‘Unseen Territory’—Helping the Homeless of Key Peninsula


Ted Olinger, KP News

Here's what the Key Peninsula is doing to care for some of the homeless living here.

Homelessness does not have a single face or cause any more than it has a single solution, according to people working on the Key Peninsula to stop it.

The Pierce County one-day Point-in-Time count found 49 people experiencing homelessness on the KP as of Jan. 25, 2019. County officials and community advocates frequently use the term “person experiencing homelessness” instead of “homeless person,” since homelessness has a variety of causes and manifestations, and is often temporary or cyclical.

Evidence suggests KP numbers are higher.

Tracy Stirrett, executive director of Key Peninsula Community Services in Home, estimated her food bank serves 100 different homeless clients each month, about 8 percent of their clientele. “That number is growing,” she said.

The Key Peninsula Bischoff Food Bank, also in Home, has seen similar numbers according to Kimberly Miller, the vice president of its governing board.

“We saw a slight spike in 2008 with the economy tanking but it leveled out to normal, maybe 1.5 to 2 percent (per month) were homeless,” she said. “But this year we’re on track to closer to 10 percent with new client intake.” Bischoff serves about 3,000 people each month.

The nature of the homeless population has also changed, Miller said. “More of them are working poor, having lost their home, living in their car with their kids, driving their house to and from work.”

“We are headed into unseen territory with the homeless population out here on the KP,” she said. “But this community out here is by far the most supportive that I’ve ever seen.”

Homelessness is often attributed to personal flaws, substance abuse or mental health issues, but according to the PIT count those influences play a small role against a large backdrop of economic factors. 

“One of the things we deal with is stigmatization of folks experiencing homelessness,” said Sam Miller, an outreach worker for homeless youth on the KP (no relation to Kimberly Miller). “I became homeless due to an addiction. I work well with the population.”

“We are headed into unseen territory with the homeless population out here on the KP.”

Miller visits homeless encampments on the KP with first responders to offer assistance and a safe place to stay.

“We think about homelessness as a single crisis, but what’s really happening are a whole bunch of small crises that are creating it,” Miller said. “You have a lack of affordable mental health care, the opioid epidemic, a lack of affordable housing, a lack of public transportation.”

“Some of these camps, if you didn’t know they were there you’d drive right by them,” said one first responder who spoke to KP News on condition of anonymity. “But we’ve also had people complain about the mess, people squatting on neighboring property. There are also a lot more people living in their cars, like high school age students, than people realize.”

Miller pointed out that KP School Bus Connects is a valuable resource. “There’s a Key Peninsula solution that really shows the wherewithal of the community,” he said. “But there should be public transportation off the Key Peninsula. There are amazing services here and awesome things going on, but a lot of Pierce County’s resources are in Tacoma because that’s the population center,” he said.

“We probably work directly with at least a dozen homeless families over the course of a year who will come in and ask for basic necessities, like blankets for the car windows, just to keep them warm,” said Gina Cabiddu, the program manager at Children’s Home Society of Washington Key Peninsula Family Resource Center (CHS).

“We give them resources for rapid housing so they can get out of the elements, but the issue that we run into identifying homeless families is the stigma or shame in it, especially if they have children,” she said. “They’re really scared that being homeless means the children will be taken away.”

In 2018, CHS served over 1,300 unduplicated individuals with over 5,000 different services, she said, including moving people into emergency or transitional housing.

“Our overview is crisis stabilization and then preventative and educational resources,” Cabiddu said. “When I worked for Child Protective Services, I was in the deep end where it took a great deal more money, effort and resources, and it wasn’t as successful compared to catching those needs early on and addressing them. I am just very humbled by how much the Key Peninsula and the Gig Harbor area does for our people out here.”

Laurel Shultz, the program director at Communities in Schools of Peninsula (CISP), said that in addition to offering supplies, mentors and other services to Peninsula School District students, CISP also currently serves 24 homeless students in the KP and Gig Harbor areas. 

“Our core mission is surrounding kids with a community of support and keeping them in school, so—whatever it takes,” she said. “There have always been the same issues of poverty, like limited access to services, but I would say just from what I’ve seen in the last 12 years (at CISP) is the intensity has gone up.”

In the 2017-18 school year, Peninsula School District assisted approximately 204 homeless students: 166 were doubled-up with friends or relatives; 19 were in shelters in Tacoma or Kitsap County; about 10 were in motels; and at least another 10 were unsheltered, meaning anything from couch-surfing to living in a car or tent. There are an estimated 240 homeless students across the district this year, according to the superintendent’s office.

PSD provides assistance through the McKinney-Vento Act, a federal law ensuring homeless students transportation, among other things, to and from school, allowing students to stay in the same school until the end of the year regardless of where a student or family ends up after becoming homeless.

CISP has a presence in eight schools in the district, including every school on the KP and at Peninsula High, where Wendy Wojtanowicz is site coordinator. She estimated that half of the 18 homeless students she works with left their homes voluntarily, but felt they had no other choice. 

“Sometimes the parent is either drug or alcohol impacted, or unemployed, or it’s just not safe, and sometimes the student will try to find housing just for themselves,” she said. “Usually they’ll couch-surf with a friend, which doesn’t last more than a few weeks.”

In other cases, the student is the one who is substance-impacted and can no longer live with their family, and sometimes it’s just a teen’s behavior that can lead a family to expel their child.

“It’s amazing how often that happens,” Wojtanowicz said. “A lot of parents think of it as a ‘tough love’ situation: ‘You’re going to get kicked out of here and see how good you really had it and come crawling back.’ But that’s not usually the case.”

Wojtanowicz also works with a nonprofit called Harbor Care Center that temporarily shelters homeless teens.

“We have a home on the Key Peninsula that currently houses up to five boys at a time, ages 14 to 18,” she said. “The home gives them a break and separate spaces for a little while with the goal of each person getting more skills and mental health assistance and hopefully bringing the family back together. We’re trying to open one for girls.”

Students can stay in the home up to 90 days as they work toward goals ranging from family reconciliation to graduating high school and finding a job. About one third will go back to their homes, she said, while the others will move in with host families or attempt to live on their own.

Sometimes Wojtanowicz goes looking for missing students and finds them in undeveloped areas, living in tents. “I’ve never had an experience where they don’t want to be found and don’t want help,” she said. “They’re at a point where they think it’s hopeless. It’s not that they don’t appreciate help, but usually there’s depression and they don’t know where to start. That’s why I’m here full-time at Peninsula High, because people need help walking through the system. We know where to get them plugged in—that’s how we’re going to solve the problem.”