Mile Hill homeless shelter: “crucial tool” or “recipe for disaster”?

The next step in opening a new 24/7 homeless shelter off Mile Hill Drive in Port Orchard may be complete in the coming weeks, but some Kitsap residents feel their voices and concerns have not been properly heard in the issue.

Supporters and concerned residents butted heads again at the scheduled Kitsap County Hearing Examiner meeting May 25, where a public hearing was held to help determine whether or not to award an Administrative Conditional Use Permit for the shelter, referred to as the Pacific Building. Hearing examiner Andrew Reeves fielded comments about the shelter, but a decision from him is not expected for at least another week following the hearing as public comments continue to come in from both sides.

The shelter is located in the interior of the old Olympic Fitness building, directly next to Astound Broadband, and was originally expected to open in 2021 but is being pushed to open sometime this year. An open house was held last October to show interested citizens the work being done inside the 20,000-square-foot building, which will house up to 75 residents at a time as well as some pets. Kitsap Rescue Mission will be the official provider at the Pacific Building.

The county’s Department of Human Services director Doug Washburn once again emphasized the need for a 24/7 facility in the county. He said in regards to other shelters, “it’s common that you’d line up to get a bed at the shelter at 6:00 or 7:00 p.m.; when beds are full, you’re turned away. Traditionally, you leave the shelter typically at 6:00 a.m. or 7:00 a.m. and are not allowed to reenter the shelter until the evening. Often these people have nowhere to go during the day.”

Kathlene Barnhart, senior planner in the Department of Community Development, presented her department’s case in favor of the shelter’s approval, citing the project’s compliance with group living regulations. She also discussed how it will not be a threat to those living or operating business in close proximity, saying applicants will be heavily screened beyond what is already commonplace.

“KRM has an addendum to the housing solution center application that requires an additional drug and alcohol screening as well as a medical screening that is sensitive to behavioral health issues that may not be suitable for group living,” she said.

Despite the county’s confidence in its work over the past two years on this shelter project, a large group of those who attended the public hearing in person say the location is still not favorable.

“I’m sorry; this is a recipe for disaster,” said Andrea Paine, who cited concerns over the building’s close proximity to schools, family-friendly restaurants and other locations where kids regularly meet up. “Rather than seeing the neighborhood flourish, it will slowly begin to deplete and become a neighborhood to avoid.”

“The county I do not feel has done their due diligence in reviewing the impacts this will have on our community,” added Alicia Peerson. “There has not been a thorough risk assessment of how the project will impact the residents of Mile Hill or the City of Port Orchard, and there is no plan in place to keep our neighborhoods and businesses safe when the residents are not within those shelters.”

Some residents went further to accuse the county of moving forward on the project despite their feedback, creating what they say is a major conflict of interest.

David Grout, representing the Mile Hill Public Safety Organization, said, “Since the announcement of this project and purchase of the property, the county has painted this project as all roses and rainbows, naively ignoring potential negative impacts to our neighborhood.”

The shelter did receive some community support as well. Carollynn Zimmers spoke about the growing problem on homelessness, saying, “College students are living in their cars. Mothers and children are living in their cars because they can’t afford housing. To characterize safety as moving our homeless people someplace else or characterizing them as chemicals or contamination lacks humanity.”

Founding director of Northwest Hospitality Anton Preisinger added his empathy for the unhoused, stating the problem would continue to grow without a viable solution such as this.

“Without the shelter, we will have more and more unhoused people running across the street in front of our family cars. We will have more and more people setting up their own spaces and being harassed and kicked around,” he said. “This is the crucial tool the county and nonprofits like mine need to properly serve the people who are members of our community, members of our county.”

The meeting started at 9:00 a.m. and lasted for roughly three-and-a-half hours.

An outside view of the future 24/7 homeless shelter off Mile Hill Drive.