Questions hold up East Bremerton homeless shelter

Joel Adamson holds up an identification card that the homeless would be issued when staying at his proposed shelter in East Bremerton managed by Bremerton Rescue Mission. Walt Le Couteur, executive director of the mission, stands next to him at a public meeting Saturday.  - Kristin Okinaka/staff photo
Joel Adamson holds up an identification card that the homeless would be issued when staying at his proposed shelter in East Bremerton managed by Bremerton Rescue Mission. Walt Le Couteur, executive director of the mission, stands next to him at a public meeting Saturday.
— image credit: Kristin Okinaka/staff photo

Chris Byrne is all for helping the homeless, but she has a lot of questions about a proposed homeless shelter in East Bremerton.

“Why weren’t we contacted way before?” Byrne said Oct. 14, speaking from her living room on Bowen Street, off Trenton Avenue Northeast, two lots down from the shelter site. “I do feel for the women with their children. If they’re staying in their cars, that’s horrible. But this is not a safe location.”

She points to a steep drop off on the property, and the tendency for storm water to pool on the two-and-a-half acre site.

Many other concerns were raised at a neighborhood meeting Saturday arranged by project organizers, attended by more than 100 people, at New Life Assembly in Bremerton. Among them, concerns about safety, sanitation, the capacity of the remote, narrow street to handle an influx of people. Organizers plan to start the temporary shelter with five families, with a maximum of 34, with each family getting its own cabin.

But residents are not the only ones with questions. A 2009 state law authorizes faith-based organizations to establish homeless shelters on property they own or control without prohibition from a city or county. But county officials can enforce health, safety and zoning ordinances. And last week organizers agreed to hold up construction of the planned cabins until the county Department of Community Development reviews the project. Organizers and county officials will meet next week, said Jeffrey Rowe-Hornbaker, deputy director of the department.

The project is being headed by the Bremerton Rescue Mission, which organizes meals for homeless people. Joel Adamson, a Bremerton-based developer and engineer, owns the property and is working with the mission to build the cabins to help house Kitsap’s homeless.

Adamson just sees himself as “being in the right place at the right time” and wants to help move people living in their cars into housing before temperatures drop.

“I just had the land available,” Adamson said over the phone Oct. 14. “We’re fortunate that we are able to help out.”

He planned a nine-lot housing division on the property, but Adamson never developed it because of the downturn in the real estate market.

Due to his lupis, he has to lie down for a majority of the day and his condition has made him realize what is important in life — helping others.

“I am a Christian and this is what Jesus would do if he were here,” he said.

Demand for safe, warm housing is extremely high. As of Wednesday, 498 people, about half children, are on a Kitsap Community Resources’ three- to six-month waiting list for either emergency shelter or transitional housing. The social service agency, one agency in Kitsap that serves homeless and low-income people, has 48 beds available, said Eugenie Jones, spokeswoman for Kitsap Community Resources.

The structures of the proposed East Bremerton shelter will be 12-by-12 insulated plywood cabins. Adamson plans to lease the property to the Bremerton Rescue Mission for one dollar a year and the organization will manage the site. Adamson said the site would be used for a maximum of two years. He also said he has reached out to neighbors, traveling door-to-door Oct. 9 handing out letters to neighbors. But neighbors were put off that they were not notified sooner, noting a bulldozer had already arrived on the property.

A commissioners meeting Monday afternoon with the Department of Community Development concluded that the county needs a policy for encampments such as Adamson’s proposal.

“It’s a new wrinkle,” said Rowe-Hornbaker of the proposal, which includes a private property owner, a faith-based organization and developing raw land for a temporary site. Last week Adamson agreed to hold off construction until the county reviewed the project.

Despite what the county decides, Saturday’s meeting showed neighbors have concerns of their own.

“The property you’re thinking about is lousy,” said Mark Rowley, who lives two blocks north of Bowen Street. Many echoed Rowley’s opinion, adding that shelter residents would have to walk far to reach resources and that it is not a safe environment for children to play because of the dangerous slope. Many did not think that trained volunteers would be capable of managing security for the site and that the narrow road would not be able to handle the additional traffic the shelter would bring in.

Byrne attended the meeting and became frustrated and left before it ended. Nearly half the crowd did the same.

Walt Le Couteur, executive director of Bremerton Rescue Mission, told the crowd that for families on waiting lists this is the best option available.

“We’re in a crisis situation,” Le Couteur said. “If we could find a better solution, we’d go about it.”

As of September there were 1,756 self-reported homeless people in Kitsap County, according to the state Department of Social and Health Services. The number has increased from the reported 1,473 homeless people in October of last year.

Not all who attended the meeting were against the proposal. Sandra Kortum of Bremerton explained to the group that there are successful shelters such as Share/Wheel in King County.

“I really feel that with the predictions we have for winter, this is an idea that beats the socks off of doing nothing,” Kortum said.

Share/Wheel is a nonprofit that has both indoor shelters and tent cities. They are self-manged, which means that the homeless operate the sites themselves, said Bruce Thomas, who resides at one of the tent cities currently located in Woodinville.

“You have to be able to play well with others to live here,” Thomas said, explaining that there is a strict code of conduct that all residents must follow including no drugs, alcohol and violence. There is an elected five-member committee that helps enforce this, as well as around-the-clock security. All of these positions are filled by those at the camp with Share/Wheel staff stopping by once a week to check in and replenish supplies.

“People that live here care about where they live,” said Thomas, who has lived at the tent city since it started in 2004 and added that neighbors are always skeptical at first, but the group always meets with the neighbors before they move to a new location.

Adamson is hoping to start with six cabins, with one being used as a shower and laundry unit. One family would occupy each of the five remaining cabins. The entire shelter will be constructed from donations by individual contractors, which is equivalent to $40,000 to $50,000, Adamson said. Portable toilets will be used and the area will be fenced off with one entrance monitored by a trained volunteer. The maximum number of cabins he has planned is 34, excluding the shower unit.

Neighbors also voiced concerns about alcohol or drug use, but were assured that intoxicants would be prohibited in the area and that all families will be screened by Kitsap Community Resources beforehand, Le Couteur said.

There is currently a safe park program in Central Kitsap where parking lot space is provided by the county for families with children to park their car and have access to bathrooms and showers, said Larry Byer, executive director of Kitsap Community Resources. The organization does background checks for this program and case management work to help the families find a better living situation. If the East Bremerton project is approved by the county, the organization could assist in a similar way, Byer said.

“We haven’t said ‘yes’ and we haven’t said ‘no,’” Jones said Monday. “We want to see what the outcome is in placing the shelter.”

Cryss Jensen lives on Bowen Street and thinks Adamson’s plan is well thought-out and that there are no risks to the neighborhood. She is disappointed in some of her neighbors’ negative reactions toward the shelter.

“My only concern is that there won’t be a safe shelter for people if this doesn’t work.”

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