The Kitsap County Department of Human Services estimates that one in every 240 people of the county’s 267,000 residents is homeless or struggling with housing insecurity.
Kirsten Jewell, the Housing & Homelessness Division manager in the department of Human Services, said there is a skewed public perception of what someone experiencing homelessness looks like. The visible individuals living in parks and tents represent a relatively small proportion of the unhoused, while many more live in shelters, she said.
“We have a lot of families with children, and people who have fallen on hard times. A lot of those folks are desperately trying to get themselves out of it, and they are the vast majority of people we’re helping,” she added
On Jan. 24, Human Services hosted a Project Connect Community Resource Fair at Gateway Fellowship Church in Poulsbo as part of the annual homeless count, which provides data for federal funding of homeless programs. Last year, the Point-In-Time count identified 563 people living without homes. There were 182 people unsheltered, 244 in emergency shelters, and 136 were in transitional housing. This year’s numbers are not yet available.
The goal of the resource fairs is to connect those in need to service providers who offer housing, shelter, health and supportive services.
Volunteers at Gateway spoke with those struggling with housing insecurity to complete homeless count surveys and to determine their need for services that included help with rent, clothing, food, Veterans assistance and more.
“We never think of it as a very evaluative tool because it undercounts a lot of folks. We try to conduct surveys by getting people to come to us,” said Jewell, who helped coordinate the events in Poulsbo, Bremerton and south Kitsap. “This is a room full of incredibly passionate, caring people, who are serving our lowest income, most vulnerable people, and we need to keep these programs going.”
As the pandemic eases, Jewell worries about losing funding.
“During the pandemic, we had lots of extra funding. We were able to stand up 150 additional temporary shelter beds due to COVID funding, but all of that funding and some state funding for shelter beds is sunsetting this year.”
Some of that funding ends this summer.
“We’re trying to let our state legislators know that this is an urgent problem. We’re going to have to shrink down our programs and shelter beds if we don’t have some backfill funding to help with this crisis. We’re seeing some movement out of shelter beds, but we still don’t have enough for everybody.”
On Jan. 26, volunteers met at the Poulsbo Fire Department at 6:30 a.m. to prepare to count homeless out in the community.
Dave Musselman, a Poulsbo firefighter and county Homeless Encampment Action & Response Team (HEART) coordinator, and Jarrod Moran briefed the volunteers on where to locate the homeless and how to interact with them. Moran is responsible for implementing response policy, coordinating groups and resources, and directing cleanup efforts for homeless in the county.
Musselman sees homeless daily and said there are different lifestyles: people camping in cars, in parks, in wooded areas and on boats around Liberty Bay. He said they want to stay near services and places that offer free Wi-Fi and bathroom facilities at places like Safeway, Starbucks, the library and Walmart, which limits camping to three days to prevent long-term dwellers.
Teams set off to locations around Poulsbo and Bainbridge Island.
BI Councilmember Joe Deets teamed up with Jon Demboski, a Housing and Urban Development employee, and spotted a parked car with expired license plate tags and steamed-up windows. Demboski approached the vehicle identifying himself as a survey volunteer, but the occupant turned away and declined to interact with them.
On High School Road near Starbucks, Deets and Demboski approached a woman holding an “ANYTHING HELPS” sign and asked her if she was homeless. She was not. “I’m just broke,” she said.
In Poulsbo, the duo searched the Urban Park Trail and found two unsheltered sleeping areas and one tidy encampment with a tent.
After participating in the count, Deets said he was grateful for the county’s efforts. “It’s so important to count the unsheltered people, so that we are in a better position to help them. It was very heartfelt to see the living conditions. Even though we didn’t see some people, we saw the way they are living, and that is no way to live.”
Jewell said the count was successful. “This year, we had more outreach professionals assisting with the surveying than in past years. Their knowledge and expertise, combined with all of our community volunteers, allowed us greater reach into encampments, streets, woods, abandoned buildings, cars and places where people are struggling to survive outside.”