'Find someplace to hide:' County's plans to replace encampments with offers of shelter met with skepticism by those living in parks

PORT ORCHARD — Christopher Field and his fluffy black cat, Midnight, have lived in Veterans Park for about three years.

Field once worked as a roofer, but he broke his back on the job and turned to drugs to deal with the pain. He no longer uses them, but he can't stand longer than 45 minutes and also has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. He hasn’t been able to see a doctor in four years and needs a wheelchair.

He was put on a list for subsidized housing three years ago after his motorhome burned, he said. But to be near his family, he lives in the county-owned park in Port Orchard's city limits. A motel or emergency housing in Bremerton would put him too far away from his family and possibly force him to surrender Midnight, he said.

But Field and others who take shelter in encampments in Kitsap County parks will no longer have a choice come next month. After months of deliberating how to respond to unauthorized encampments on public property, Kitsap County announced last week that starting next month, it will post notices in park properties with the intention of trespassing those camping in them.

In the wide-ranging announcement sent via email, the county outlined a multi-pronged plan to address the homelessness crisis. It includes an encampment response policy that it said directs governments and nonprofits on coordinating efforts to respond to encampments "while adhering to legal requirements" and introduces the position of "HEART coordinator," which is a new full-time county position dedicated to encampment response.

"With the HEART Coordinator on board at the end of March, the plan is to post the Notice of Intent to Close and the Notice to Vacate in April following the guidance in the Encampment Response Policy," the county said in the email. "This will allow the County to 'trespass' individuals currently living in park properties.

Field isn't sure what he will do in April if the county goes ahead with its plans.

“We’ll try to find someplace to hide, somewhere we won’t get kicked out,” he said. “A lot of us will have nowhere to go.”

'A new playbook'

Doug Washburn, director of Kitsap County Human Services, said the new plan aims to get people into long-term housing, and the county said it hopes to do that by introducing a new hotel voucher program, more shelter beds, more supportive housing that will offer treatment for mental illness or chemical dependency and vouchers for bus tickets. There's also job development, training and placement through Olympic Workforce Development.

The county is contracting with Kitsap Community Resources for the hotel voucher program to expand the number of alternatives to immediately house people. The program will include intensive case management and support services to assist people in moving from these brief hotel stays to permanent housing. The county has also designated an additional $2 million for rental and deposit assistance.

Up until now, county officials have cited the federal Martin v. Boise case when it comes to responding to calls to trespass people from county property. The federal court ruling says people living in public areas must be offered shelter before they can be evicted, and a housing crisis has made that difficult.

But the plan, with resources to offer people who are camping an alternative for shelter, will allow the county to issue a trespassing charge to those who fail to leave encampments, Washburn said.

Kitsap County Commissioner Ed Wolfe said the county is “operating under a new playbook.” Should those trespassed from county parks return, they’ll be asked to leave.

“If they come back, they’ll have the same repercussions – they will have to move on,” he said. “And if they’re doing illegal things, they’ll be arrested.”

Washburn said when a policy like this was implemented previously, no one was ever charged with trespassing, and that a compassionate response is used as much as possible.

FILE — Anton Preisinger carries a large piece of an abandoned encampment up a hill as he and his nonprofit Northwest Hospitality cleanup the abandoned site at Veterans Memorial Park in Port Orchard on March 5.
FILE — Anton Preisinger carries a large piece of an abandoned encampment up a hill as he and his nonprofit Northwest Hospitality cleanup the abandoned site at Veterans Memorial Park in Port Orchard on March 5.

Homeless advocates see barriers

Those who work with those who are homeless in Veterans Park and elsewhere in the county say that Kitsap's current options don't always work for those living outdoors.

Anton Preisinger, director of nonprofit Hospitality Northwest, which has assembled volunteers over the last several months to clean up encampments at Veterans Park, says there are many valid reasons someone may not want to go to the housing being offered, like Field.

Molly Strand and her partner live about a quarter-mile from the park and have been a part of park outreach and cleanups since November. Strand is skeptical of the new plan from Kitsap County in how much it will actually help the park’s residents. She said the HEART coordinator sounds a lot like what the outreach team has already been doing weekly at the park.

“I think affordable housing, subsidized permanent housing would be a huge thing for people living in the park,” she said.

“Without being able to offer them affordable housing, I don’t know, it’s hard to see what an extra coordinator will change for these people if it’s not to get them into stable housing.”

The barriers to stable housing, in addition to the lack of it, range from having a poor credit score, to not having identification, to having mental health issues, addiction or chronic health problems that prevent them from working, Strand said.

“I’d like to think that the HEART coordinator can help people get some of these small steps on their way to a better situation but if there’s not more affordable housing it’s going to be really hard.”

Strand is hopeful that the hotel voucher program will work for many residents. She said the county’s plan sounds good but wonders where the permanent housing is that these folks can go to — housing that will work for them, like a home in Port Orchard where Field can bring Midnight.

“They see the park as a safe place to live,” she said.

Mostly, she’s worried that people will see an empty Veterans Park and think the problem is solved.

“They’re not going to disappear just because they’re not at the park,” she said.

Hurdles exist for county's plan

In an update to commissioners on the county's housing response system on Wednesday, Jewell went over some of the county's plans when it came to encampment response.

Jewell told the commissioners that the Salvation Army in Bremerton, which has operated a 24-7 year-round shelter since the beginning of the pandemic, is discontinuing its 24-7 operations next month, meaning a reduction of 75 shelter beds in the county.

The Kitsap Rescue Mission, which rents 75 rooms at the Quality Inn in Bremerton, is working to get more rooms at the Quality Inn, but Jewell described the expansion as going "very slowly."

On the hotel voucher program, Jewell said Kitsap Community Resources is reaching out to Kitsap hotels. But she acknowledged challenges in parts of the county where there are no hotels or hotels aren't interested in being part of the program.

Field knows of the county's plans to turn a gym it purchased on Mile Hill Drive into a shelter and would be interested in living there. But an updated timeline given by the county shows the shelter, which is expected to accommodate 75 people, will now not open this year. Because of the use of federal grants to renovate the building, the county now must follow federal guidelines when it comes to selecting contractors and getting permits, Jewell said. The timeline for opening is now early 2023.

Living in the park

Field said the residents try to police the area they live in on their own, but he acknowledges the unpopularity of their living situation in Veterans Park.

“The neighbors hate us because we’re here,” he said, also expressing frustration at those from nearby neighborhoods who are not homeless but dump trash at the park.

He said the garbage piles up sometimes, and rats can be a problem around people’s tents, but Northwest Hospitality's cleanups have removed tons of trash from within the park, with volunteers contributing close to 1,000 hours and clearing out over 56,000 pounds of trash.

A smaller team of volunteers at the park has put in 130 hours, gathering over 27,000 pounds of trash during weekly maintenance events that began in November 2021.

Jeffrey Johnson has been living in the park for roughly the last five months. He's not sure where he'll go once the county forces people to leave Veterans Park, but he's willing to go wherever a bed is available.

He said he’s tried previously to secure a bed at the Kitsap Rescue Mission but has been unsuccessful.

“Too many people need it,” he said. “There’s not enough housing.”

Reporter Josh Farley and local news editor Kimberly Rubenstein contributed to this report.

This article originally appeared on Kitsap Sun: Kitsap County says it's booting encampments, will offer shelter resources