Emergency shelter may close after loss of public funding

Nathaniel Herz
Marc Lester

One of the largest nonprofit providers for Anchorage's homeless residents says it may not be able to operate a 124-person emergency shelter after losing funding administered by the city. Advocates are warning of dire consequences this winter unless the problem is fixed.

Catholic Social Services Executive Director Susan Bomalaski said the city had supplied some $71,000 over the last two years to help pay for the utility and staffing costs of housing homeless people in Bean's Café, a soup kitchen her organization converts to an overnight shelter during the winter.

But the money, which came from the federal government, has now dried up, and officials at the city's Department of Health and Human Services say they haven't yet found another source.

"We just don't have endless pockets," said Janet Vietmeier, the department's director. "I don't have confirmed funding for what we're going to do this winter."

Vietmeier said her department was looking at ways it could replace the money, or it could devise a new plan that would find shelter for homeless people at other locations.

Catholic Social Services has used the cafe as overflow during the last two winters when its primary space, the Brother Francis Shelter, fills its capacity of 240 people.

The space is critical during Anchorage's cold nights, and without a replacement, or funding to keep it open, the city could see more homeless people freezing to death, said Trevor Storrs, the board chair of the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness.

"These people don't have a place to go. They're going to be exposed to the elements," he said. "It's the last resort."

The cafe often shelters 100 people a night, and was completely full several times last winter, according to Bomalaski -- meaning Catholic Social Services was sheltering in excess of 300 people.

In addition to her fears about the cafe's funding, Bomalaski said, she is also concerned about what will happen this winter on the nights when her organization runs out of space.

Last year, the city allowed Catholic Social Services to refer people to the Anchorage Safety Center, which normally is restricted to individuals incapacitated by drugs or alcohol.

But the safety center ended up incurring steep overtime costs, and officials at the Department of Health and Human Services said they do not plan to use it as a shelter again. Instead, they said, they are looking for other ways to house people that Catholic Social Services cannot.

"Using the safety center for that purpose is not feasible," said Mark Lessard, who manages the center's contract for the Department of Health and Human Services. "The operation is not designed for that."

In an interview last week, Bomalaski said Catholic Social Services had been trying since June to schedule a meeting with Mayor Dan Sullivan to discuss her concerns, but so far has been unable to secure one. Sullivan, in a brief interview Monday evening, said he has scheduled a meeting with several different groups working on homelessness, including Catholic Social Services.

"We actually have a meeting with Catholic Social Services and with some of our other nonprofit service providers coming up in the very near future," he said. "It's been scheduled, and we're assuming Catholic Social Services will be able to attend."

While the city says it is working to ensure that it has enough emergency shelter space for the winter, it is also focused on initiatives to drive down the number of homeless people over the long-term, said Britteny Matero, a manager in the public health division of Health and Human Services.

Topping the list is an effort to develop more affordable housing, Matero said. The city is in the process of obtaining new funding for construction from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Melinda Freemon, director of supportive housing at the social service provider RuralCAP, agreed that Anchorage had made progress.

This winter, the Cook Inlet Housing Authority opened a renovated, 120-unit affordable complex in Midtown, she said, and another group just opened Trailside Heights, a 66-unit development in South Anchorage near Lake Otis Parkway.

But still, Freemon pointed out, the waiting list for Trailside Heights numbered in the hundreds.

"There is progress," she said. "But there's a great deal more need than we can fulfill."

Reach Nathaniel Herz at nherz@adn.com or 257-4311.