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Cold November puts strain on Anchorage homeless shelters

Casey Grove
ERIK HILL / Anchorage Daily News

Hundreds of Anchorage's homeless have taken refuge from this week's frigid weather by packing Brother Francis Shelter to its limit, causing Bean's Cafe next door to take in the overflow.

Brother Francis staff and the city say it's likely the most homeless people the shelters have ever housed.

"They're just streaming in," said Dewayne Harris, program director at Brother Francis. "It's going to be a long, tough winter for our folks."

The shelter provided as many or more beds during the past month as it does during what are typically much colder months in Anchorage, Harris said.

Brother Francis has exceeded its emergency capacity of 240 people almost every night so far in November, he said. That means any more people looking for a warm place to sleep have to bunk at Bean's, which cannot exceed 159 people, according to the city.

"As long as I've been with the agency, these are the highest numbers we've had and the earliest we've had them," Harris said. He started in 1999.

Tuesday night, Brother Francis was again full, and Bean's slept 124 homeless, only 35 people away from the limit, Harris said. It's causing an enormous strain, he said.

"That's like having to move your coffee table, your dining room table, and using every square inch of your house to sleep whatever your house would hold," Harris said. "It's a large number of people."

While the November counts are higher than in past years, the city doesn't expect Brother Francis and Bean's to exceed their overall capacity, according to Darrel Hess, Anchorage's homeless coordinator.

If the shelters reach their limits, fire codes would force them to turn people away, as there is no legally authorized overflow, Hess said.

"We've never reached that point. We're running January numbers in November, but are there any more people? Will the numbers be any higher in January?" Hess said.

Hess thinks not.

Hess said it's not likely to get colder than it has been recently, and there are only so many people willing to come in out of the cold anyway, no matter how low the mercury drops or how hard the wind blows.

The temperature Tuesday dipped to 8 degrees, with wind gusts up to 30 mph.

"This kind of weather brings in the hard-core campers who normally won't go to the shelter," Hess said. "We don't anticipate reaching capacity this winter."

Harris, at Brother Francis, disagrees. He said the shelter fully expects to have to turn people away.

The weather, Harris said, "is only part of the story."

The surge of homeless heading to the shelter has as much to do with people being unemployed or underemployed as the subzero windchill, Harris said.

"The length of time it's taking folks to get employed and out of here is taking much longer," he said. And Harris continues to see new faces at the shelter, with 70 to 100 new men and women coming in each month, he said.

"Time after time, we hear that they got laid off or their hours got cut and they couldn't afford rent and utilities," Harris said. "Folks are just struggling with the economy. People aren't hiring as much. And then just the sheer cost of housing."

Hess said the city's efforts during the summer to clear out illegal camps across Anchorage is another reason more people are coming to the shelter. In July and August, he said, the shelter saw 100 more people per night than usual.

That was part of the plan, Hess said.

"A lot of people moved in from the camps to the shelter, which is one of the goals of the municipality and the providers ... to get people into the shelter, where hopefully they'll engage with a case manager, rather than living in camps, where there's assaults and rapes and murders," Hess said.

A city ordinance allows churches to open their doors to homeless individuals, and, so far, three churches are authorized to do so, Hess said. Two others are in the process of getting authorization, which includes and application to the city Department of Health and Human Services, proof of proper insurance and an inspection by the fire department, he said.

Still, the churches are not allowed to take in anyone who is under the influence of alcohol or drugs not prescribed by a doctor, which is a large percentage of the clients served by Brother Francis and Bean's Cafe, Hess said.

"I guess the reality is there's no legally authorized overflow shelter beyond Bean's Cafe," Hess said.

The Anchorage Rescue Mission also reported full beds in recent days.

Finding a "backup for the backup" is something that needs to be discussed in coming months, Hess said.

But Harris said the problem is more immediate. "I think the next 30 to 60 days will be critical," he said.

"This is a community challenge," Harris said. "We need to pull together as a community to find solutions, short-term and long-term solutions."

Reach Casey Grove at casey.grove@adn.com or 257-4589.

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By CASEY GROVE
Anchorage Daily News