A church in a neighborhood near downtown Juneau has offered to be the location of this year’s cold weather emergency shelter.
Resurrection Lutheran Church submitted its proposal on Oct. 15 after a local nonprofit, St. Vincent de Paul Society of Juneau, pulled out of its contract to operate the shelter.
The shelter is scheduled to be open Nov. 15 through April 15 on nights when the temperature drops below 32 degrees.
Finding space for the warming shelter has been an ongoing problem. The shelter has changed locations four times since 2017. The shelter’s operator changed a handful of times in recent years as well.
St. Vincent de Paul Society of Juneau took it over from the city in 2019 and operated the shelter at the Juneau Arts and Culture Center from March 2020 through July 2021. But the JACC is no longer available as a shelter space.
Scott Ciambor, the city’s chief housing officer, said that after looking at options for shelter locations and considering the staffing involved, St. Vincent de Paul Society of Juneau decided it couldn’t operate the shelter this winter. The faith-based nonprofit only notified Ciambor about pulling out of the contract earlier this month.
Ciambor said he’s grateful for the nonprofit’s flexibility in providing shelter to those in need during the pandemic. But the change has left the city needing to find a new location fast, before the Nov. 15 deadline.
“We’re really just scrambling to make sure that something is available,” Ciambor said.
The Resurrection Lutheran Church says it has the space to have 28 socially distanced beds, and church staff have experience working with unhoused people through its food pantry. Pastor Karen Perkins and her husband also helped operate the cold weather shelter when it was run out of the old public safety building on Whittier Street.
The church is located in the Flats neighborhood, near the federal building in downtown Juneau.
Last year, some residents of the Flats pushed back against a proposal to have a permanent cold weather shelter in their neighborhood. They did not want people who use emergency shelters to be in a neighborhood with lots of kids and schools nearby.
Perkins knows these are sentiments that may come up as the public comments on the proposal.
“A lot of people have an image of homeless people and risks that come with their presence that grow out of anecdotes of ‘I saw this happen’ or ‘I know that happened,’” Perkins said. “And so the idea of a shelter comes with, I think, some anxiety that isn’t really born out statistically.”
The church already operates a food pantry in the area, which provides food for some of the same people who would use the emergency shelter. And Perkins says Flats residents have been very supportive of the food pantry.
“Neighbors who live in the area, when they’re heading to Costco, will say, ‘What does the food pantry need?’” Perkins said.
Perkins thinks there are a lot of people who want to give and who want to help. But when it comes to people staying around longer to be sheltered, she thinks there could be some resistance.
The church plans to address safety concerns in a variety of ways — having experienced staff, having extra cameras and lights around the building, providing buses to transport people away from the church when the shelter closes, asking police to drive around the area, cleaning up trash and working with other shelters to make sure the church is only being used as a last resort.
Perkins hopes that talking with the community — outlining the church’s experience serving the unhoused population and educating people about how they’ll operate the shelter — will help ease any anxiety people might have.
Providing this shelter feels like an obligation to Perkins. She says that, as part of her faith, she was taught to love and care for her neighbors.
“Fundamentally, a loving neighbor means giving them shelter so they can survive the night,” Perkins said.
Perkins encourages empathy for people experiencing homelessness. She hopes that if anyone she loves were ever unhoused, people would see past their circumstances and acknowledge them as a person.
“People don’t choose to be homeless or choose to be in crisis or choose to be dependent,” Perkins said. “For many people, it’s a crushing way to exist. And being acknowledged as human beings is one of the most vital parts of surviving.”
The church is proposing to take over the contract that St. Vincent de Paul Society of Juneau had with the city, which would end in 2023. The church states in its proposal that it does not have any plans to be in the shelter business long-term.
Last year, the city looked into buying a building to use as a long-term cold weather emergency shelter, but the Assembly rejected all the proposals.
Ciambor said the city isn’t looking into any long-term emergency shelters at the moment. Right now, he’s focused on getting a shelter up quickly for this winter. And there aren’t any concrete backup plans if the Resurrection Lutheran Church doesn’t work out.
The church’s proposal should be up for public comment in a future city planning commission meeting before Nov. 15. The date is undecided right now.
The Resurrection Lutheran Church is holding a hybrid in-person and Zoom meeting on Oct. 27 at 7 p.m. to hear feedback about the proposal and answer any questions.