Just as homelessness has steadily risen in urban areas like Seattle, it is also going up in smaller communities including nearby Kitsap County, which saw a 17 percent increase in unsheltered homelessness over the last year.
That’s according to preliminary results of Kitsap County’s 2019 homeless point in time count, a one-night snapshot of a community’s homeless population. The count, held in late January, showed 487 people were homeless in Kitsap County on the night of the count, about a 7 percent increase over 2018; of those, 174 people lived outside.
Last year, 149 people were recorded as living unsheltered during the one-night count.
The increase may partly reflect the county refining how it conducts the annual count, said Kirsten Jewell, the housing and homelessness program coordinator for Kitsap County Human Services.
This year, the county recruited current and formerly homeless individuals to help guide teams of volunteers who look for homeless people. These experienced guides knew where to find homeless people — many of whom live in harder-to-reach, wooded areas — and they were able to help persuade them to participate in count surveys.
One-night counts are imperfect measurements of a community’s homeless population on any given night, and they do not reflect how many people seek out homeless services in a given year, for example. About 2,600 households experiencing homelessness requested assistance last year in Kitsap County, Jewell said.
The one-night county increase is also relative. More than 12,100 people were counted as homeless during the King County 2018 one-night count. (King County is expected to release its 2019 numbers in May.) Kitsap County, which includes Bremerton, Port Orchard and Bainbridge Island, has an overall population one-eighth the size of King County’s. More than half of the population lives in unincorporated areas, Jewell said.
But in Kitsap County, like in larger urban areas, a lack of affordable housing is a growing problem. In a survey of homeless people accompanying the point-in-time count, the top two causes cited were eviction or loss of housing (37 percent), and job loss or an inability to work (36 percent).
“Kitsap is a microcosm of the larger problem,” Jewell said.
Mental illness was the third most common cause (34 percent); 13 percent cited substance abuse.
In 2018, 17 percent of respondents to a King County point-in-time survey said eviction or a recent increase was the reason for homelessness, while 25 percent cited job loss. A precise comparison is difficult because King County breaks down its reasons for homelessness into more detailed categories than Kitsap County, and the counties use different counting and survey methodologies.
What particularly struck Jewell about this year’s Kitsap County numbers was that 53 percent of people surveyed in the count said they experienced challenges related to a permanent physical disability. That’s up from 33 percent last year.
“What that says to me is that we don’t have enough shelter beds for people who have physical disabilities,” she said. “And we need to really take a close look at how we can improve that situation.”
About three-quarters of the people surveyed in Kitsap County said their last permanent home was in the county; 18 percent said they were from another county in Washington, and 8 percent said their last stable home was out of state.
Those figures are remarkably consistent year to year, Jewell said. People who end up there usually grew up there, came for a job opportunity at the shipping yards in Bremerton or have some personal connection.
“Most people haven’t heard of Kitsap County unless you have a reason to come here,” Jewell said.