Council, Mayor Wheeler, continue butting heads on shelter solutions

The year 2023 saw Bremerton overwhelmed in efforts to combat crisis-level homelessness, with downtown streets covered by makeshift tarps and tents sheltering the populace, lives lost in an equally concerning drug epidemic and the livelihoods of nearby residents and business owners in shambles.

The year also highlighted a continued clash between Mayor Greg Wheeler and members of the Bremerton City Council in finding a more permanent solution, a clash that could continue into the new year as city officials are set to explore two proposals for shelter space later this month.

A letter from the mayor Dec. 29 discussed the two options that are expected to be explored by the council Jan. 10, with a possible vote Jan. 17. The council had previously delayed a vote Dec. 13.

“I heard loud and clear in the unprecedented amount of public input received just a few months ago that the people of Bremerton expect the Unauthorized Camping ordinance to be enforced,” Wheeler said. “I cannot enforce the city’s prohibition on public camping unless there is shelter space available.”

Wheeler made clear his favoritism for a temporary, overnight shelter on Oyster Bay Avenue. The shelter has been the subject of major debate since October given its close proximity to neighboring communities and a school among other concerns.

“A walk-up low-barrier shelter provides a safe, dry, and climate-controlled place for people to go, and has a proven record of providing needed available shelter space,” Wheeler said. “The Salvation Army is the only walk-up low-barrier shelter in Bremerton, and it is only open five to six months each year. This means the city’s no-camping ordinance can only be enforced five to six months a year.”

Wheeler reported that the Salvation Army, since its seasonal shelter’s early Nov. 1 opening, has housed 60 people on average per night and has held as many as 77. There is a 100-person capacity for the Oyster Bay proposal.

The mayor also acknowledged the second option, a combination of pallet structures for transitional housing and congregate shelter space. The joint proposal from Kitsap Community Resources, the Bremerton Housing Authority and St. Vincent DePaul, among other organizations, would use two locations, including Wheaton Way at Mills Crossing and another site not yet named.

“My proposal is the only option that effectively addresses the impacts of homelessness on our city—both for the benefit of the most vulnerable in our community, as well as for our neighborhoods and business districts,” Wheeler said in response to the second proposal. He cited long wait lists for those needing housing that he said would cause the pallet community to fill immediately with a lack of shelter space returning as an issue.

The widely shared letter received heavy criticism from councilmembers. A Jan. 2 response by Councilman Jeff Coughlin states the letter contained significant “misinformation,” and the solution proposed by Wheeler would have no immediate impact.

“…no operator is yet identified and the mayor’s proposal does not have the shelter opening until the end of 2024, with no current plan to ensure shelter availability over the summer of 2024,” Coughlin said. “The time and cost of clearing, leveling, and providing utilities to an undeveloped parcel of land, and construction of a new congregate building, is significant when compared to other possibilities of using existing buildings or facilities.”

Coughlin also cited an apparent lack of communicative efforts and updates to the council from the mayor, a criticism he doubled down on in the council’s first meeting of the new year Jan. 3. “Over the past year, while I was (council) president…I’ve offered the mayor various sit-downs and meetings that weren’t accepted, just to try and talk and get on the same page. Over the entire past year, I saw the inside of the mayor’s office one time.”

The council that Wheeler now has to work with remains relatively unchanged, the only newly elected official being Councilwoman Jane Rebelowski replacing Quinn Dennehy of District 4. She was sworn in at the meeting, as was reelected Councilwoman Denise Frey in District 2 and Councilwoman Anna Mockler of District 6. Jennifer Chamberlin was elected council president and Mockler vice president.

Coughlin said nothing will change if Wheeler continues to refuse talks with the council. “Please sit down with this new council and president and vice president,” he told Wheeler. “Please have regular meetings, even if it’s just every couple of weeks, to try and get on the same page.”

The lack of communication, Frey said, led to the two notably different proposals on homelessness and a longer road ahead in the decision-making process.

“I believe that it is truly unfortunate that your work wasn’t better informed by those community partners cited here so that we could have an option that our community is supportive of,” she said.