Resurrection Lutheran Church finishes first winter as Juneau’s cold weather shelter

The Resurrection Lutheran Church is located on the corner of W. 10th St. and Glacier Avenue in the Flats neighborhood in downtown Juneau, Alaska. (Photo by Lyndsey Brollini/KTOO)

The Resurrection Lutheran Church finished its first year of running Juneau’s cold weather emergency shelter and just got its permit renewed for another two years to house the shelter. 

The shelter is open from Nov. 15 through April 15 on nights it’s expected to be below freezing. 

Pastor Karen Perkins said the cold weather shelter was busy this year. The shelter was open almost every night and most nights were close to capacity.

“We were scrambling to find cots,” Perkins said. “I mean, we weren’t going to put somebody out on the street to freeze to death. So the staff had to get creative about some safe places to put people.” 

The shelter was started by the City and Borough of Juneau in 2017. In recent years, the city has contracted with organizations in town to run it.

The shelter’s start last fall was last minute — after the nonprofit St. Vincent de Paul pulled out of its contract with the city to provide the shelter. The Resurrection Lutheran Church offered to take over the contract, but it needed to get a permit first

The church got the permit, but only a week before the shelter had to be up and running. And the church pulled it off. Within a week, they found all the staff they needed. Most of the staff stayed for the entire season. 

The capacity of the shelter was 28 because of COVID-19, and sometimes staff had to figure out where to put people when it was past capacity. 

“At one point, we had to make space for cots in what was functionally a storage room,” Perkins said. 

The actual church building also went through some strain while housing the shelter, and it was hard on the building’s plumbing. 

Before the shelter opened, businesses and residents in the area had concerns about the shelter’s impact on the neighborhood. Perkins doesn’t think it was a strain on the neighborhood, with the exception of some noisy nights, and said they were able to handle any issues that came up quickly.

“And so a lot of people who said they had anxiety have since either changed their mind or said, ‘Okay, went well this year,’” Perkins said.

Some of the people who used the shelter this year had never stayed in a shelter before. Perkins thinks it’s a result of Juneau’s housing crisis — people with housing vouchers can’t get housing, people call within an hour and a place is already taken, or people have to move because their landlord is selling. 

Perkins said it was heartbreaking for her to see. 

“It’s hard to face somebody and say, ‘I know that there’s no place to live,’” Perkins said. “And the amount of courage that it takes for somebody to walk the first time into a shelter for the first time, into a food pantry or whatever, is extraordinary. It’s really really tough.”

This year, 263 people used the shelter. Perkins said most of them were there for less than 20 days. 

Now that the church’s permit is renewed, the church is allowed to house the shelter for another two winters. But that doesn’t mean the church will. It would need to extend the contract with the city first. 

Perkins said they renewed the permit to be prepared in case the church needs to house the shelter again. They don’t want to be scrambling at the last minute like last year.

There are a few things they would change based on the lessons they learned this past winter, like training staff more and making sure people who use the shelter regularly don’t store their things around the church. 

Perkins wants to ask people who use the shelter what their recommendations are, and to share their stories on the church’s Facebook. 

“The more the community learns about people’s lives and how it is to not have your own spot, it’ll be helpful for everybody,” Perkins said.

Perkins said the church doesn’t want to become a long-term shelter. It’s hard work to run. But there aren’t better options right now, and this shelter is needed in the community.

“We don’t want people out there on the streets just because we don’t have a better, better plan,” Perkins said.

Perkins said people want to find a long-term solution to the cold weather shelter, but that solution isn’t here yet. So the church is doing what it can by providing an option, if it’s needed. 

Lyndsey Brollini

Local News Reporter

I bring voices to my stories that have been historically underserved and underrepresented in news. I look at stories through a solutions-focused lens with a goal to benefit the community of Juneau and the state of Alaska.

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