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Kitsap homeless veterans counting on levy

Will Buss, a homeless Marine Corps veteran, distributes meals from Bremerton Rescue Mission meals truck several times a week in exchange for transitional housing at the mission. Next week Kitsap County Commissioners will consider sending a human services levy to county voters for the November ballot. - Tom James/staff photo
Will Buss, a homeless Marine Corps veteran, distributes meals from Bremerton Rescue Mission meals truck several times a week in exchange for transitional housing at the mission. Next week Kitsap County Commissioners will consider sending a human services levy to county voters for the November ballot.
— image credit: Tom James/staff photo

Will Bus is a normal guy. He likes Dr Pepper, helps the old janitor where he works change a lightbulb now and then, and wouldn’t mind if his commute were shorter.

Back in ’96 he got out of the Marines, and less than two years ago he was living on the other side of Puget Sound, with a job at a self-storage facility and having just about payed off a few old debts.

Today, Will ranks among Kitsap’s homeless veterans, a group that stands to benefit from a levy proposed Wednesday by social workers and veterans’ advocates to Kitsap County Commissioners.

Modeled after a similar funding measure approved by King County voters in 2005, the proposed levy would add $0.05 in property tax for every $1,000 of real estate value, or about $12.50 per year on a $250,000 home. The levy would be temporary, lasting six years before needing to be approved by voters again.

By Washington State law, any tax increase of more than 1 percent must be approved by public election. Wednesday’s proposal marked the first official step toward that.

At a meeting on July 25 the county commissioners will officially decide whether to accept the proposal. Part of the proposal’s acceptance would be an advertised public comment period, the commisioners indicated Wednesday.

The levy was jointly proposed by the Kitsap County Veterans Advisory Board, which administers the state-mandated Veteran’s Assistance Fund, and the Kitsap Continuum of Care Coalition, a group of organizations including the Kitsap County Health District, the Bremerton Rescue Mission, and Kitsap Mental Health.

In documents submitted with the proposed levy, the Continuum of Care Coalition cited statistics from the Washington State Department of Social and Human Services indicating a 48 percent increase in all “homeless households” in Kitsap between 2009 and 2010, and a 524 percent increase since 2001.

Also cited were reports from the Salvation Army of a 24 percent increase in the average number of free daily meals being served since this time last year, and from three of Kitsap’s six school districts reporting near-doubling of the number of homeless students since 2006.

“In our meal program we saw a 25 percent increase in the first quarter of this year alone,” said Walt Le Couteur of the Bremerton Rescue Mission, “so it’s definitely getting worse. We’ve seen an increase in the need on an ongoing basis since we started back in 2009.”

For Bus, things got worse in March 2010, when he abruptly lost his job as a property manager, which had also provided his housing.

Buss had only $200 in savings, when he received his notice. “I wasn’t prepared. At All. I had, you know, $200 to my name. I walked out the door right over to Worksource, and I started calling everybody,” he said, including every shelter in the area. All were full, or had requirements that he as a single man didn’t meet.

At the last minute, he got in touch with an outreach worker in Tacoma, who put him in contact with a mission there.

Lucky breaks

It was one of a string of lucky breaks that meant that, in a year-and-a-half of moving between Kitsap shelters, he has never had to spend a night on the street.

There was the pastor who bought him a hotel room, the Worksource workers who, overhearing his story, stopped him and gave him some money as he was leaving, the friend who would pick him up from the cold-weather emergency shelter and drive him around, just to stay warm.

Without those breaks, he said – “being in the right place at the right time” – he would have been out on the street.

Today, Bus said, staying at and volunteering with the Bremerton Rescue Mission, he’s happy to have “just a place to live. That’s amazing.” Now, he said, “I need to find some work. I’m perfectly capable, but I can’t do it if I’m sleeping under a tree, and I don’t have a shower.”

Despite procedural delays, Kitsap County Commisioner Charlotte Garrido said she was in favor of the levy, but that the agencies and organizations proposing it had to convince the public of its necessity.

“My personal belief is that the nonprofits are the glue that holds our community together and nonprofits are almost entirely overlooked.” But, she told the organizations standing up as the levy’s proponents, “It’s not the commisioners you need to convince, it’s the general public.”

Fred Scheffler, chair of the Veteran’s Advisory Board, voiced one of the session’s sole expressions of reservation about the levy, saying that he had received calls from several people he described as “vitriolic” over the idea of a tax hike.

“In the last two weeks I’ve had two vets who’ve called because they’re losing their homes but, the case has to be made that we need to look at creating a job-base here.”

Still, after the session Scheffler said that although he had reservations over the tax increase, he believed the levy was necessary, and was in favor of it overall.

The Veterans Advisory Board estimates that the levy would collect about $1,500,000 per year, with the first payment coming one year from now, after the next round of property tax collections.

That money would be split evenly between two funds, one to pay for human services in the county as a whole, and one to fund programs specifically for veterans.

These funds would be overseen and distributed by two separate citizen committees.

Currently, emergency assistance funds for veterans in need come from the Kitsap County Veteran’s Assistance Fund. Washington State requires that every county maintain such a fund, and collects a property tax of $0.01 for every $1,000 of property value to maintain the fund, or about $319,000 per year.

Leif Bentsen, Veterans Assistance Fund coordinator, said that the increasing demand for human services in the county could mean that even with the levy, changes in federal funding spurred by the debt crisis might leave local agencies underfunded.

“The hope is to look at ways to make the overarching program for veterans even better,” Bentsen said.

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