PORT ORCHARD — After a visit last month to Veterans Park, which sits within the City of Port Orchard, Mayor Rob Putaansuu was frustrated.
And a month later, the mayor’s frustration level has only risen. Feeding his dismay is the continuing presence of homeless encampments that line the county-owned and operated park, which houses up to 100 people.
Assurances by Kitsap County’s commissioners in late December that the homeless encampments dotting the Veterans Park landscape would be cleaned up and removed have done little to soften his mood. In fact, Putaansuu told the Independent this week that not much has changed at the park since the city’s meeting with county commissioners and parks department officials to review a roadmap for how Kitsap County would mitigate, then remove the encampments.
As frustrated Putaansuu has been over the garbage-strewn, unsightly appearance of the homeless encampments, he says city residents who live next to the greenbelt areas that separate them from the park are even more so as they deal with safety and security issues arising from the encampments.
“I’ve talked to numerous individuals who live in that area,” he said. “If this was next door to you, you’d be just as upset as I am.”
In unusually blunt terms, the Port Orchard mayor alleges the homeless people living on county park property have shown little desire to move — and believes many are engaged in criminal activity, including drug use. He said that by camping in the park — free from restrictions that would be imposed on them by homeless shelter personnel — they feel empowered to skirt city regulations and restrictions.
Putaansuu pointed to the recent spike in property crimes that he said has been fueled by encampment squatters who steal to fund their drug habits.
“Frankly, a lot of these people don’t want our help,” the mayor said. “They’re comfortable with the way things are right now. [Many of them] have serious addiction issues. … I’ve seen a lot of people coming and going from there [who] appear to be tweaked out on drugs, in my opinion.”
Inaction by county, mayor says
The mayor said he is troubled that Kitsap County — despite officials having created a roadmap to clean up the property — has so far done little to address the issue at the park. Putaansuu said Commissioner Charlotte Garrido, whose district represents Port Orchard, and county officials are addressing the homelessness problem at Veterans Park with long-term solutions when the crisis calls for immediate action.
He said he was bothered during the tour at the park he took last month with commissioners Garrido and Ed Wolfe, and Doug Washburn, the county’s human services director.
“Commissioner Garrido came along and brought a homeless advocate. Walking around hugging these people [at the encampments] when you’re engaging with them and handing them food wasn’t the purpose of that tour. What I witnessed was, in my opinion, someone wanting to enable what was going on there, which I think is unacceptable in our community.”
Putaansuu acknowledged that the county has made some efforts to combat homelessness: it is looking for a homelessness social services navigator; is generating a 1/10th of 1% sales tax funding source for affordable housing in Kitsap County; and is creating a homeless shelter just off Port Orchard’s Mile Hill Drive (the center’s opening has been delayed until later this year because of supply-chain issues that have impacted its renovation).
Those measures, however, are long-term solutions and won’t generate immediate results, he said.
“We’ve got to do something now,” the mayor said. “This is unacceptable and it shouldn’t be acceptable to anybody. The City Council and I are extremely frustrated. We don’t want to, but we’re prepared to take the county to court over this matter and clean the park ourselves if we have to.
“We don’t take [that action] lightly, but the county’s got to move on it. It’s going to take significant resources to do that, not weekend volunteers picking up trash in the park.”
Kitsap County has been playing catchup in enlisting a social-service navigator to tackle the homelessness issue, he said. The mayor asserted that Port Orchard and other cities in the county, including Poulsbo, have had social-service navigators at work for at least a couple of years.
“There’s been progress, but it hasn’t been fast enough,” he said. “The county has put out dumpsters at the park, but they say the trash needs to be sorted for hazardous materials. Meanwhile, trash has been dumped next to the dumpsters, which is adding to the rodent problem. The garbage needs to go into the dumpsters; the sorting needs to be done somewhere else.”
City’s hands are tied
Since Veterans Park is a county-owned facility, the city can’t make policy or enact measures to resolve the problem. But Port Orchard officials say they are using whatever tools they have available to spur county action.
The mayor admitted that the scope of the city’s code enforcement action is limited to health and safety violations. He said repeated volunteer cleanup work parties will only serve to provide others with a pristine campsite for somebody new to move in, thereby growing the problem, not combatting it.
“The city’s role has been to identify and point out the public safety aspect to this,” Putaansuu said. “But without some action different than what’s going on now — to address the root problem — we’re going to be back here in a month or two doing the same thing. That’s not how we want to go about this.
“It’s a county park within the city limits,” Putaansuu said. “We’ve got an active code enforcement case against the county for health and safety violations. We’ve got a stream running through there that feeds into Puget Sound. And we’ve got a well-head protection zone there for West Sound Utility District.”
The mayor said the city is in negotiations with a social-services organization called Kitsap Homes of Compassion, which currently provides about 100 beds throughout the county for homeless people.
“They don’t currently operate in the city of Port Orchard,” he said, “and we’re trying to change that. We’re going to fund that this year.”
A recent court case ruling has made efforts to remove the homeless encampment more difficult for governmental entities.
A court case ruling by the 9th Circuit Court — Martin v. City of Boise — has significantly impacted what cities can do in response to street homelessness, Putaansuu said. The ruling essentially states that the imposition of criminal penalties for sitting, sleeping or lying outside on public property by homeless individuals who cannot obtain shelter is unconstitutional.
In 2019, a group of cities appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court in order to gain clarification on the ruling — including defining what “sufficient” shelter means and how the ruling applies to encampments, which are longer-term places of habitation. The Supreme Court, however, would not take up the case, resulting in the original 9th Circuit precedent remaining in place.
“It appears to me that the county is hiding behind this decision,” Putaansuu said of the court case ruling. “But you just can’t let our parks turn into homeless encampments. It’s just as simple as that.”
Kitsap County responds
When contacted by the Independent on Monday, Garrido responded to the query about the park encampment with a written email statement that provided information from Alex Wisniewski, the county’s park director, and Washburn.
In response, the directors reported several county actions are taking place at Veterans Park:
• A Kitsap County Human Services team and Kitsap Community Resources outreach team “regularly walk the park and make contact with community members experiencing homelessness to provide services (such as access to shelter beds, referrals for mental health assessments, assistance with getting qualified for benefits — including veterans benefits — and connection with meals and food banks).
• “Regular cleanup events at the park occur every two to three months and have happened since mid-2020,” managed by volunteers from Northwest Hospitality and receiving assistance from Kitsap County Parks and Public Works Solid Waste.
• Two dumpsters are located at the park, where trash can be collected and removed on a weekly basis. Volunteers also visit the park weekly to collect trash and sort garbage to ensure it can be placed in the dumpster.
• Four portalets have been placed at two locations in the park.
• “Kitsap County Parks is removing brush and other growth in certain areas of the park to open up site lines and reduce their attraction as encampment locations.”
• Sharps containers have been placed at the park to provide a safe location for needles to be deposited.
• The county directors stated that a policy has been developed to guide a response to unauthorized encampments on county-owned property.
• In addition to funding a homelessness navigator position to lead efforts to remove encampments from the park and other county-owned properties, the directors stated that funds have been approved for an additional encampment outreach team from Kitsap Community Resources. These teams are to provide direct outreach to encampments and offer homeless individuals alternatives to staying on county property.
• The directors also said the new county policy “provides a framework for responding to the legal challenges imposed by the Martin v. City of Boise case that found it illegal to discriminate against or criminalize being homeless” that has rendered legal mechanisms such as ordinances, code and park rules to be ineffective.
• They stated that once the new shelter facility on Mile Hill Drive is opened — and managed by Kitsap Rescue Mission — it “will provide the shelter required before the county enforces park rules and other ordinances.”
The 48-acre county park borders Retsil Road Southeast and Southeast Mile Hill Drive, and contains six athletic fields and a picnic area. A portion of the park includes wooded land where a number of tents housing homeless people are situated.