Hometown homelessness

Levi Johnson has been homeless since 2002 and a heroin addict until a little over one month ago. He spends most of his time walking the streets of downtown Port Orchard — not on the covered sidewalk, but behind the buildings, taking what food he can find from the dumpsters and smoking used cigarettes from outdoor ashtrays.

Johnson, whose name has been changed, said he moved to Port Orchard from Purdy. He’s a native, graduating from South Kitsap High School in 1994. His parents live in Bremerton, but he doesn’t communicate with them.

His sister lives in Manhattan. His brother recently got out of prison after a 16-year sentence for being a accessory to murder.

Johnson knows he’s no saint. He’s been in and out of jail. He’s stolen for drugs. He credits his last 30-day sentence for getting him off heroin, a drug he’s been taking since just prior to his homeless status.

He said he’s not going back, but he knows the pull is strong.

But being homeless invokes more pain than anything in the world, Johnson said. He frequently suffers breakdowns. He sleeps in a “camp,” a space in the woods where he keeps his tarp and sleeping bag. He only hopes no one else finds it. He gets no more than a few hours sleep every night.

“This is the worst,” Johnson said. “Thinking about where you’re going and what you’re doing with yourself and how you got here...”

Johnson said some people can come to terms with their homelessness. He can’t. He used to be outgoing. Now, he feels uncomfortable being around people. He thought Port Orchard would be a nice change, but he said there’s very little help here.

He said he can’t get a job because he’s not clean enough and his identification and Social Security card were stolen while he slept somewhere in Purdy.

“I’m tired of being dirty all the time,” Johnson said. “That’s one thing I’ve never been able to come to terms with.”

An epidemic

The city of Port Orchard and surrounding communities are facing an epidemic of homelessness that will likely only become worse with cuts to the state’s mental health budgets.

“There are a number of households we serve that are homeless,” said Jennifer Hardison, executive director of the South Kitsap Helpline for four years. “We get a number of people every day that are not currently living with a roof over their heads.”

According to Helpline records, 69 families living in the immediate area had no address to give when they filled out their food bank application information. Hardison said she expects the number is actually much higher.

“When we first got the system, some people would leave the address section blank,” Hardison said. “There were families who would come in with no listed address, but (for whatever reason) we (couldn’t) confirm whether they were homeless or not.”

As for why there was such a large homeless population in a town the size of Port Orchard, Hardison cites drugs and the cost of housing.

“The cost of living has gone up, and something’s got to give,” she said.

The statistics

The numbers are stark. There are 939 homeless individuals — 535 men and 404 women — in Kitsap County, making up 687 separate households, according to the 2005 Homeless Court compiled by Kitsap County Resources.

Sixty-six are under the age of five. Sixty-five are between the ages of six and 12. Fifty-five are between the ages of 13 and 17.

There are 86 18- to 20-year-olds in Kitsap County and 106 21- to 25-year-olds. The majority of Kitsap County’s homeless population, 215 individuals, are between the ages of 26 and 35.

There are 170 homeless individuals between 36 and 45, 134 between 46 and 55 and 33 between 56 and 64.

There are nine individuals over 65 living without a roof over their heads.

According to the homeless count, 145 homeless individuals live with physical or medical disabilities and 216 are mentally ill. Twenty-two have developmental disabilities and 40 are struck with visual deficiencies.

Two are HIV positive.

Twenty-two deal with substance abuse, including Johnson, who also uses other drugs, and 99 individual homeless have untreated dental conditions.

In 72 of the 687 households resides an individual who has served on active duty for the United States armed forces.

Only 10 are receiving Veterans Administration Benefits. Two-hundred forty-eight individuals — 171 families — are temporarily living with family and friends.

Seventy-two individuals — 62 families — live outdoors, and 49 individuals, 40 families, live in their vehicles.

Two-hundred twenty-five households have been homeless for less than a month. Sixty-five households, like Johnson, have been homeless more than a year.

Sixty-nine households come from domestic violence situations, 109 were due to family breakups, 132 were unable to pay their rent, 45 had a poor credit rating, 124 experienced loss of a job, 89 had mental illness, 23 had overwhelming medical costs, 20 used drugs and, in 73 cases, their temporary living situation ended.

All households experienced either a lack of childcare or job skills, eviction, being discharged from jail or an institution, a felony misdemeanor conviction, or a failed drug screening.

“We had more difficulty counting in South Kitsap, partially because we have so few service providers there,” said Christine Johansen, Kitsap Community Resources Housing Secretary.

The Homeless Court is done by asking homeless to come to local food banks and shelter, then getting a count. “From my experience,” Johansen said, “both as a service provider and a single mother who lives in South Kitsap, I believe the need in South Kitsap is critical and not totally recognized.”

Wednesday: Homeless children, the problem of affordable housing and problematic solutions.

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