PORT TOWNSEND – After more than six months of searching for an affordable place to rent, Brian Thompson and his two small dogs found themselves with no place to go June 1, more than two months into the coronavirus pandemic.
That’s when the Port Townsend native was given a tent and offered a spot at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds’ campground by Olympic Community Action Programs (OlyCAP).
“I don’t know where I would be if I weren’t staying here at the fairgrounds,” Thompson, 51, said five months later while sitting inside his tent on a rainy November day.
“I have no family who would help me, so I would probably be up in the woods somewhere with no running water and no power.”
Thompson and others experiencing homelessness — some also with addiction and mental health challenges — have been living at the campground for months on end in everything from RVs to tents, protected from eviction by Gov. Jay Inslee’s pandemic-induced moratorium, which runs through the end of the year and may yet be extended further.
“We can’t evict the people that are here and most of them don’t have the money to pay, though some people pay the little bit they can,” said Terry Berge, who has been the on-site campground host for more than 15 years.
In light of that — as well as complaints of noise, theft, property damage and drug-dealing from neighbors and the Jefferson County Fair Association — four nonprofits kicked off a concerted effort this week to ramp up outreach to the campers in hopes of quelling disturbances and making life a little easier for everyone.
“Unofficially, each of these nonprofits has been going out there to assist in their own way for months now,” said Gary Keister, acting director of Bayside Housing and Services. “We have now formalized this effort with the county.”
With $45,000 from Jefferson County, staff and volunteers with Bayside, Olympic Community Action Programs (OlyCAP), St. Vincent de Paul and Dove House Advocacy Services have committed to visiting the campground at least once each day.
Not only do they get to know the campers, assess their needs and connect them with a host of services such as mental health counseling, addiction recovery and housing assistance, they hand out supplies such as socks, blankets, wipes and ready-to-eat food as well as vouchers for gas and laundry.
“Our goal is to make contact with as many people as possible,” said Brian Richardson, program manager for Dove House’s Recovery Cafe.
“By having their basic needs met, they will have more stability and more easily be able to connect with services in our community.”
As part of this new effort, Bayside last week began once-daily delivery of hot meals to the campground, preparing the meals in a commercial kitchen at the Old Alcohol Plant Inn in Port Hadlock.
On top of that, OlyCAP Director Cherish Cronmiller is seeking a donation of an RV or camper to be parked at the campground so that a staff member can be on-site every night from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.
“Folks can come in and talk to someone about whatever they are experiencing and get a cup of coffee or get one of the donated items such as socks, food items and hygiene wipes,” Cronmiller said, explaining that the idea of having a regular overnight presence arose from the fact that a majority of 911 calls for service over the past several months — typically for noise disturbances related to mental health crises — have come in overnight.
Judson Haynes, the Port Townsend Police Department’s navigator for people with substance use disorder and mental health challenges, said calls for service at the fairgrounds have seen a noticeable increase over the past several months, with the majority being noise complaints resulting from people in some form of crisis.
“Most contacts I have with those staying in the campground are brief, and although services are offered, they are rarely accepted,” Haynes said in an email.
“I have found that those experiencing homelessness suffering from chronic behavioral health issues are among the most challenging populations.”
All parties involved — the nonprofits, the county and the fair association — share the same goal: make the best of a difficult situation.
“These are not perfect solutions,” said Keister, “but this is a best effort to straighten things out out there.
“We simply need to come together and work toward the best solutions we can for our community.”