Old city shop: a shelter for the homeless?

Assembly member Ruth Danner wants to turn this old CBJ Public Works shop into a shelter for homeless people. Her proposal was rejected by the full Assembly 7-2. (Photo by Casey Kelly/KTOO)

A Juneau Assembly member wants to set up a homeless shelter at the old CBJ shop under the Douglas Bridge.

Ruth Danner suggests the equipment facility become a temporary solution for a downtown problem that gets worse every summer.

“I just feel like you can’t keep telling these people you can’t be here, without telling them where you can be,” Danner told the Assembly Monday night.

She is chair of the Assembly Human Resources Committee, which has been gathering information on Juneau’s homeless issue for some time now.

The committee on Monday heard the results of a recent Vulnerability Index Survey. Glory Hole Outreach Coordinator Kiel Renick told members the goal is to connect Juneau’s most vulnerable homeless to services and housing.

“We estimated that we probably spoke to 75 to 80 percent of who we would deem the target community – unsheltered, the chronically homeless, those who are experiencing seriously challenges, so I do want to reiterate this project is looking at one demographic of the homeless community in Juneau,” he said.

The Juneau Homeless Coalition estimates more than 500 homeless people live in the capital city. The survey indicates those most at risk have been on the streets an average of ten years.

Renick said he’s still compiling data from the survey and cannot yet recommend solutions to Juneau’s chronic problem.

Danner believes a long-term solution could be three to five years out.

“We don’t even know what the solution looks like yet,” she said.

The Assembly has not yet discussed possible solutions nor are members ready to advocate a city policy. But Danner said the city must do something now. She made a motion to the full Assembly to set up a homeless shelter in the equipment shop under the Douglas Bridge.

“I want to know what is the least we can do to this building in order to allow for shelter of our homeless and vulnerable citizens,” she said.

The city has moved its Public Works shop to 7 Mile Glacier Highway. Last year the Assembly appropriated the funds to demolish the old building and a contract will soon be awarded.

CBJ Engineering Director Rorie Watt reminded Assembly members that the shop has been used for snow plows, graders, trucks, and other heavy equipment. He said at the least, even a temporary shelter would require a conditional use permit and would have to conform to CBJ housing codes.

“I don’t have all the details with me but I know that we do have underground fuel tanks, which is normal for lots of facilities. I’m sure the slab in the equipment maintenance area is stained with diesel and oil and probably has lots of odor issues. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were small amounts of asbestos in the building,” he said.

Despite the logistics – as well as funding and finding an agency to run the shelter — Danner said it’s doable.

Assembly members said they didn’t want to vote against the homeless, but couldn’t agree. Johan Dybdahl put it this way:

“We’re a long ways from coming up with a solution and a maintenance building suddenly becoming a shelter, I think we’re going down the wrong road,” Dybdahl said.

Danner’s motion failed on a vote of seven to two.

For at least one more winter, the site under the bridge is to be used as a snow dump. It’s part of the Juneau Waterfront Master Plan, which calls for parkland and an extension of the seawalk. A new facility to house maritime services and port operations is also proposed.

In the meantime, the agency that paid for Juneau’s vulnerability survey is standing by to help the city find solutions to its problem.

Nancy Burke is a program officer for the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority. She told the Human Resources Committee that Juneau is in the right position to identify a housing project, now that it has the survey data.

“You’re the first community I’ve seen do it frontward instead of backward. Other communities identified their project and then figured out who was going in,” Burke said.

She said the Juneau Homeless Coalition should be the Assembly’s source of solutions and recommendations for a project to help the most vulnerable homeless.

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