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Lots of shelter from the storm, not many takers
Despite efforts to shelter the homeless and those without power from last week’s snow storm, Kitsap County’s severe weather shelters saw low turnout and two of the three overnight county shelters saw no one at all.
Open from Nov. 19 to 24, three shelters — Coffee Oasis and St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Bremerton and First Lutheran Church in Poulsbo — were open to the public with no screening required. St. Paul’s, located on Callahan Avenue, started with two patrons its first night before increasing to 15 on Nov. 22, the worst night of the storm. Coffee Oasis, designated for teens only, saw one man, who was referred back to St. Paul’s. First Lutheran’s power went out Nov. 22 to 24 and transfered the one person who showed up — a driver whose car was stranded — to Central Market.
In addition to shelters intended for the homeless, last week’s storm saw the opening of eight daytime warming shelters throughout the county, three of them run by the American Red Cross.
Some homeless advocates say the low attendance at the overnight shelters is due in part to the difficulty of communicating with transient people who have no radios, internet or newspapers to learn about them when they do open. The weather shelters open if temperatures are expected to fall below 32 degrees for at least four hours overnight, at least an inch of snow is expected, or an inch or more of continuous rain is expected for two or more days.
Others, however, are scratching their heads.
“We really have no idea why nobody is coming in,” said Jason McMillan, program specialist at the Kitsap County Department of Emergency Management, which coordinates the shelters.
As for the teens who would stay at Coffee Oasis on Burwell Street, McMillan said they probably stay with friends when they need a warm place to sleep.
“Teens are pretty good at finding a place to go,” he said.
Sally Santana, a Kitsap homeless advocate, said homeless people who have not been to a shelter before are hesitant to try it.
“People have a reticence about coming into a shelter because it’s a new experience and they don’t know what to expect,” she said. “It seems safer to freeze in your car than to go in. Once they discover how it is, then there’s a sense of security and safety.”
Reaching the people who need the shelters to let them know they’re available is also a challenge, Santana said.
“If you’re homeless, there’s a good chance you’re not going on the internet, you’re not reading a newspaper,” she said.
Susan May, spokeswoman for the Department of Emergency Management, said the department tries to publicize the shelter openings at food banks and libraries, in addition to local media outlets.
“It’s got to be word of mouth from a friend before anything else,” said Rev. Kathleen Kingslight at St. Paul’s, which has capacity for 20 to 25 at its shelter. “It took awhile, but word did spread.”
The first year the county offered a shelter was 2008, when a snow storm caused the only shelter in Bremerton, at Communitas on Park Avenue, to overflow. To house extra people, the county opened the President’s Hall at the Kitsap County Fairgrounds. But the shelters haven’t seen such high attendance since then.
Some of the people who stayed at St. Paul’s last week came because they didn’t have power in their homes, McMillan said.
However, St. Paul’s also lost power Monday night for nine or 10 hours, Kingslight said.
“It got pretty cold here,” she said, adding that the church was still warmer than outside.
Though the majority of the patrons at shelters are homeless, the county doesn’t limit who can stay there.
“It’s open to everybody that needs it,” McMillan said. “We try to make it as easy as possible to come in.”
The shelters are staffed by volunteers - at least two people per shift - and cost the county nothing, May said.
Despite the low turnout, May said the county will likely keep the shelters available during severe weather for those who may need them.
“You’re talking about saving lives when the temperature goes below 32 degrees,” she said.