By Mike De Felice
Special to Kitsap Daily News
PORT ORCHARD – City officials remain irked over the county’s inability to resolve problems associated with homelessness encampments scattered throughout Veterans Memorial Park in Port Orchard.
“We have a health and public safety problem here from the refuse and human waste that is being generated. This is unacceptable. It’s a problem and has to be dealt with,” Port Orchard Mayor Rob Putaansuu said.
City officials plan to meet with Kitsap County Board of Commissioners chair Robert Gelder today to hear how the county intends to deal with the problem.
Gelder said the county has taken actions to address some issues surrounding the Veterans Park encampments, including enlisting a clean-up effort and adopting a new encampment policy, but he said more work needs to be done.
The 48-acre county park borders Retsil Road Southeast and Southeast Mile Hill Road. It contains six athletic fields and a picnic area. A portion of the park includes wooded land where numerous tents house homeless people.
“Our estimates are that there are more than 100 people in the park,” the mayor said.
The maintenance of parkland is the county’s responsibility even though it lies within the City of Port Orchard, the mayor said.
In September, the city sent a letter to the county indicating the condition of Veterans Memorial Park constitutes a “public nuisance” and is in violation of city municipal codes. The correspondence stated that to avoid enforcement action, the county needs to resolve the problem to avoid fines of $250 per day.
The letter sent by the city’s code enforcement officer ticked off several issues officials had observed in the park during a site visit.
Those issues include accumulated trash and junk in the park, propane tanks, gasoline containers and hundreds of bicycles. There was also evidence of trees being cut down and used for structures and firewood. The communication also stated that 40 tents had been seen throughout the southern portion of the park. Hand-dug privies and five-gallon buckets with feces were found close to the encampment.
The letter also noted that 50 used syringes had been removed from the park by the county health department. Just prior to a July visit by city officials, South Kitsap Fire and Rescue staffers had been called to the park to extinguish a tent on fire. On a different day, a deceased individual was found on a park trail.
After receiving the city’s correspondence, the county facilitated a clean-up effort by the nonprofit group Northwest Hospitality and other volunteers.
“It’s a great first step,” Putaansuu said. “I’m told 11 tons of debris was removed from the park, but it’s still not enough. There is more to be done. There is still more trash.”
Putaansuu is concerned about the impact the homeless encampment is having on surrounding neighborhoods and the park’s stream and wetlands.
“I don’t think the county is being a very good neighbor to the residents in that area,” the mayor continued. “There needs to be a plan to deal with the garbage being generated and a plan to deal with the human waste. It’s impacting our stream.”
Commissioner Gelder concedes more clean-up work around the encampment is needed, including mitigation measures involving portable toilets, dumpsters and “sharps containers” allowing for safe disposal of needles.
A major step the county has recently taken to address the issue of homeless encampments on county land was the adoption of an unauthorized encampment response policy, Gelder said. The policy outlines a systematic way for the county to address encampments, including shutting them down when necessary, he said.
Kristen Jewell, the county’s housing and homeless division manager, said she believes the new encampment policy helps the county to deal with encampments in a positive way.
“The county is aware there is a significant issue of encampments in South Kitsap and other parts of the county. We have been working on a multi-faceted approach to deal with [them],” Jewell said.
The approach, she said, includes formulating the new encampment policy and hiring a coordinator to implement the plan. It also would add another encampment outreach team to work with individuals living on the street and get them connected to housing and services programs. Expanding a state-funded hotel-motel voucher program is another element of the county’s efforts, she said.
“The goal of the voucher program is to increase the number of temporary motel vouchers that can be used to get people inside,” she said.
The new 75-person Mile Hill emergency homeless facility in Port Orchard, set to open next spring, will expand the number of temporary shelter beds available in the county.
“We think the Mile Hill program will have a really positive impact on reducing visible homelessness in South Kitsap. [Here], we don’t have homeless shelter beds for those struggling,” she said.
The final element in the county’s effort to deal with the homelessness issue is to continue increasing permanent affordable housing around the county, similar to that being accomplished by Pendleton Project in Bremerton, Jewell noted.