Juneau officials consider St. Vincent’s bid for new valley warming center

A single dark colored cot with one blanket on it in the foreground, with a couple other cots and some chairs in the background
At the City and Borough of Juneau’s former downtown warming center, pictured here Dec. 2, 2017, each visitor got a cot, a blanket and space under the cot for one bag. The city is poised to award a contract to a new warming center in the Mendenhall Valley in a center operated by St. Vincent de Paul. (Photo by David Purdy/KTOO)

During a Friday afternoon lunch at the Glory Hall homeless shelter in downtown Juneau, dozens of shelter residents and drop-ins gather for a meal, maybe a cup of coffee, and some respite from the cold snap outside. Piles of their belongings are scattered throughout the room. This time of year, that means backpacks and skateboards along with heavy winter coats, blankets and sleeping bags.  

For a third year, the City and Borough Juneau is planning to have a warming center, though its location and operation would change. 

News that there could be a warming center this winter came as a surprise to people in the Glory Hall. The building where that center has operated for the last two years was torn down this summer

The city put out a call for bids to provide a new facility, management and staffing for a cold weather emergency shelter that would run from mid-November to mid-April. It got just one, from the St. Vincent de Paul Society Diocesan Council of Southeast Alaska, Inc., commonly known as St. Vincent de Paul. It’s the local branch of a national Catholic charity. 

In the past, the warming center has gotten a lot of use. Juneau’s Chief Housing Officer, Scott Ciambor, said 179 people used it to keep out of the cold last winter.  That’s up from 165 people the year before, according to the city’s cold weather shelter usage numbers.

Tapia Church has used the city’s warming shelter. He was born and raised in Juneau, and has been homeless in the city for about four years.  

“It was a good spot to rally,” he said. “To see, you know … because during the winter that’s when a lot of people kind of get lost and cold. It’s harder during the winter to keep yourself sheltered,” he said.

Church and others said they can make do outside. They’ll find more blankets, curl up under the staircases or in other sheltered spots. But, it’s not easy. 

He’s glad to hear the city is putting money toward operating the shelter again, but the particulars of the proposal are important.  

Church said his number one issue will be transportation.

If the contract gets approved, St. Vincent de Paul staff will operate it from a location on Teal Street in an area near the Nugget Mall.  But that’s several miles from downtown. Church said a lot of homeless people in Juneau live downtown. And travelling can be complicated. 

“You know, I mean, a lot of us — we have to carry our houses on our back. And if you leave anything anywhere you might as well consider it gone,” he said.

That question of how people will get to and from the shelter hasn’t been fully resolved. 

Bradley Perkins, general manager for the St. Vincent de Paul, said they’ll rely on a combination of city buses, and when they stop running at 11:30 p.m., a shuttle. Though, they don’t have one yet, Perkins said he’s hoping to get one donated. 

Perkins said there is not currently a plan to give people vouchers to offset the cost of bus fare. But, they’re considering it. 

He doesn’t think transportation to and from downtown will be a big issue. He disagrees with the idea that the bulk of homeless people in Juneau live downtown. 

“No, they’re actually — especially now — they’re all over the place. These are all our clients anyway. We know all of the people there, we’ve seen them all year, … we are very well aware of these people,” he said.

Still, Church said he hopes assembly members make transportation funding a priority. 

“If we had two bucks to spend on something, it would be on food or anything that would keep us warm or anything during the night because just getting money alone is hard enough,” he said. “But to just hop on a bus isn’t just hopping on a bus. It’s to sit around for a couple hours asking people for change or something like that. It’s just one more process to stay warm.”

Others at the Glory Hall said they’d use the warming shelter, because they have no other place to go. But they have other concerns. 

A woman named Heather who preferred not to give her last name — said she’s used the warming center in the past. She wishes services would be synchronized a little better. 

The new warming shelter would operate between the hours of 11 p.m. and 6:30 a.m. on days when it’s 32 degrees or colder.  The Glory Hall doesn’t open for breakfast until 7:30 a.m. 

“So there’s a half-hour time frame to kill before this place is even open in the morning, come in and get coffee,” she said. “It would be nice to have it coordinated to where as soon as one ends, the other ones open, you know what I mean?”

Heather said she’s lived in Juneau for years, both as a homeowner and homeless. She sees this effort to move the warming shelter out to the Mendenhall Valley as yet another way for the city to push homeless people out of downtown.  

But Perkins said St. Vincent will now be able to provide a lot of services from its location in the valley. 

If the final approval comes from the Juneau assembly, St. Vincent will be operating a sleep-off center for intoxicated people, a transitional housing facility, a warming shelter, and a food pantry from the same building complex. 

“So if they bring people in that turn out they don’t need to be in sleep-off, they can just walk over and put them in the warming center,” he said.

The final approval of the $125,000 contract is in front of the Assembly on Monday. It’s on the consent agenda, that means it could be approved without discussion. But there will be a time for public comment at the meeting. 

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