Sleeping options more limited as COVID-19 outbreak among Juneau’s unsheltered population grows

Two people and a dog curl up near a boiler room on Shattuck Way on Jan. 20, 2017, in downtown Juneau, Alaska. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/Alaska's Energy Desk)
Two people and a dog curl up near a boiler room on Shattuck Way in downtown Juneau on Jan. 20, 2017. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

At least 38 people experiencing homelessness in Juneau have tested positive for COVID-19 in the past two weeks. 

Now, with temperatures dipping below freezing this weekend, local shelters must weigh the risks of staying open or closing to slow the spread. 

Knowing that the virus spreads more easily in confined spaces, Glory Hall Director Mariya Lovishchuk said the shelter decided to close for sleeping this weekend. Staff plan to move some patrons to a hotel for better social distancing. To-go meals will still be available for pickup at the shelter. 

The city’s emergency warming shelter at the Juneau Arts and Culture Center closed Thursday night. Staff decided to reopen the shelter Friday. 

The city opened Centennial Hall as an isolation and quarantine site this week. Emergency Operations Center Planning Chief Robert Barr said so far six people with COVID-19 are isolating there, while others are staying in hotels. 

“The biggest challenge with this particular cluster is communication,” Barr said. “It’s hard … to keep everyone up to speed on what the appropriate thing to do is, from an isolation point of view or a quarantine perspective.”

The city believes at least one individual who tested positive is not properly isolating. 

Barr said it’s not the first time they’ve had problems getting people who test positive to isolate. 

“If necessary, we pursue either a state medical officer hold or a court hold on that individual to get isolation orders so that we can make sure that person is isolating during their infectious period,” he said. 

The city conducted another round of testing at supportive housing sites Friday. 

Although conditions should be relatively dry this weekend, the forecast calls for freezing temperatures Saturday and Sunday night. 

And places to sleep will be more scarce for those experiencing homelessness. 

The city opened the Mill Campground last spring to provide seasonal camping for the homeless. It closed Thursday for the winter.

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