By Mike De Felice — Kitsap Daily News
PORT ORCHARD — Eviction of the homeless encampment littering the woods around the Kitsap County-maintained Veterans Memorial Park is near, Port Orchard Mayor Rob Putaansuu says.
“The county issued a statement outlining their plan. They intend to have the encampment removed from the park by the end of April. I greatly appreciate that and hope the county follows through on that. I don’t have any reason to doubt that they won’t,” he said.
The county’s approach begins with doing “compassionate outreach” to connect them with housing and other services, said Kirsten Jewell, county housing and homeless division manager. Park inhabitants are being offered housing options, substance abuse treatment and mental health resources. “We are really ramping up outreach now. A half a dozen different organizations are going out nearly every day and meeting with the people,” Jewell said.
The next step will be to post notices informing individuals the encampment is illegal, and they must vacate the park. Those refusing to move can be cited with criminal trespass, she said.
The county conducted a three-day cleanup in early March to collect debris. Approximately 45,000 pounds of trash, including 53 tires and 136 shopping carts, were removed from the area, Jewell said. Volunteers from the nonprofit Northwest Hospitality assisted. The mayor said the county hired a contractor who “came in and cleaned up mountains of trash that were in the park.”
Dozens of homeless settlements had sprung up across the park recently, raising the ire of residents living near there, along with city officials. “The park is not equipped to have an encampment in it,” Putaansuu said. “Our parks should be for our families and children to play in and recreate in. To allow this encampment, this isn’t why the park was created. It’s simply not fair.” He added that many of the homeless there have addiction issues. “Many times, people with addiction issues commit crimes to feed their habits, which is not fair to neighboring businesses and homes.”
Following months of what city officials viewed as inaction by the county to deal with the encampment, the city had threatened to fine the county for the deteriorating conditions of the park. Last September, the city’s code enforcement officer sent a letter to the county claiming the condition of Veterans Memorial Park constituted a “public nuisance” and was in violation of municipal codes. The correspondence stated that to avoid enforcement action, the county needed to resolve the problem to avoid fines of $250 per day.
The 2021 letter outlined violations city officials had observed. Issues included accumulated trash and junk in the park, propane tanks, gasoline containers and hundreds of bicycles. The communication also stated that 40 tents had been seen throughout the southern portion of the park and that hand-dug privies and five-gallon buckets with feces were found close to the encampment.
The city’s threat to fine the county never materialized but did seem to spur a reaction, the mayor said. “I’m very optimistic about the path the county is taking and greatly appreciate the steps that have been taken so far.”
Despite the county’s timeline, Putaansuu remains concerned that problems associated with homeless living in the park will continue for weeks.
“They cleaned up the mess, but it continues to accumulate. If you don’t address the root cause of this — which is the homeless encampment in there — the trash will accumulate again, and you’ll be back in there cleaning it up,” he said.
Veterans Memorial Park is a 48-acre property that borders Retsil Road Southeast and Southeast Mile Hill Drive. It contains six athletic fields and a picnic area. Over time, numerous homeless people have set up residence in tents and under tarps in the wooded portion of the park.
The maintenance of the park is the county’s responsibility, even though it lies within the city of Port Orchard. Since the park is county-owned, the city has been unable to make policy or enact measures to resolve the problem, city officials say.
County’s homeless issue
Efforts to improve the plight of Kitsap County’s homeless have experienced some drawbacks.
A new homeless shelter that will house 75 residents at the former Olympic Fitness Club, 4459 SW Mile Hill Drive, was to have opened last fall. However, due to permitting and supply delays, the Port Orchard shelter’s launch was put off until mid-2023, county officials say.
The plan to expand the number of hotel rooms for the homeless at the Quality Inn on Kitsap Way in Bremerton is proceeding slowly, Jewell said. Currently, a block of 45 hotel rooms houses about 80 people. The county hopes to acquire an additional 15 rooms to shelter the homeless over the next few months, she said.
Putaansuu said the road to dealing with the park encampment has been a long one, but he is happy the end is near.
“I’m sorry it took a code enforcement action by us and public health to get here but it was necessary because I firmly believe what was going on in the park was wrong and needed to be corrected,” he said.