PORT ORCHARD — David Grout, president of the Mile Hill Public Safety Organization, told members at an April 29 meeting that Kitsap County failed to include community members in developing plans for the proposed South Kitsap homeless center that is to occupy the former Olympic Fitness Center on Mile Hill Drive.
Approximately 100 community members gathered at the UKO Karate Training Center to share their concerns about the county project, which is to include homeless people formerly housed in a shelter at the pavilion on the grounds of the Kitsap County Fairgrounds in Bremerton. Seventy former residents have since been transferred to a block of rooms at the Quality Inn on Kitsap Way.
The project to remodel the new space has been delayed by supply chain issues, according to Kitsap County officials.
Grout, who owns UKO Karate, said community residents first found out about plans for a homeless shelter at 4459 SW Mile Hill Drive from a newspaper article, not from the county.
“We had no idea what the heck was going on,” Grout told members at the meeting. “When the county did decide to [share the news] with the neighbors, they sent out 120 postcards, and none of them to businesses. So we sent out a mailer to 700 residences within a half-mile from here.”
When group representatives did connect with their counterparts at the county, the president said those officials didn’t express any negative concerns or risk factors about the facility.
“Whenever we brought up concerns in emails and letters,” he said, “the response typically would be, ‘Oh, this is going to be such a great facility that will get people off the streets.’ They never addressed any of our concerns. We were frustrated during our first few meetings [with the county] when we tried to ask pertinent questions or comments. We got shut down.”
Grout said he was disappointed Kitsap County didn’t conduct any public meetings on the proposed facility. In contrast, he said a newly built coffee shop on Bethel Avenue had to go through the public hearing process with a hearing examiner to consider possible issues with the community.
Grout said his group is sympathetic to the plight of those who he labeled as having been “kicked down in life.” But he emphasized the organization’s concerns are safety and crime, especially how it impacts the 1,500 children in the area who attend school nearby or take various classes and programs within walking distance of the proposed homeless site. He said the area’s school students live in an area that’s off South Kitsap School District’s transportation grid and must walk to and from school daily.
While noting that the county plans to have 24-hour security on-site, Grout said they can’t supervise homeless residents outside the facility.
He said neighbors are also concerned about the county’s expansion plans for the property, which he says are vague. “They [the county] have about 4.6 acres of property next to the building,” he said. “Zoning for this area is 30 units per acre. That would make for 120 units in addition to the facility they’ve got.”
The president cited a 2015 Housing and Urban Development report on homelessness shelters that indicated 37 percent of those living in such a facility are chronic substance abuse users, and 45 percent of them deal with mental illness issues.
An organization member, a father of three whose family moved to the area in 2018 from Tacoma, cautioned that government officials are grappling with the court decision “Martin v. Boise” by the Ninth Circuit Court that ruled municipalities can’t clear people camping on public property unless they have shelter space for them.
“I don’t agree with it at all, but it’s the law,” the man said at the session. “What I hope people can talk about is what we can do within the framework of that current law to address this issue. I think the shelter is a terrible idea, but just being mad doesn’t get us anywhere.”
Another audience member laid the blame squarely at the feet of the news media. In articles, he said, “They refuse to say ‘drug addicts’ [when referring to those without housing]. Instead, they label them as ‘homeless.’ They’re not calling it what it is.”
A woman at the meeting labeled the homelessness issue as contributing to the spike in crime in the area. She claimed that thefts, which had been made in the dark of night, are now being conducted in broad daylight.
“Something’s got to change because I’m from here and it’s never been a problem before,” she said.
According to Kitsap County, the most recent county homeless count identified 500 homeless individuals in the region, with 150 of them in South Kitsap. Kristen Jewell, manager of Kitsap County’s housing and homeless division, said the number of individuals living on the street has climbed during the pandemic.
In a related development, city of Port Orchard officials said the encampment in Veterans Memorial Park has been cleared of homeless people and their belongings. County officials and sheriff’s deputies escorted the remaining residents out of the park last week.