BREMERTON — An infestation of bed bugs this week shuttered the Salvation Army’s winter shelter Wednesday, sending around 60 people into the surrounding streets on a stormy night.
Volunteers and shelter staff rallied in the winds and rain to provide tarps, blankets and some coverage for those outside. An impromptu tent city formed around the Sixth Street nonprofit.
“We didn’t want to leave our people with nothing,” said Hadley Tillson, shelter coordinator.
The shelter reopened Thursday night, following a faster-than-expected cleaning process that Salvation Army officials are confident annihilated every last bed bug.
It is the first time in two years of operating the winter shelter that bed bugs have surfaced, and the shelter lacked a contingency plan. Staff, with help from Bremerton Mayor Greg Wheeler, scrambled to find other options for housing, even putting three medically infirm guests up in hotels for the night.
Nothing for the others would materialize.
“Nobody wants 60 people with bed bugs,” said Sheryl Piercy, the Salvation Army’s social services director.
Wheeler asked the police department to forgo enforcing ordinances prohibiting the temporary shelters that now surround the Salvation Army perimeter, and asked officers to keep an eye on the campus through the night.
“We need a backup plan,” said Wheeler, promising that the city will help develop one.
The shelter is the only such facility on the peninsula and only operates in winter months thanks to a grant from Kitsap County.
Bed bugs appeared earlier this week, spurring staff to wash every piece of bedding the shelter uses. But when the bugs came back on Wednesday, a pest company advised them to shut down for fumigation.
Word of the closure reached social media quickly, and, thanks to a particular post from shelter staff member Dawn Michele Wilson, help started pouring in.
Cars driven by people in pajamas dropped off supplies. Boxes of pizzas, bags of sandwiches and jugs of coffee showed up from surrounding businesses, allowing the Salvation Army to continue serving meals even without access to its kitchen.
Ondrea McCourry and Pashia Braunesreither, of the West Sound Treatment Center, bought about 40 sleeping bags and tents at Walmart.
“We wanted to keep these people warm and dry,” said McCourry, who remained outside the shelter most of the night. “We can’t have these people out on the street. There’s nowhere for them to go.”
“I’ve never seen Bremerton come together like that,” said Tillson, who was once homeless along with some of the same people she now sees at the shelter.
Wednesday night’s weather included thunder, lightning, rain and hail. At one point, many people huddled around a propane-powered heater. Tillson and others attempted to hold tents together in surging winds.
“It was literally like a river going through here,” she said.
“It was scary. It was cold,” added Karen Steele, who stays at the shelter with her husband, Kyler and their 11-month-old daughter Jayda. “But I think it opened up a lot of people’s eyes. We felt so loved by these people.”
Volunteers and police did what they could to protect the most vulnerable in the makeshift camp. People using drugs were asked to leave. Some of the quickly erected awnings fell during the night and morning. One fell squarely on the head of Tami Fields.
“I’m just trying to keep my head up,” said Fields, who stays at the shelter with her husband. “It’s really hard when it gets like this.”
Bruce Nichols, who’s lived on the streets in Kitsap for a decade, said he was able to crash at a friend’s house a block away as the storm hit.
“I got lucky,” he said. “Around here, it was duck and dodge. It was not a pretty sight.”
Piercy said the shelter’s first night back in operation will include extra caution. Participants will have to shower and have their personal effects laundered.
“It was a terrible thing to have to shut down for 24 hours, Piercy said. “Yet so beautiful with the community coming together. I am so full of love for the many people who call Kitsap their home.”