Earlier this month, I was walking up Madison to my office at Helpline House. I saw a woman in worn clothes standing at the side of the road, belongings at her feet, holding a sign, "Need Food." Let’s call her “Janet.”
A rare sight. Not because no one on Bainbridge Island struggles. Major life disruptions can affect us all: be it cancer, divorce, job loss or another challenge.
One reason homelessness is relatively invisible on the island is that we have no homeless shelters. No shelters mean that homeless folks tend to go elsewhere. Otherwise, couch surfing or sleeping rough outdoors are some of the scant remaining options.
When I spoke with “Janet”, her rambling, contradictory remarks seemed to indicate mental illness. I urged her to consider Helpline. She said she'd tried food banks but found that staff were “mean” or had refused her. At one Oregon food bank, she said, "they pulled the food right out of my mouth!"
I encouraged "Janet" to give Helpline another chance, wished her well and returned to the office. I looked for her later in hopes of handing over one of Helpline's "kitchenless" food kits. We supply these kits to the Bainbridge Island Police Department for sharing with people in need. But she had gone.
In the days and weeks that followed, various Helpline staff and volunteers, and others in the community reported their attempts to offer food to "Janet." Some said she had reacted negatively or with some hostility. Other accounts suggested that she had been yelling insults at high school students who passed by her near Safeway.
It seems "Janet’s" mental illness may be keeping her from accepting Helpline food, treatment, temporary financial assistance, or information about shelter elsewhere in Kitsap County. Without help, her prospects are grim.
It has surprised me to learn that roughly 2,500 Bainbridge Islanders – 1 in 10 – use Helpline's food bank or social services each year. Unlike “Janet,” the vast majority of our clients are not homeless. Most need transitional help to bridge a short-term gap. They come from all walks of life because life events like major medical illness and domestic violence do not discriminate.
What can you do? In Washington State, "Janet" has the right not to seek mental health treatment, unless she poses a danger to herself or others. If you believe a homeless person is experiencing a mental health issue and are concerned, you can call 9-1-1 to report a "non-emergency." BIPD officers are trained in mental health assessment, can call in additional support and can offer a Helpline "kitchenless" food kit. You just might make a difference in the life of a mentally ill homeless person.
Consider also supporting the ecosystem of organizations that are helping our neighbors through the worst of times. Not only Helpline, but nonprofits such as Housing Resources Bainbridge, Island Volunteer Caregivers, Bainbridge Youth Services, the Senior Center and Island Neighbors.
One Call for All is a great way to bolster the impact of these nonprofits. Why? Because every gift gets boosted -- the boost was nearly $6 last year for every gift over $20! And credit card fees on donations through OCFA are waived.
What can we do as a community? Our rental housing shortage is acute and worsening. Many teachers, firefighters, police officers and retail workers can’t afford to live here. What's more, when “life happens” and islanders need temporary housing, options are few.
Collectively, we can help raise awareness of the housing crisis and advocate for public policies to address it in a lasting, meaningful way. Among other things, we can:
We won't solve our housing crisis overnight. At a policy level, the Affordable Housing Task Force is exploring longer-term solutions. We may not have many options for helping "Janet" but, in the meantime, there's a lot we can do to keep our neighbors from becoming homeless in the first place.
Matt Eldridge is Interim Executive Director at Helpline House. This letter is a longer version of a letter to the editor submitted to the Bainbridge Review.