How can Juneau keep homeless residents safe while also protecting them from coronavirus?


The Glory Hall homeless shelter in downtown Juneau. (Photo by Adelyn Baxter/KTOO)
The Glory Hall homeless shelter in downtown Juneau. (Photo by Adelyn Baxter/KTOO)

In Juneau, many public facilities are closed and businesses are scaling back to limit the spread of COVID-19. But for people who don’t have homes or the ability to feed themselves, it’s not so simple.

Local service providers are looking for ways to continue helping Juneau’s most vulnerable population while also keeping them safe.

A sign appeared on the door of the Glory Hall on Tuesday, asking people coming in for meals to take them to-go, if possible.

Juneau’s downtown homeless shelter provides three meals a day. But recent guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises organizations that serve high-risk populations to limit public gatherings of 10 or more.

The shelter frequently serves food to 30 people or more at one time.

Christopher Harty is a regular for meals.

“If they stop serving meals, I don’t know, I don’t know what the heck we’re gonna do,” Harty said.

Tuesday was Vincent Libertino’s first day of work at the Glory Hall. He helped serve oatmeal for breakfast and turkey wraps with St. Patrick’s Day cookies for lunch.

Libertino said it’s clear some patrons are nervous about what’s going on and trying to take precautions.

“In the military we used to call it MOPP gear, M-O-P-P — mission-oriented protective posture. So some people this morning, I noticed, were wearing gloves and little booties and masks and hats.”

Mariya Lovishchuk is the director of the Glory Hall. She says the sign went up because they’re trying to keep patrons and staff safe without denying them shelter and food. They also don’t want to potentially spread the virus, but they don’t have anywhere else to put people.

“Everybody would get it and the people who we are serving are the people who are in the category of people who would have severe complications and potentially die from this,” Lovishchuk said. “We are stuck between a rock and a hard place and we need help from the community, specifically from the City and Borough of Juneau to help address this.”

The situation is similar at the city’s warming shelter, operated by St. Vincent de Paul. It offers the homeless a place to sleep on cold nights. Interim director Dave Ringle said the organization has been doing what it can.

“Extra cleanliness. We’re trying to have people with three feet distance between each cot. I know ideally, we’d have six feet,” Ringle said.

The St. Vincent de Paul Society's Juneau facility. (Photo courtesy of Jesse Perry)
The St. Vincent de Paul Society’s Juneau facility. (Photo courtesy of Jesse Perry)

With the long stretch of cold, wet weather this winter, the shelter was open for an unprecedented 60-day stretch. After a brief closure, they’re now coming up on 30-days straight.

Ringle said they’re already stretched thin. They regularly see 40 guests or more each night.

“To really do it right, we need a bigger place and we’re working on that,” he said. “But that requires powers beyond my limited ability here at St. Vincent DePaul.”

In Anchorage, the city is preparing to convert the state’s largest event arena into a massive shelter in response to the outbreak. The venue should allow people to maintain a distance while also giving them a place to wash and stay warm.

City Housing Officer Scott Ciambor said Juneau is considering something like that. The city sent a survey to homeless providers this week to see what their needs are.

“Trying to get a sense of what needs to be done, you know, where the resources are and how to, you know, get on a path towards making that happen,” Ciambor said.

Now that most city facilities have been closed to the public, there are some new options for an emergency shelter. It would potentially need to have space for up to 80 people or more.

But there’s still a lot of planning to do. Ciambor and city staff will discuss next steps with service providers Wednesday.

KTOO’s Rashah McChesney and Jeremy Hsieh contributed to this report. 

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