Community meeting showcases local groups fighting homelessness

Editors note: a previous version of this story bore an error, stating Kitsap County is short by 120,000 housing units. In fact, this shortage was referring to a statewide housing shortage. The editorial staff of Kitsap Daily News regrets this error.

With all signs pointing to rising levels of homelessness in Kitsap County, a number of local organizations were at a Central Kitsap Community Council meeting April 3 to discuss the vexing issue of homelessness in Kitsap County.

Kristen Jewell of the Kitsap County Human Services Housing and Homeless Program, along with Jayme Stuntz and Kelsey Stedman of Kitsap Connect, each presented what their groups have been doing in an effort to combat the rising trend of homelessness across the county.

Jewell was the first speaker and provided the most detailed presentation, showcasing data and trends the Kitsap County Department of Human Services has gathered. According to Jewell, 2,644 Kitsap County households needed housing assistance in 2018 and 79 percent of those households were below the federal poverty level.

“We know this is an incomplete count because we can only survey people we can find and the people who are willing to take our survey,” Jewell said. “Every time we’re talking about these numbers, we’re talking about an individual. We’re talking about people.”

Jewell said increasing rent prices are the top cause of homelessness in the county. Average rents are outpacing average wages. The average rent per unit in September 2018 was $1,345, a 10-percent rise from 2017.

We’ve had a huge amount of prosperity in our county, which has increased the cost of housing while income has become stagnant,” Jewell said.

“Our state is 120,000 housing units short of our population [and] incomes can’t keep up with rent. There is a severe shortage of housing for low-income households.”

Some of the big symptoms of homelessness, Jewell said, include eviction, job loss, mental and physical health issues, family conflict and substance abuse, among others.

“Homelessness is a symptom of a bunch of other problems,” Jewell said. “Once you’re homeless, it’s extremely difficult to find housing again. It’s like a really perverse game of musical chairs.”

Jewell’s short-term goal is to increase access to more immediate shelter while the long-term goal is to provide enough affordable housing in the area so the homeless don’t end up back on the streets. She also emphasized that there haven’t been any affordable housing developments for rent in the last 10 years.

Kitsap County Department of Human Services is putting in efforts to expand their outreach and build connections to develop trust within the homeless community in order to seek their resources. A village of 14 tiny cottages currently exists as a pilot project in Port Orchard, with the goal of getting people back on their feet. The department is hoping to expand this project to other parts of the county but a permit process must occur over the next six months.

Kitsap County Commissioner Ed Wolfe was in attendance and alluded to one of the homelessness encampments he visited recently over on the Clear Creek Trail.

“My experience has been that these people don’t really want our service, they just want to be left alone,” he said. “What are we doing differently here than in Seattle?”

Jewell responded by noting the “Seattle is Dying” video recently released by KOMO news. She said the video did a disservice to their efforts as it implied that drug abuse is the main symptom of homelessness when gathered data indicates otherwise. She added that drug abuse is one symptom among many.

The next presentation came from Kitsap Connect, which is a collective impact program between Kitsap Community Resources, Peninsula Community Health Services and Kitsap Public Health District that began in August 2016.

The goal of the program is to reduce the overuse and misuse of expensive health and social services by providing care-coordination services to the most vulnerable residents in the community who are experiencing mental illness and substance abuse disorders. Organizers dissected the demographics of those accessing the program’s services:

  • The average age of users is 53
  • 90 percent are experiencing homelessness at intake
  • 85 percent were disabled, 95 percent were unemployed
  • 50 percent have dementia or other cognitive disorders.

Of Kitsap Connect’s clients, 76 percent were eligible for a reduced cost of services, 74 percent of homeless clients obtained housing and 84 percent of the housed clients remain housed today. The program has seen data that show significant improvement in mental health, substance abuse, healthcare supervision, income and residency.

Public comment was available at the end of the meeting. One woman, a self-described former homeless person, said, “You get promised housing all the time and then you don’t end up getting it.” Another audience member made a plea for the community to contact state legislators and senators about the issue of homelessness in Kitsap County.

Tyler Shuey is a reporter for Kitsap News Group. He can be reached at tshuey@soundpublishing.com

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