The sweet aroma of cookies filled the Anchorage Downtown Soup Kitchen on a recent morning as Tom Christensen pulled two baking sheets out of an oven and gingerly set the trays down on a counter.

Nearby, homeless women outfitted with hairnets, aprons and gloves buzzed around the kitchen, scooping balls of dough from a large bowl and plopping the gooey mixture onto another baking sheet.

March marked the beginning of Hope Bakery, an effort to give women staying at the soup kitchen's shelter employable skills, said Sherrie Laurie, executive director of the Downtown Soup Kitchen. People have already started reaching out, Laurie said, curious about how they can get the baked goods for an event.

"We've always had the vision that it's not just a handout but a hand up," Laurie said of the Third Avenue nonprofit. "And so we started really looking at, 'What are we doing for the hand-up portion? … How can we move away from giving everything away and just enabling a condition to actually helping them move out of that place?' "

Starting in December, the soup kitchen expanded its services by offering up to 30 homeless women a place to sleep at night. Tables are moved in a room next to the kitchen to make space for sleeping mats. Women can also take a shower and do laundry. It's the sole women-only shelter in Anchorage, Laurie said.

Having a facility just for women adds a certain level of safety, said Victorious Salsman. Homeless for years, she used to be a soup kitchen guest when the building was on Fourth Avenue. When staying at shelters with men, she said she had to be on guard in case of unwanted advances. These days, she works for the soup kitchen.

"This is going to change things," she said of the bakery.

A personal connection

Christensen, a longtime baker with a calm voice, graying hair twisted into a braid and black-rimmed glasses, said he's teaching the women basics right now, like safety and sanitary guidelines. Making them do the work themselves -- and not just watching -- is also important. He stopped midconversation at one point to coach one of the ladies on how to properly flatten some cookies before sliding the treats into the oven.

Their interest level is encouraging, he says.

"Some of them are going to do really good," he said. "I can already tell."

Christensen used to own the bakery Crazy Croissant and restaurant Cafe Croissant, but the hours and workload got to be too much. After taking a break from baking for a few years, he said he was ready to come back to the kitchen.

"This has got me jazzed to bake again," he said.

Christensen's connection to the homeless is a personal one. His stepson, Charles Jones Jr., was a sometimes homeless alcoholic. He died at the Anchorage jail last year, and was the 14th person to die in a jail or halfway house in Alaska in 2015. Jones could have benefited from a program like this, Christensen said.

Culinary arts program

While the bakery is just for women staying at the shelter, the Downtown Soup Kitchen is also looking to start a culinary arts program in the fall that would be open to more people.

Laurie, the soup kitchen's executive director, would like to sell the products out of a food truck and to different places around town.

"We're just looking at ways that we can actually bring money in and sustain our programs," Laurie said.

For the culinary arts program, called Feed Me Hope, the soup kitchen has been looking at similar programs in the Lower 48 to use as a guide.

Like with the bakery, the goal is to create a self-sustaining program that improves job prospects for the participants. The soup kitchen says it has already pinpointed potential placement opportunities for graduates. Restaurants have expressed interest, Laurie said.

"It gives people a reason to get up in the morning," she said. "It gives them skills."