By Mike De Felice
Special to Kitsap Daily News
PORT ORCHARD – County officials have been quietly arranging to open one of the largest homeless shelters in Kitsap County this summer in Port Orchard, Kitsap Daily News has learned.
The 75-bed facility is slated to open, pending permitting, at the location of the former Olympic Fitness Club building at 4459 SW Mile Hill Drive, a site that has been under consideration by officials for several months. The site is adjacent to the Port Orchard headquarters for Wave Broadband.
The shelter is expected to be operated by Kitsap Rescue Mission, a nonprofit organization that operates a homeless shelter located at the Pavilion, a large exhibition hall at the Kitsap County fairgrounds in Bremerton.
The shelter at the Pavilion will be relocated to the Port Orchard site. The county park and recreation department is seeking to return the Pavilion to an events center as COVID concerns dissipate and community activities gear up again.
Faced with the prospect of losing the current shelter and sending a multitude of shelter residents back onto the streets, officials began to look for a new location. The county Department of Human Services took action to buy the Port Orchard property, the sale of which is slated to close in mid-April, according to those close to the project.
The Port Orchard location is ideal for a shelter, officials believe.
“It is an awesome fit,” Nancy Olsten, executive director of Kitsap Rescue Mission, said of the new location. “Because it was a fitness center, you have the bathrooms and the showers and everything already there. It’s got 20,000 square feet, so we will be able to house up to 75 individuals.
“It is really a beautiful facility. It is set back from the street and has plenty of parking. There are big trees around and there is a big green grass area in back. It’s also on the bus line, too. It’s really just a great location,” Olsten said.
The Pavilion shelter was essentially one large room, while the new facility will have several rooms and allow “guests,” as Olsten refers residents, to be separated into groups.
“They will be even more space for women and families. We also want to have a space for those trying to get sober. We want to have a clean and sober room so they can support one another in that effort,” she said.
The facility will provide office space for staff and case managers, and visiting mental health professionals, she said.
The shelter’s population will consist of men, women and families, Olsten said. The facility can hold up to 75 residents. The Salvation Army shelter in Bremerton can handle close to the same number of residents, a spokesperson for that facility said.
The only criteria an individual will need to meet in order to use the Port Orchard facility will be a need for shelter. The center will be a 365-day, 24-hour-daily operation.
“There is no limit how long one can stay since there is such limited housing available in the community,” Olsten explained.
Services for residents are aimed at dealing with underlying issues, which can include substance abuse and mental health, and to assist them in connecting with services they may need, she said.
“We will have case managers working with them on plans for housing to move them forward,” she said.
Shelter residents can get assistance in obtaining identification papers, such as state ID or birth certificates, which are difficult to retain when someone is living on the street. Getting those identification records is often the first step in arranging for a person to get housing or government benefits, such as Medicaid and veteran benefits, she said.
Arranging for medical care is another benefit shelter residents will be able to receive.
“When you are homeless, you cannot have surgery, no matter how badly it is needed, if there is no place for you to go and heal once you leave the hospital,” she said.
“The facility does not provide respite or medical care but a lot of times people just need a place to sleep and heal,” Olsten said, citing as an example a case in which someone has undergone a hernia operation.
Residents can also get assistance in obtaining new prescription glasses and arranging a visit to the dentist, she added.
No county money was used to purchase the new facility, as Olsten understands it; only federal grant funds obtained by the state. The county is currently in negotiations with Kitsap Rescue Mission to provide services at the shelter, she said.
Not in my backyard
Officials plan to hold an informational session to discuss the shelter and give neighbors to the project the opportunity to learn about the shelter and ask questions. No date for the meeting has been set.
“It will be a community meeting where people are informed and get to inquire about what shelter operations may look like. People will be welcome to bring their questions,” Olsten said.
“We will work hard to be good neighbors and be responsive to the needs of the community,” Olsten said.
Prior to the community meeting, county officials hope to make personal contact with citizens living in the vicinity of the facility to talk about project and hear their concerns, according to Kitsap County Commissioner Charlotte Garrido.
“People who live in a neighborhood like to have good relationships with the other folks living around them. I think it is really important to have a conversation with neighbors about introducing a different use into the neighborhood. Neighbors will want to have their questions answered and their concerns addressed,” Garrido said.
Supporters of the new shelter understand the project may not be welcomed by everyone. Some opponents may support the idea of a shelter but will be uncomfortable with the complex in their neighborhood and take the position of “not in my backyard.”
Shelter advocates counter that view saying the facility will reduce the number of individuals living on the streets in Kitsap County.
“For people who say, ‘not in my backyard,’ well, the only way to get rid of homelessness is to provide them a place to be, so let’s work together to make this a better place to live for all of us,” Olsten said.
“When you see someone sleeping on the street or begging, people generally have one of two reactions – one is compassion and the other is outrage or anger. But regardless of whether you are motivated by compassion or by anger, we can work together to make this a better community for everyone,” Olsten said.
“You won’t see as many people living outside across the landscape. What you will have are people who are living in one place and they will have requirements to be able to live there. There will be no on-sight substance use. Behavior and neighborly expectations are set.
“If we can bring them to a place where we are helping them establish more routines [and] structure to their lives and help them get back into self-responsibility and self-esteem, that helps them and the rest of the neighborhood tremendously,” the 2nd District commissioner said.
“The fact that South Kitsap does have a lot of people who are not sheltered means we need to be doing something to address a significant housing shortage. People who never thought they would see themselves struggling to have a place to live have found themselves in that situation, so we need to find solutions that we have not looked for before. This will be one of the solutions,” Garrido said.