Drayton Jackson doesn’t need others telling him what it’s like to be homeless. The Bremerton resident and Central Kitsap school board director spent more than a decade without a permanent home, first in New York and then here in Washington.
From crashing on friends’ couches to seeking refuge at shelters and camps, Jackson has experienced it — and it hardly qualified as desirable living.
“When you are homeless,” Jackson said, “you are surviving.”
Jackson eventually freed himself from the grip of homelessness, and he's using his experience to help others. In addition to being a member of Gov. Jay Inslee’s Poverty Reduction Workgroup, Jackson is the founder and executive director for The Foundation for Homeless and Poverty Management, a nonprofit headquartered at a well-aged, two-floor building at 2741 Wheaton Way in Bremerton.
Jackson's foundation is in the process of transforming the site into the Rejuvenation Community Day Center. From early in the morning until late at night, the center would provide people an escape from the streets, or, as Jackson puts it, some time to "think and breathe."
Jackson hopes the project — with a price tag of $8 million — will be complete by January 2023.
“I know it’s needed,” Jackson said. “It’s not even a discussion.”
During its most recent data collection in 2019, Kitsap's Housing Solutions Center estimated there were 1,430 homeless people in Kitsap County. Jackson believes that number is likely over 1,500 now.
With other local projects in the works, including a pair of 24-hour shelters and a transitional housing complex, Jackson isn't looking to offer short-term help by providing shelter or a hot meal. He wants to guide them back to a recognizable, sustainable life.
“I want to be the Jeff Bezos of the homeless world,” Jackson said. “I want to change the game.”
‘His case is what sparked me with getting this open’
Working in the food service industry in Seattle in recent years, Jackson kept tabs on unhoused people he encountered while downtown.
That’s how he met a man named Carl five years ago.
“When I was coming out of Safeco Field," Jackson said, "I would bring him food and stuff like that and just talk to him."
Jackson learned how Carl ended up living on the streets. Following a car accident involving his wife, Carl, who worked at a factory in Tukwila, learned his health insurance didn’t cover some of his wife’s surgeries. Carl didn’t earn enough money at his job to keep up with a payment plan for his wife’s medical bills, so he fell into debt. Carl’s wife eventually died and he fell into depression.
With Jackson’s assistance, Carl earned a job at Safeco Field and tried to find an apartment, but his debt history worked against him. With no place to live, Carl found his home on the streets.
“We talked about this for like three years,” Jackson said. “He could just not get back.”
During the winter of 2020, Jackson headed downtown to check on his friend.
“I saw him maybe on a Tuesday,” Jackson said. “I brought him some food and you could just tell it was getting hard for him.”
When Jackson returned five days later, he learned that Carl killed himself.
“His tent got rained out and he just got frustrated,” Jackson recalled of what he learned. “When I went into his tent, everything was soaked.”
Among Carl’s water-logged possessions were photos of his wife.
Jackson wanted to blame himself: "Maybe I should have let him stay with me for the winter." He also questioned why Carl’s story had to end this way.
“I think the reason why it hurts is we have regular people that have gotten into a situation and we are not meeting people where they are at,” Jackson said. “You think I want to live in a tent? You think I like being cold? You think this is what I want for myself?”
It’s people like Carl who Jackson wants to help serve — and it starts with the Rejuvenation Community Day Center.
“His case is what sparked me with getting this open,” Jackson said.
Day center would be a 'one-stop shop'
When Jackson gives tours of his foundation's proposed day center, he doesn't see a 44-year-old structure that formerly housed a dentist's office and medical clinic and requires a total makeover.
He sees 10,000 square feet of possibility.
Backed by a design team that includes the Kitsap-based Gaulden Management Group and Seattle-based SKL Architects, which is finishing up the Olympic High School modernization project, the Rejuvenation Community Day Center will go beyond the necessary care needs provided at existing overnight shelters like the Kitsap Rescue Mission and the Salvation Army.
"I know that there are some limitations with some existing services in the county. This is going to fill a need, a critical gap," said State Rep. Tarra Simmons, D-Bremerton, who plans to advocate for funding for the center during this year's short legislative session.
Open seven days a week, the day center's outdoor spaces would include an arrival area with locker storage, a play area for children, garden and a gathering area with seating for socializing and event hosting.
Indoors, the day center would provide an array of basic services on its main (first) level from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m.: reception area, two shower areas, kitchen, laundry, computer room, TV/multipurpose area, mini-store and wellness spaces. Jackson said people can come and go as they please.
“If I can get you in here for a couple of hours and you are just sitting here sleeping, without anybody worrying about 'you moving me' ... now I'm human again, I'm part of society again, I'm part of just being normal," Jackson said. "Watch the game, go wash your clothes, take a shower, go see the doctor, go get a haircut."
The day center's second floor would be open from 8:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. and include a child-care area, barber shop and office space for counseling and training. Foundation workers are being trained to aid with filling out applications for various needs, such as temporary housing, employment and child care.
Jackson plans to have Washington State Department of Social and Health Services and Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs employees on-site to provide additional services. There will be "safety agents" to handle any in-house challenges that may arise, including helping with mental health or substance abuse issues.
“We are going to have people here every day who are going to be able to deal with someone who has a drug addiction," Jackson said.
Recalling how he often bounced from agency to agency during his homeless days, Jackson wants anyone who uses the Rejuvenation Community Day Center to feel equipped on multiple levels when they walk out the door.
"It's a one-stop shop," Jackson said. "One of the keys for us is not sending people anywhere else.”
'This is a man out of homelessness'
Jackson is eager to see his vision come to fruition, and it doesn't begin and end with the Rejuvenation Day Center. The foundation is scouting locations in Kitsap County for two 24-hour shelters — one for $7.5 million and another for $28 million — as well as a $43 million mixed income/transitional housing project.
In addition, the foundation has a goal to build a youth community center in the Pierce County/Tacoma area at the cost of $32 million.
For a man who wants to change the game for homeless care, Jackson is swinging for the fences.
"What I went through," Jackson said, "I don't want anybody else to go through."
Neal Gaulden, owner of Gaulden Management Group, said Jackson is the right person to lead projects of this magnitude based on his life experience.
"He has his own testimony and he's not ashamed to tell his story," Gaulden said. "Folks relate to realism and he's being real. This is not Kitsap County, some board or some development program that's run by some executive who wants to solve homelessness. This is a man out of homelessness."
Jackson admits his foundation is still figuring out the funding piece of the puzzle, both for the Rejuvenation Community Day Center and future endeavors. He said roughly $3 million is needed to fully fund the day center project.
There have been hurdles: in 2021, the Washington Department of Commerce rejected two of the foundation's applications for housing trust grants, denying $35.3 million in requested funding. Locally, Jackson's foundation requested $250,000 from Kitsap County through its Affordable Housing Grant Program and its Homeless Housing Grant Program. Jackson said the county authorized $25,000, which it hasn't received yet.
Kitsap County Commissioner Rob Gelder, who last year toured the future Rejuvenation Community Day Center site and has experience working in the not-for-profit sector, said it can be a challenge for new nonprofits to secure funding. There's competition among nonprofits for grant dollars, and it can be difficult for new entities to secure their piece of the pie.
Gelder provided an example of the nonprofit Kitsap Homes of Compassion, which emerged in 2017 and just recently received grant funding while it attempts to build an affordable housing facility in Gorst.
“They were new, they didn’t have a lot of depth in their organization," Gelder said. "It takes time to build that capacity and so I think that’s the case here."
“If it’s going to last," Gelder added, "you have to build a foundation upon which you can survive.”
Jackson remains unfazed by financial challenges. In addition to fundraising and philanthropy options, he said private investors have shown interest in his foundation's projects.
As much as patience might be a requirement when it comes to project building, he said that people dealing with homelessness often don't have time on their side. In recent months, Jackson said he's watched a woman who is homeless frequently walk past the foundation's building, and he can tell by her physical appearance that she needs help.
“I’ve watched the deterioration," Jackson said. "It’s gotten worse and worse and worse.”
In his eyes, the opening of the Rejuvenation Community Day Center can't come soon enough.
“My goal is to get 200 people in here a day," Jackson said, noting the connection with services will help get people off the street and out of chronic homelessness. "If you see no homeless people on the streets, that means that they are somewhere safe, out of the cold. Being able to just think, sleep and relax without fear."
This article originally appeared on Kitsap Sun: Bremerton's Jackson aiming to 'change the game' for serving homeless