Who should get a say in where Juneau’s new emergency shelter is located?

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)

The City and Borough of Juneau is trying to decide where to put the local cold weather shelter. It’s hosting a public meeting Wednesday to share more information and get feedback on possible locations. 

But one group that has been mostly absent from the conversation so far are the people who stay in the shelter.  

The cold weather shelter doesn’t open till 8 p.m., but on yet another rainy evening, Jackie Bryant opens the doors early. The shelter has changed locations and operators a few times since it opened in 2017, but Bryant has been a constant. 

She’s there most nights, setting up and welcoming people one at a time so they can be screened and sign in. Then she’s back in the morning to wake them up and hand out coffee and oatmeal. 

“The other night, we had almost 60 people here again,” Bryant said. “We can take 71 and be social-distanced.”

Usually, the shelter is open seasonally and only on nights when the temperature is below freezing. But this year, it’s been open continuously since March, operating out of the Juneau Arts and Culture Center downtown.  

“We didn’t think we’d be open this long, for one thing. This was unexpected,” she said. 

The constant practice hasn’t made the routine any easier for her or the people who stay overnight. Neither has the weather. 

“We have rain — rainy, windy days, and we still have to send them out the door knowing that they’re outside all days. And I don’t believe people treat their pets that way,” Bryant said. 

Guests to the city’s cold weather shelter have their temperature checked by staff upon arrival. (Photo by Adelyn Baxter/KTOO)

The public libraries where many people go to stay dry were closed most of the spring and reopened with capacity limits. 

The downtown transit center is closed during the day and the Glory Hall homeless shelter is letting fewer people come in during the day and stay overnight due to the pandemic. They have plans to eventually build a larger campus in the valley. 

Meanwhile, Bryant says the cots they use are taking a toll on peoples’ backs. Some are choosing to sleep on the floor instead. Their last working thermometer broke and they haven’t been able to get a new one yet. The building also doesn’t have shower or laundry facilities. 

St. Vincent’s contract with the city has been extended to next year, but it’s not clear where the shelter is going to be. 

Options for where to put it range from empty buildings and hotels downtown to sites in West Juneau and the Mendenhall Valley. 

The city has a list of sites it’s considering, including keeping it at the JACC or discontinuing the shelter:

  • 201 Cordova Street in West Juneau
  • 1720 Crest Street, also known as the JMA building
  • 1108 F Street, also known as the Bill Ray Center
  • 247 Franklin Street, the location of the Glory Hall
  • the Breakwater Inn at 1711 Glacier Ave
  • 224 Seward Street, also known as the Sommers Building
  • the Driftwood Hotel at 435 Willoughby Ave
  • a warehouse at 535 Willoughby Ave

Some neighbors downtown have already raised concerns about potential sites

The city will hold a virtual meeting Wednesday night to talk about proposals for the shelter and hear from the public. People can participate through Zoom or by phone. 

But talking to residents at the current cold weather shelter, it’s clear that it would be hard to listen or weigh-in at the meeting. 

Some of the people who use the shelter have cell phones, but most don’t have access to a computer. And most of them didn’t know it was happening. 

The former Walmart building in Lemon Creek is often brought up as a place to move shelter operations. It’s for sale, but providers say the building’s design is not ideal. And the cost at $6 million is more than twice the other properties the city is considering.

To Bryant, it doesn’t matter where the shelter is. It just needs to be more permanent than what they have right now. 

“I don’t want them dying out there because there’s no place for them to be,” she said. 

Travis Johnson is one of the paid staff who spends the night at the shelter and doles out blankets, hot coffee, and snacks. 

He also knows what it’s like not to have a place to sleep. Johnson has been clean for almost a year now. When he wasn’t, he used to sleep under a bridge.

Travis Johnson hands out blankets to emergency shelter patrons at the Juneau Arts and Culture Center as they arrive on Thursday, Sept. 3, 2020. (Photo by Adelyn Baxter/KTOO)

Now he and his wife and newborn son have an apartment at the transitional housing complex at St. Vincent’s. 

He says moving the shelter out of downtown won’t move unhoused people away from the shops and tourism businesses as some people think. As an addict, he says the temptations downtown are too strong. 

“Even if all the other resources move out to the valley, there’s still going to be the core group of people that are downtown,” Johnson said.  “They’re here because the liquor stores are here. They’re here because, you know, their resources for getting drugs is here. And, and they’re not going to change that.”

He thinks of it kind of like the bears that have been causing trouble downtown this summer. 

“You can’t ask all the black bears and move out to the valley just because it bothers the business people that are down here, you know?” Johnson said. “You gotta show compassion and love them and find something that works.”

James Kool uses the shelter. He says he doesn’t care where it is, as long as there’s a way to get there. 

Before the shelter moved to the culture center this spring, it was at the St. Vincent’s campus near the airport. They ran a shuttle to pick people up and bring them in for the night. 

“I don’t mean to cause any trouble you know, because a lot of the neighbors think that,” Kool said. “I just need a place to sleep. I’m homeless and I appreciate this.”

The meeting begins at 5 p.m. Wednesday. Here’s how the city says the public can participate:

Join the Zoom webinar https://juneau.zoom.us/j/94264788341 and enter Webinar ID 942 6478 8341. To participate telephonically, call 1-346-248-7799 or 1-669-900-6833 or 1-253-215-8782 or 1-312-626-6799 and enter Webinar ID 942 6478 8341. During the public comment portion of the meeting, community members can provide testimony by clicking the “Raise Hand” function on the Zoom webinar or pressing *9 on the telephone.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the Glory Hall is closed during the day. It remains open 7 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., but only allows 23 people inside at a time. 

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