Wave of homeless in Kitsap County confront trickle of solutions

As affordable housing dwindles, homelessness is going up.

Editor's note: This story is one in a series by the Kitsap Sun looking at the problem of rising homelessness amid a shortage of affordable housing. To see other stories in the series, visit kitsapsun.com.

PORT ORCHARD — Sheltered in a moldy RV parked in a Port Orchard driveway, John and Sherry Green face a winter of uncertainty.

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The retirement-age couple have been homeless since the end of October when their previous landlord sold the Belfair house they’d been renting for cheap. They've spent November in a desperate search for housing, making daily trips to the library to scan online listings and posting their contact information on the stoops of homes that look vacant.

Their search has come up empty. Few homes are available for rent; none the Greens can afford on a meager fixed income.

“We’re stuck and we don’t know what to do,” Sherry, 60, said Tuesday.

For now, the borrowed RV is home. The Greens sleep head-to-foot on a flimsy plywood bed, run the electric heater sparingly, use buckets for their bathroom. A tarp weighted down by water jugs deflects the pattering rain.

"It’s no way to live," Sherry said, but she knows it could be worse.

“I’m more worried about the people sleeping in tents,” she said. “Those people will freeze.”

The Greens have unwillingly joined ranks of the newly homeless in Kitsap, a population swelled by an unforgiving housing market. As Sherry fears, there are many families enduring harsher conditions as another wet winter descends.

A one-day count of the homeless conducted last summer found 197 people living unsheltered across the county, a number that represents only a portion of the homeless living in the woods, on streets, in cars and abandoned buildings. Hundreds more were staying in shelters and transitional housing, or doubled up with friends and relatives.

An emergency shelter hosted by The Salvation Army in Bremerton last winter served more than 370 people. The oldest was 87, the youngest, 3.

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"No one really foresaw those numbers," Salvation Army Maj. Scott Ramsey said. “It's not showing any signs of slowing down.”

INFOGRAPHIC: Homeless in Kitsap

Local agencies have made incremental progress in confronting the surge of homelessness in Kitsap, a crisis mirrored in other communities across the country. Governments, nonprofits and church groups are working more cohesively to help the homeless than ever before. Temporary housing solutions, including sanctioned tent encampments and tiny cottage villages, are in the works and could open in a matter of months.

Kitsap housing leaders believe bolder, more permanent solutions are required to reduce homelessness in a meaningful way. They envision “Housing First”-style projects that could provide homes for scores of vulnerable residents, while surrounding them with the services they need to gain stability. A solution on that scale will take years to execute and require funding from sources not yet identified.

Kurt Wiest with the Bremerton Housing Authority thinks it’s doable. If there’s a positive to the county's struggles with homelessness, it’s that the crisis is not too vast to be addressed.

“I’m not discouraged in the least, I’m energized,” Wiest said. “I don’t think we’re so far behind that it’s an insurmountable problem.”

Housing pinch

When it's time for bed, Dennis Miller and Amy Taylor tilt back the seats in their Nissan sedan and spread out their blankets. It's been more than a month since their last living arrangement with a family member in Poulsbo soured, leaving the couple with nowhere to go. They spend most their nights in the parking lot of a big box store in East Bremerton.

Dennis Miller and Amy Taylor watch a movie from inside their vehicle at an East Bremerton parking lot, where they are living in their vehicle. (Photo: Larry Steagall / Kitsap Sun)  

Like the Greens, Miller and Taylor receive some monthly income they could spend on housing — Miller collects disability benefits, Taylor has worked part-time in a warehouse in Kent. Like the Greens, they can't find a home they can afford.

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"I didn't expect the economy to be so hot," Miller said. "The housing market is just ridiculous for everyone."

A growing number of Kitsap households are experiencing housing instability as the real estate market heats up, social services providers say.

Average apartment rent climbed more than 30 percent over the past three years, while vacancy rates tightened, according to Apartment Insights Washington. The typical unit now costs more than $1,200 a month, straining the budget of low-income renters.

"The rising rents are what's really hurting us. The income of the people we serve is never going to keep pace," said Monica Bernhard with the Housing Solutions Center of Kitsap County, a Kitsap Community Resources program that assisted more than 1,000 homeless families last year.

Escalating rents and low vacancy rates have forced some families into homelessness while making it harder for those without homes to claw their way back into stable living arrangements. The 2015 Washington State Housing Needs Assessment found that for every 100 low-income households in Kitsap (households earning $37,800 or less a year) there were 32 affordable housing units available.

"The biggest challenge is there's no place to rent," Bremerton Salvation Army social services director Cheryl Piercy said. "So even if they do everything right there's no place to go."

Some worry efforts to market Kitsap as an affordable haven for Seattle commuters will further stretch the county's limited supply of homes.

"I’m not sure as a community if we’ve planned for that housing impact," Bernhard said. "It will have an unintended consequence of putting more pressure on the affordable housing stock."

Piercy has seen a new wave of homeless families priced out of the hot rental market. They join an existing population of chronically homeless residents who often face overwhelming barriers to securing permanent housing. Many struggle with complex, overlapping challenges ranging from mental illness and substance use, to chronic health conditions and disabilities, and histories of eviction or crime.

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Piercy said the biggest public misconception about people experiencing homelessness is that they could turn their lives around if they applied themselves.

"That if they just worked harder and pulled themselves up in their bootstraps they wouldn't be in their predicament," Piercy said. "That's just not true, that's just a fallacy to make ourselves feel better... I've never met a homeless person who said 'I just love it out here.'"

Helping the most vulnerable

As county leaders grappled with the growing homelessness crisis last year, a luminary in the world of housing paid a visit to Kitsap.

Lloyd Pendleton used his stop at a workshop in Suquamish in June 2016 to stump for the Housing First model he championed in Utah, a state that virtually eliminated homelessness. Under the model, agencies identify homeless residents who have the most daunting barriers to housing and are the biggest users of public services like jails and emergency rooms. They place those residents into homes and blanket them with services such as mental health counseling and job training to help them maintain stability.

In Suquamish, Pendleton urged an enthusiastic crowd to pursue housing solutions without delay and avoid getting bogged down in bureaucracy.

"You need to meet, but meet with urgency," he said.

Kitsap officials embraced Pendleton's message, but progress toward a housing first model for the county has been gradual. Kirsten Jewell, who oversees Kitsap County's Housing and Homelessness program, said building new housing units is an expensive undertaking, with little funding available.

"That's been much more difficult than we'd hoped," Jewell said.

Instead, the county and its partners shifted their immediate focus to using existing resources to assist Kitsap's most vulnerable homeless residents. Social services and housing assistance providers have reduced barriers to accessing programs, placing an emphasis on helping homeless clients regardless of their backgrounds.

Housing Solutions Center, the county's designated entry point to housing assistance, implemented a screening process that distinguishes between applicants seeking affordable housing or rental assistance, and applicants who are homeless. Homeless applicants are assigned a "navigator" to help them access social services and find a safe place to live. Only the most vulnerable are referred to shelters.

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“We really focus our efforts and resources on the people who are hardest to serve,” Monica Bernhard said.

Building on the success of its Housing Options Group for veterans, Housing Solutions Center created a meetup group for the general public, bringing an array of service providers together every Tuesday to engage with people in need of housing help. Those providers might help a client obtain an identification card, receive care for a lingering health problem, land a part-time job and find a bed at a transitional housing facility — steps that can position them to eventually slide back into permanent housing.

“That’s the idea, to break down those barriers,” Jackie Fojtik with Housing Solutions Center said.

Under another initiative, Housing Solutions Center is working with Kitsap Mental Health Services to secure homes for people with mental health conditions, using funding from the state Housing and Recovery through Peer Services program. Nearly 250 Kitsap Mental Health clients didn't have stable housing this fall, according to the agency.

With little new federal or state funding available, most efforts to address homelessness in Kitsap rely on agencies working together to seal gaps in the social safety net. Kitsap Public Health District enlisted a host of organizations in a project called Kitsap Connect, based at the Salvation Army, to help homeless people with the most dire needs.

The cities of Port Orchard and Poulsbo each launched task forces over the last year to unite local service providers. Port Orchard's group linked up with churches to open a severe weather shelter last winter that served 45 people over 18 nights.

"We had a tremendous outpouring of volunteers," Mayor Rob Putaansuu said.

As one of its projects, the Poulsbo task force enlisted nonprofit group Coffee Oasis to provide transitional housing for homeless women in a house at Nelson Park.

With few affordable housing units being built, nearly every effort is limited by the housing available, Jewell said.

“We’re not going to be able to end homelessness unless we can end the affordable housing crisis,” she said.

Finding homes for the homeless

Some new homes for the homeless are on the way.

After the housing workshop in Suquamish in 2016, the county convened a Homes for All committee — chaired by county Commissioner Charlotte Garrido — to tackle housing solutions. The committee zeroed in on the idea of building clusters of "tiny cottages" across the peninsula to shelter homeless residents.

The first tiny cottage village could launch in Port Orchard by early next year. The Suquamish Tribe opened its first tiny home village this fall.

Garrido views the tiny homes project as an achievable step that will lead to bigger homeless housing projects.

"This is a low-risk example of how this could work," she said.

The county could also soon see legal tent encampments spring up. Commissioners passed an emergency ordinance in 2016 allowing churches and nonprofit groups to organize tent cities in the unincorporated county. At least one group, Kitsap Rescue Mission, is close to opening a camp.

As these interim projects take shape, housing leaders have not given up on the prospect of large-scale, permanent supportive housing projects (housing where residents are supported by a suite of social services). A committee focused on Housing First proposals meets regularly.

Funding remains a major question mark. Federal and state money available for affordable housing programs is at best holding steady, even as the need for housing grows.

Voters in several Washington cities, including Bellingham, Seattle and Vancouver, have approved property tax levies to kick-start construction of affordable housing. In Bellingham, a levy passed in 2012 generates $3 million a year, money that's been rolled together with other funds to build homes for the chronically homeless, low-income seniors, youth and people with disabilities.

Discussions of a similar levy for Kitsap have so far fizzled.

“It hasn't been on our agenda for a while," Garrido said of the Housing for All committee.

Housing leaders will continue to hunt for funding options. It's possible a portion of Kitsap's sales tax for mental health could contribute to housing efforts. Some are looking to the Legislature to free up money for affordable housing.

Bernhard with the Housing Solutions Center said it will be difficult to turn the tide of homelessness without new funding streams.

"I honestly think if we are ever going to address Housing First, we’re going to need to find some funding shifts," Bernhard said.

Sherry Green, center, is hugged by her son Bill Hahn outside of the RV she is living in with her husband John Green, left, in Port Orchard. The couple and the son are all homeless. (Photo: Larry Steagall / Kitsap Sun)

In tents, in shelters and drippy RVs, the people who need housing most aren't looking so far in the future.

As darkness grew and temperatures dropped into the 30s in an East Bremerton parking lot Thursday, Dennis Miller and Amy Taylor were thinking of ways to keep moisture from creeping into their car and whether they had enough blankets to stay warm through the night.

"It gets cold," Taylor said. "Really cold."