Salvation Army shelter puts bandage on homeless crisis

Long-awaited relief appears to have arrived for Bremerton residents with the opening of the Salvation Army’s seasonal shelter, allowing for enforcement of the city’s revised law on camping while the shelter has vacancies.

Law enforcement and other service providers were quick to act following the 75-bed shelter’s Nov. 1 opening, crowding the already overrun stretch of road on Dr. Martin Luther King Way among other nearby homeless camps to provide information regarding shelter space and the consequences of refusal.

Three days later, officials worked swiftly to effectively put an end to the infamous camp. Those strolling through the once-hidden sidewalk near the Marvin Williams Recreation Center the morning of Nov. 6 saw piles of dirt where grass had once grown and still a fair bit of trash. But there was no longer a need to avoid the sidewalk.

Business owners like Paul Meigs of Discount Tire and Wheel believed the damaged ground will recover, but questions remain about how much of a long-lasting effect the shelter will have. “Whenever it is they close the shelter, May 1 or whatever, they’ll be back,” he said of the homeless. “They’ll come right back here if nothing else is opened by then.”

The opening of the shelter, announced mid-October, marked the same day Mayor Greg Wheeler had promised a solution to the city’s snowballing homeless crisis.

Capt. Dana Walters of Bremerton’s Salvation Army location said they had reached out to extend its service time. While not calling the city out in her comment, it aligns with the trend of one-way conversations that businesses and homeless advocates have alleged the city to participate in while delaying action on an issue it said it would prioritize back in January.

“We asked if it could be opened possibly in November and go until April just because it’s still really cold in both months,” she said. The city “was definitely on board with that, not like they were never not for it. I think it just kind of evolved into being December to March, and nobody really thought it was going to be any different.”

The early opening fulfills a need for shelter space in the city publicly realized by heightened camping levels in 2023, but also fulfills the new stipulation in Bremerton’s camping law that was revised Sept. 20. The new ordinance bans camping in a number of public places only if shelter space is available. Full vacancy on any given night would delay enforcement.

Walters believes the number of those staying at the shelter will fluctuate based on pre-COVID trends, such as when the working-class of homeless receive their paychecks every other week or at the beginning of each month.

“Sometimes we see our numbers are lower at the beginning of the month because people might be using it to spend a few nights in the hotel or something like that,” Walters said. “So I don’t know that the first week or so is really going to be indicative of what’s going to happen, but we have to go through a full month to see that.”

The first few days have seen regular vacancies at the low-barrier shelter (meaning few restrictions face those seeking a place to spend the night.) That has allowed for continued enforcement of the law.

“People always have a choice of whether they want to be in a shelter or not,” Walters said, “so you can provide it and have the capacity for it, but whether people will use it or not is up to them. I believe that most people currently living on the streets would love to be somewhere safe and warm, so I’d anticipate that we’re going to be thriving.”