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Homeless on BainbridgeHousing advocates plan a census to measure the island's problem.
"It may surprise some that homeless on Bainbridge means anything other than newly arrived families looking to build or buy. To Kitsap County's Continuum of Care Coalition, however, the phrase means, literally, islanders with no place to live. The coalition, comprised of representatives of Kitsap agencies providing services, shelter and housing, will team up with Helpline House Jan. 30-31 to take a census of Bainbridge's homeless population. Joanne Tews, executive director of Helpline House and Bainbridge representative to the coalition, estimates that at any given time there are approximately 30-40 homeless people living on the island. They stay in their cars, Tews said. They sleep in tents or on the ground. They double, triple and quadruple up in substandard housing, like sheds. People don't notice them here, because they blend in. According to Julie Graves, housing development director for the Kitsap County Consolidated Housing Authority and chair of the Continuum of Care Coalition, the area's homeless population includes men and women of all ages.They are people with little or no income. They may be fleeing domestic violence, or perhaps struggling with mental illness and substance abuse. They are the folks who are staying with friends or relatives, living in parks and campgrounds, couch surfing from friend to friend, or living in cars.Although no formal census of homelessness has been conducted in the county since 1994, Kitsap's Emergency Shelter Assistance Program's 1999 statistics counted 689 individuals who stayed in shelters - including 136 children under age 5 - and 1,872 who were turned away. According to ESAP, 50 percent of the homeless who contacted social services were victims of domestic violence. Graves cautions that these statistics do not truly represent all homeless, since ESAP does not include all Kitsap shelters, and since some indigent people avoid shelters altogether. Graves has seen homelessness increase in Kitsap since the 1994 census, and she ascribes the increase to the 1997 Work First law implemented in Washington State. The act is part of a federal mandate curtailing social services to welfare recipients nationwide. Many families are actually worse off working than they were before they lost food stamps and medical care, Graves said. They are working in low-paying jobs with no health insurance.The censusThe count of homelessness is part of a federal effort, initiated with the 1987 McKinney Act, to improve and coordinate homeless services at the local level. In 1997, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development mandated a continuum of care process for communities receiving McKinney Act funds. The jurisdictions that administer HUD's block grants - locally, Kitsap County and the city of Bremerton - are taking the lead in putting the umbrella program into effect.We invited community leaders from all walks of life to the Continuum of Care Coalition, to come together and identify social institutions that existed to serve the homeless, Graves said. The notion was that once we identified what we had in place, we could find the gaps.The coalition determined that one service lacking was transitional housing.Transitional housing is defined as subsidized units available from 90 days to two years, together with social services targeted to break the cycle of homelessness.On Bainbridge Island, for example, the Housing Resources Board maintains the 10-unit Island Home transitional housing on Knechtel Way. Families are placed by Helpline, with residency closely tied to such services as counseling and child care.In 1999, the Kitsap coalition received $389,000 in grant funding to develop transitional housing for families made homeless through domestic violence, and is now purchasing two duplexes in North and Central Kitsap. The coalition also was granted Section Eight certificates to subsidize rent for 50 households. Graves believes the census will help accomplish more goals. Analysis of the count will provide statistical evidence of need and reliable data for more funding requests. Data will help identify needed services and improve delivery systems. The long-term benefits may be better housing and services for the homeless population - and better-informed service providers and leaders. Graves said Continuum of Care has been careful, in planning the census, to consider the feelings of the homeless. It's important to me that we show them dignity and respect, she said. We want them to know, also, that they are safe. When I worked in Kitsap's mental health housing program, one thing clients would say was that they didn't like to participate in surveys, because if they answered a bunch of questions, they might wind up in a hospital, she said. We're not out there to round them up. We may consult law enforcement, but only because police tend to know where the homeless stay.The coalition is working in partnership with food banks throughout Kitsap County to conduct the census, which will take place during normal food bank hours. Besides Helpline House on Bainbridge Island, participating agencies include Fishline in Poulsbo, Central Kitsap Food Bank in Silverdale, Foodline and St. Vincent DePaul in Bremerton and South Kitsap Helpline in Port Orchard.In the local census event Jan. 30-31 at Helpline, Continuum of Care will have representatives to speak with the homeless, and will serve coffee and soup. Graves is looking for local support.The count will not be successful without community participation, she said. We need volunteers if we're going to live up to our slogan: 'You count, so we count.' "