By Mike De Felice
Special to Kitsap Daily News
PORT ORCHARD – County housing officials invited neighbors of the homeless shelter planned in Port Orchard to a “listening session” Tuesday to hear about plans for the facility and have the opportunity to ask questions and voice their concerns.
Officials took heat for much of the meeting but there was at least one member of the public who voiced support for the project.
During the 90-minute virtual meeting, several residents questioned why the county decided to purchase a building in a residential area for the shelter. Opponents of the project complained the shelter’s location is close to children and far from any potential jobs and community resources that would help individuals get back on their feet.
The new shelter facility is being constructed inside the building that once housed the former Olympic Fitness Club at 4459 SW Mile Hill Drive, adjacent to the WAVE Broadband office.
Residents have their say
“The county’s plans for homelessness are way too wimpy,” complained David Grout, who identified himself as president of Mile Hill Public Safety Organization. He complained the county has thought about how to operate the shelter but failed “to do the hard thinking to integrate this project into the surrounding community.”
The county established procedures to evaluate the project without being required to hear from residents negatively impacted by the shelter, Grout said. He called for a public hearing to take place with an independent hearing examiner who has the authority to delay or stop the project if needed.
County housing officials said the 20,000-square-foot building is close to bus transport routes and affords enough space to house men, women and families. The shelter is to house 75 individuals.
The need to open the Port Orchard homeless facility arose after county officials learned the existing shelter at the pavilion on the grounds of the Kitsap County Fairgrounds in Bremerton had to close. The county parks department wanted to return the pavilion to its original use as an event center.
To avoid the prospect of sending the pavilion’s shelter residents out onto the streets, the county began looking for a place to open a new shelter. After a countywide search, the former gym was purchased in April to house the new shelter. Originally scheduled to open this fall, the shelter’s refurbishment has taken longer than expected. The current timeline to open the shelter is next spring, housing officials reported at the meeting.
While work continues at the Port Orchard facility, approximately 70 former residents of the now-closed pavilion site have been housed in a block of rooms at the Quality Inn on Kitsap Way in Bremerton.
Homelessness is a rising problem across the state and Kitsap County, according to Kristen Jewell, manager of Kitsap County’s housing and homeless division, who kicked off the Zoom meeting.
The most recent homeless count in Kitsap County conducted last year showed there were 500 homeless individuals in the region, with 150 of those in South Kitsap, Jewell noted. The number of individuals living on the street has climbed during the pandemic, she added.
There are six known homeless encampments in South Kitsap, officials noted. Currently, there are no emergency housing programs in South Kitsap. The Port Orchard shelter will improve community safety by moving a portion of individuals living on the street into a safe place to stay, housing officials said.
Some residents expressed their nervousness about having a shelter in the neighborhood, which they believe will attract more homeless people to the area.
In response, Doug Washburn, head of Kitsap County’s Human Services, explained that only shelter residents, who can remain inside the facility all day, will be allowed on the property. That’s unlike other shelters — such as the Salvation Army and Rescue Mission in downtown Bremerton — which only allow guests to sleep there at night, who then are sent outside in the morning, he said.
One neighbor questioned why the county purchased two lots adjacent to the shelter property and asked whether there was a plan to accommodate even more individuals in the future.
“We have no plans at all to develop those two pieces of property,” Washburn responded.
Another community member expressed the belief that the shelter only enables homeless individuals to continue living with their substance abuse issues. County officials, however, said that residents of the new facility will get case managers to aid them in getting help for any underlying issues they may be dealing with, such as mental health and substance abuse. The shelter will be drug and alcohol-free, they added.
Washburn shared the reasons why the Mile Hill building was selected for the project. He said the building had proper zoning and came with large rooms to handle families. The structure was connected to the sewer system and also came equipped with multiple restrooms and showers, he said. In addition, the property was set back from the street and had a large backyard.
Inviting the public to attend
One Zoom viewer questioned the county’s efforts to publicize the Tuesday listening session and the second one on Thursday, saying she had gone to 10 businesses in the area and none of them had heard about the meetings.
A county representative indicated invitation letters were sent to all property owners within a half-mile of the project and noted the meetings had been publicized in a recent article in the Port Orchard Independent.
The sole supporter of the Port Orchard project was a man identified as “Chuck.” The lifelong resident of Kitsap County applauded the county’s efforts to tackle the homeless problem.
“Having a place that will offer secure housing and services to as many people as possible will be a blessing to our community,” he said.
The Port Orchard shelter will be operated by Kitsap Rescue Mission, which also ran the Pavilion shelter.
Every resident will be screened through the Housing Solutions Center to ensure they are a good fit for the shelter, Kitsap Rescue Mission Executive Director Robin O’Grady said.
Once accepted at the facility, an individual will be able to stay on the premises all day, seven days a week. “People cannot walk in off the street. There will be no lining up to get in,” she said.
The shelter will be staffed 24 hours a day and will also have onsite private security personnel around the clock, O’Grady added. A special 24-hour-a-day phone line will be set up to allow neighbors to report any issues or concerns that arise, she said.
Kitsap County District 2 Commissioner Charlotte Garrido, who supports the project and represents the region in which the shelter will reside, said at the close of the meeting: “I think this was a rich conversation. I think many details and great ideas came up tonight. If we can continue this conversation, we can create miracles.”