‘Hunker down’ doesn’t mean much when you’re homeless

People who stay overnight at the emergency shelter inside the Juneau Arts and Culture Center use the same cot and blankets on consecutive nights. (Photo by Adelyn Baxter/KTOO)

Since Wednesday evening, Juneau residents have been required to stay home and avoid going out as much as possible, unless they work in a critical industry.

People experiencing homelessness are exempt under the city’s hunker down order and a statewide order issued Friday. For many of them, the threat of a pandemic is not as high of a priority as staying warm or getting their next meal.

Outside the Glory Hall homeless shelter in downtown Juneau, Angie is standing near the front door with pretty much everything she owns. She asked that KTOO not use her last name for privacy reasons.

She’s got a few sleeping bags she found in a dumpster. That’s all she’ll have to keep her warm for the rest of the day.

“There’s no options,” Angie said when asked where she planned to go to keep warm. “Everything is closed down here.”

Angie stayed at the city’s cold weather shelter the night before. But it’s only open from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. That means people have to find somewhere else to go during the day.

Normally, they can head to the library — but it’s closed, along with most other public buildings.

The Glory Hall is another popular spot. It also serves meals, but staff are limiting the number of people allowed inside right now. They’re trying to  follow social distancing guidelines.

Angie said she and the other homeless people she knows are aware of the concerns about coronavirus. They’ve been told to wash their hands and stay six feet from one another. But this time of year, it’s not really possible.

“When it comes to friends, you stay close to each other, because we’ve got to keep each other warm,” she said.

Recent city surveys show that around 200 people are considered homeless in Juneau. About half of them are in transitional housing. Those facilities, like Housing First in Lemon Creek and St. Vincent de Paul Society, are under quarantine to minimize potential COVID-19 transmission.

Much of the homeless population is considered medically vulnerable.

Dave Ringle is the interim director for the Juneau chapter of the St. Vincent de Paul Society. He said the virus could be devastating in the homeless community.

“But they’re also one of the least exposed groups,” Ringle said. “They’re not traveling. Their contact with people outside of their social circle is real limited. So we’re hoping to keep it that way.”

Ringle spoke to me from a safe distance inside the emergency shelter’s new location in the Juneau Arts and Culture Center. Until last week, St. Vincent’s had operated the shelter in a building near the airport. They moved it to the JACC downtown to have more space between cots.

Shelter staff are screening everyone who comes in for the night with a thermometer. Anyone with a high temperature or symptoms consistent with COVID-19 is checked out by hospital staff, who then determine whether to test the person.

While they wait for results, that person is placed in quarantine. Social service providers and the city both contribute money for hotel rooms.

Irene Gallion is the city’s homelessness task force leader, a new role she took on under the city’s Emergency Operations Command, which is coordinating the local response to COVID-19.

“So whenever we have somebody who’s questionable, we want to be able to isolate them as soon as possible,” Gallion said.

Usually, the city opens up a public campground in the summertime as a low-cost option for the homeless and seasonal workers. The Thane Campground has portable bathrooms and sites for about 17 tents. But the location — more than a mile from downtown — made it inaccessible for some people.

At a special meeting Thursday, the Assembly approved an emergency ordinance moving the campground to a site closer to downtown. The city will continue leasing land from AJT Mining Properties Inc. for the same purpose.

Deputy Director of Parks and Recreation Michele Elfers said Friday the new site has a better access road and a flatter layout, making it safer for campers and for city staff to monitor.

“This year we’re also going to be adding some social services,” Elfers said. “So we’ll have … our homelessness coordinator with CBJ, who’s going up there regularly and meeting with all of our campers to assess how they’re doing and connect them with services as needed.”

The campground usually opens around April 15. Elfers said they are trying to work quickly, but she doesn’t know whether they will be able to open the new site by then.

“We want to get it open as soon as possible, because it is being looked at as another opportunity for people experiencing homelessness to be able to have shelter and to provide some social distancing,” Elfers said.

For the next two weeks or more, most Juneau residents will focus on staying busy and healthy at home.

Meanwhile, Angie and other homeless residents will focus on staying warm and dry during the day.

“Just keep us in your thoughts and prayers,” she said.

This post has been updated.