Cold prompts city to revisit rule on alternate homeless shelters

Lisa Demer

The city wants to raise the temperature at which it allows churches and social service facilities not normally used as homeless shelters to take in people from the streets or living in their cars.

The proposal comes during an especially harsh Anchorage winter. January is one of the coldest months on record. Shelters have been jammed to their capacity and people in need have overflowed to other spots. The new measure wouldn't affect what happens in the dead cold of winter, but would expand the time churches and others could help.

A municipal law passed in 2010 set the mark at 32 degrees for churches, soup kitchens and similar facilities to open their doors. The Sullivan administration is proposing to raise that to 45 degrees. That essentially would allow city-approved churches and soup kitchens to become temporary homeless shelters nine months of the year. The low temperature for Anchorage usually climbs above 45 in early June and stays there until early September, according to the National Weather Service.

Community advocates have been asking for the city to rethink the cutoff and it makes sense, considering that in recent years most of the outdoor deaths of street people occurred in the spring, summer and fall -- not during bitter cold, said Darrel Hess, homeless coordinator for the municipality. Many of those who died were worn down by years of hard drinking and street life and may have been lured to sleep outdoors on a warm day that turned to a chilly night.

This winter marks the second one in which churches and social service agencies have been able to take in families when it gets cold enough, under the law unanimously approved by the Assembly in 2010. The buildings must be inspected by the Fire Department and cleared by the city Health and Human Services Department. But unlike a full-time shelter, the temporary shelters don't have to secure a conditional use permit, which can be expensive and time intensive, Hess said.

So far this fall and winter, more than 100 people have spent nights in churches because the shelters that normally take in families have been full to the brim, according to Dave Kuiper, a pastor who has been helping the effort. The churches have been focusing on families but could take in individuals, as long as they aren't intoxicated, under the city cold weather plan.

"We're really concerned about the safety of these families. You'd have to ask yourself whether you'd like to sleep outside in your car at 42 degrees," said Kuiper, pastor at Crosspoint Community Church and part of a coalition of churches and social service agencies working on the city's long-troublesome homeless issue.

Four churches -- ChangePoint, Anchorage City Church, Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church and Central Lutheran Church -- have opened as shelters this winter and others are waiting for city approval. Each of the four has picked certain nights to open, when they can get at least two volunteers or staff to stay overnight and are free of scheduling conflicts within the building. So far, no church is open as a shelter on Tuesdays or Thursdays, though that should change soon, Kuiper said. His own church is in leased space in a commercial development on Dimond Boulevard and couldn't get the landlord permission to operate as a shelter, he said.

The system for homeless families to find an open spot is somewhat complicated. Hess said people should call 211. If it's after normal work hours, they then are given another phone number to call and are told where any open spots are. Agencies will pay for a taxi to take them to a church or shelter if they don't have a car, Hess said.

Bean's Cafe, the soup kitchen next door to Brother Francis Shelter on the edge of downtown, also has become a temporary shelter this winter, taking in an average of 100 men a night in January alone.

Bean's is getting the overflow from Brother Francis, which only serves adults and is the biggest homeless shelter in Anchorage. Brother Francis' capacity is 240 people, and it has topped that number every night but one since Oct. 25, according to Susan Bomalaski, executive director of Catholic Social Services, which runs the shelter. Women and many men are being sheltered at Brother Francis -- overflow men go to Bean's.

In November, an average of 310 men and women showed up at Brother Francis -- putting 70 at Bean's a night. In December, the numbers dropped slightly but by January, the average nightly count was up to 342, sending an average of 102 overflow men to Bean's.

Brother Francis is open every night no matter the weather but its policy is to help clients get out on their own and not make the shelter their long-term home. While it tries to limit stays to 30 days at a stretch, it also lets people who have used up their time sleep in the shelter when the temperature hits 32. Its cold weather policy used to kick in at 15 degrees, but after that rash of homeless deaths in 2009, it changed to 32, Bomalaski said. The city law came after that.

Now more people are showing up at Brother Francis and more are ending up at Bean's.

That's a good thing, Bomalaski said. "It means that people are coming in and are safe."

While Bean's Cafe has long been designated to take in the overflow from Brother Francis, until the shelter changed its cold weather policy, it rarely had to send people there, Bomalaski said.

Now Bean's is getting so full that the city and social service agencies are looking for a second place -- a backup to the backup.

No one is sure whether the most vulnerable people will turn to the shelters when the weather turns warmer. Catholic Social Services hasn't decided whether to change its cold weather internal policy, to let long-timers back into the shelter at 45 degrees rather than the current 32 degrees.

But if the Assembly changes the law to let churches and soup kitchens fill in for longer, there at least will be more options for some people in Anchorage, Hess said. And it doesn't cost the city anything, he said.

The measure is being introduced at Tuesday's Assembly meeting. A public hearing is set for Feb. 14.

Reach Lisa Demer at or 257-4390.

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