hours – at opening and closing times.
Ramsey said the additional security would be a “game changer.” He said although the shelter has seen minimal safety issues over the years, a growing clientele presents challenges.
“We have a grave concern over safety when we’re putting that many people together, just because of the potential volatility,” he said. “They’re coming in every form they can come in.”
Also this year, Ramsey is looking to put together a list of “on-call” volunteers, to help when particularly bad weather rolls in.
“So we can call people at a moment’s notice,” he said.
As real estate development in Bremerton and the rest of Kitsap County has seen property values increase and economic activity flourish, a dramatic rise in rents has made it increasingly difficult for some residents to find housing they can afford.
Many of the Salvation Army’s guests come from minimum wage jobs, multiple staff members said, who work but still cannot afford rent in the area. According to the Seattle-based consulting firm Apartment Insights, the average rent for an apartment in Kitsap County has grown a staggering 45 percent over the last five years, from $911 per month in 2013 to $1,323 in 2018.
Contributing to what some call a crisis of housing affordability, public housing and rental subsidy programs like Section 8 have not kept up with demand; just this month, the Section 8 rental assistance program, administered through the Bremerton Housing Authority, reviewed more than 3,000 applications from people who qualified for assistance per federal guidelines, according to BHA director Kurt Wiest. Only 300 were admitted to the waitlist via a lottery system.
“The wealthier we seem to see Kitsap County getting,” said Jim Adrian, a real estate developer and anti-homelessness advocate, “the more we see this population grow.”
With rentals harder to secure, some shelters are picking up the slack.
At the Salvation Army emergency shelter, Ramsey said the program uses a “low barrier to entry” model – meaning guests are not screened for alcohol use, as at some shelters, nor are they required to sign up beforehand. Visitors can even bring their pets, which is rare in the sheltering world.
“We’re trying to eliminate anything that would keep them from coming inside,” Ramsey said.
“We exist as the last place for someone to go,” he added, “instead of, not to be too dramatic, dying in the streets.”
Ramsey said that even as he expects resources to be stretched thin this year, he and his team of volunteers and staff will make do with what they have.
“Even if we’re just even offering a warm room, a table, a chair,” he said. “At least you’re out of the weather.”