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Some Bremerton homeless choose camps over shelters’ warmth — Snow falls and many can’t, won’t seek aid

Jessica pulls back the tarp at a homeless camp Tuesday where she plans to live out the winter storm rather than go to a shelter. - JJ Swanson
Jessica pulls back the tarp at a homeless camp Tuesday where she plans to live out the winter storm rather than go to a shelter.
— image credit: JJ Swanson

A hidden snow covered trail through the woods off Harlow Way in Bremerton opens to a camp home to at least a dozen homeless men and women.

There are plastic tarps hanging over cut telephone wires which have been lashed between trees to form a frame. There is an area over a trash can for cooking and another for “bathrooms.”

A winter storm has dropped six inches of snow on Bremerton with a forecasted accumulation of another inch or two per hour throughout the day Jan. 18, said Johnny Burg, meteorologist for the National Weather Service. Temperatures will be consistently below freezing.

Severe weather shelters have made preparations, opening their doors to the homeless, offering sleeping pads, towels, toiletries and heat for guests. But individuals at the camp are choosing not to go.

Low numbers at the shelters is a continuing mystery for emergency relief workers who see about one-third of the capacity used at any one time.

“We know that the numbers of homeless in Bremerton are much bigger than this,” said Jim Stowers, coordinator for Kitsap Community Resources. “We wonder why more people aren’t using the shelter.”

The Severe Weather Shelter set up at the Bremerton Foodline has been open since last Tuesday, said Patti Peterson, executive director of the foodline. They have had 10 guests to fill their 27 available spots on some nights, but on others, such as Jan. 16, no guests showed up when the doors closed at 9 p.m., and all the volunteers went home.

The top reasons for not going to shelters are worry of being controlled and being kicked out with no place to return, according to some living in the Bremerton camp.

“They tell you when to eat, sleep, take a sh--. Then they’re gonna kick you out and you really got no place,” said Jessica, who has been homeless for more than four years and stayed briefly at the Bremerton Salvation Army’s homeless shelter.

Kenny agreed that he did not like the feeling of “being owned like a dog” because someone was giving him a place to stay. He added that portioned meals were a problem.

Both Jessica and Kenny asked that their last names not be used.

“An 8 ounce meal ain’t gonna do you nothing,” Kenny said. “Make a fire and have a real meal any night when you’re hungry.”

Safety concerns were about the same whether staying at a shelter or in the woods, said Kenny. People learn to “sleep the best you can” with valuable items stored in pants, never in shoes or coats since that’s “the first place they look.”

Bremerton Foodline’s policy of taking guests’ personal items and storing them away in plastic bags for the night made him uncomfortable.

The foodline was closed Wednesday during the storm and unable to comment for this story. Wednesday morning, the camp’s tarp system collapsed under the weight of snow and only two people could be found in the woods nearby.

Hygiene is another concern for Mark, another camp member who asked that his last name not be used.

“Living in the woods is more clean than being confined with a bunch of guys,” said Mark. “Workers clean stuff [at shelters], but it ain’t for more than looks. You could get hepatitis.”

Some individuals are looking to get into transitional shelters, which work to rehabilitate as well as provide a place to stay, but long wait lists or criminal background checks are deterrents.

The current wait list at Benedict House, the only shelter for single men and men with children in Bremerton, has about 10 men on it.

“By the time you get to the guys on the list, they’ve already found another place or their cell phone minutes have run out and you can’t reach them,” said Carol Brown, program coordinator. “It’s a joke.”

Brown explained that Benedict House does not take sex offenders, murderers, those with violent crimes or domestic violence on their record. Kitsap Community Resources also runs a background check before allowing individuals into shelters and housing.

“Basically no felonies, misdemeanors or violent crimes,” Stowers said.

“Who does that leave?” asked John Belcher, a single father of two boys who said he and his boys, ages 4 and 6, will be on the streets in the next month.

The father was turned away by Benedict House and KCR for a felony he committed when he was 18.

“I messed up, but I grew up and now I’m just trying to take care of my kids, but no one will even look at me because my history,” Belcher said. “That’s discrimination against my boys. What’d they do to get nothing?”

Stowers said that a criteria must be set to make sure that the shelter remains a safe place for all those that are staying there.

Peterson said that there is currently no background checks to stay at the Severe Weather Shelter at Bremerton Foodline which is scheduled to remain open any future night that is forecasted below freezing for more than four hours.

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