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Public health takes lead in homelessness issues

Greg Skinner/staff photo Panhandlers seek help from drivers at the southbound exist of State Highway 3 at Kitsap Way in Bremerton Feb. 28, 2012. Recent complaints led to an ad-hoc public health summit to begin work on the growing homelessness in Kitsap County.  - Greg Skinner
Greg Skinner/staff photo Panhandlers seek help from drivers at the southbound exist of State Highway 3 at Kitsap Way in Bremerton Feb. 28, 2012. Recent complaints led to an ad-hoc public health summit to begin work on the growing homelessness in Kitsap County.
— image credit: Greg Skinner

Recent complaints don’t represent the entirety of the growing homelessness problem in Kitsap County, but they did push the public health department into action.

Last week, Kitsap Public Health director Scott Lindquist put out a call to a host of social service agencies, and others affected by homelessness. He said no one else had taken he lead so he wanted to spur the community to begin work solving some aspects of the problem.

The meeting was called after a property owner on Wheaton Way, just past the city line, sent a letter to the Board of County Commissioners and the health district complaining of homeless people living in the woods near Safeway. Complaints have also come from at least one business near the intersection of Kitsap Way and Highway 3.

Though the county has been tracking the increase in homelessness since 2009, when they discovered some interesting food stamp data, Lindquist called the meeting after personally investigating the complaint made by the property owner.

The time is now for the entire community to deal with its homeless problem. Homelessness is a public health issue without an agency to directly deal with it and with the continued decline of federal and state dollars for social services, it is the community that will have to fund the fix, Lindquist said.

“And, not just liberal do gooders,” he said.

Salvation Army Maj. Jim Baker was among the estimated 50 local social service providers to  attend the ad-hoc summit held at the Norm Dicks Government Center in BRemerton. No real answers came from the meeting, he said. Considering the varied demographics of homelessness and its causes, Baker said no central solution would likely rise from any future meetings going forward.

Lindquist said the problem solving process has just begun and more work will come.

Regarding the “chronically homeless,” the men who are the center of the complaints, there is little Baker said his organization can do so he spends time and resources in select areas that he can help.

Most agree that no one is going to force a person who prefers to live in the woods for whatever reason. During the Jan. 18 snowstorm that dropped half a foot or more of snow, several homeless people living in a camp above auto row said they’d rather stay in camp than enter a shelter.

One idea batted around at the recent meeting was for the city of Bremerton to create anti-panhandling laws. Baker said that some in attendance were for it and others against. There was a recent example of a mother “flying a sign” at the offramp looking to get diapers for a child.

Bremerton City Council President Jim McDonald said that he was not aware of any talk about the city preparing a panhandler law, as rumors have suggested. Nothing discussing such an issue has come through the Public Safety and Parks Committee, he said.

McDonald added that he has never personally experienced panhandling in Bremerton and questioned a policy that would fine already finically disadvantaged people.

Like the aware citizens of the county, Lindquist said he’s seen the rise in the total number of panhandlers. It’s obvious anecdotal evidence of the recession’s affect, he said.

There is a distinction between the two issues at the discussion, panhandlers and homeless camps. What to do as an individual citizen facing a panhandler is a primary question, according to Lindquist. Do you give them money or not? Perhaps giving to the Salvation Army or the United Way is better, he said.

Siri Cushman, an epidemiologist with Kitsap Public Health, said the homelessness trend locally has been “increase, increase, increase.” However, data shows a decrease in the percentage of homeless that report they are living outside, or without any consistent shelter. Total percentage dropped 12 percent since 2009.

Cushman said the trend showed that those who report being homeless have changed with time during the recession. The preponderance of reporting homeless are living with family or friends, she said. Those people are not the cornice homeless at the center of the complaints. To blame growing homeless situation on anything beyond the 2007 recession and the bad economy would be noting more than a guess, she said.

Based on food stamp data, 2,437 people in Kitsap self-reported as homeless at the close of 2011, up 50 percent since May 2009. Of those homeless, 1,255 said they had no regular place to live inside.

“It’s lost jobs,” Cushman said. “People who weren’t traditionally asking for help are now asking.”

Beyond the men living in the “Safeway woods,” there are other camps. Lindquist visited the site of the camp on Wheaton Way and said he found nine people living in tents, with water, food and sanitation was not entirely unacceptable.

Baker said that some chronically homeless people want to live deep in the woods. Lindquist described the Safeway camp residents as “heavy drinkers.”

“It’s a tough crowd,” Lindquist said. “They’re not a shelter crowd.”

Shelters in town generally require sobriety and lack of violent history. Sally’s Camp is for couples and families.

“The majority of Sally’s Camp [residents] are short term homeless,” Baker said. “They don’t want to be homeless.”

 

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