Alaska Life

Brother Francis Shelter, marking 35 years of caring, pauses to remember its beginnings

The story of Brother Francis Shelter began 35 years ago with the tragic death of a homeless man at Holy Family Cathedral. He'd been sleeping in a dumpster that was subsequently emptied by the refuse company.

After that death, Archbishop Francis Hurley immediately decided to tackle the problem of homelessness in Anchorage. Hearing of the work a couple of brothers in a small order, The Servant Brothers, had accomplished in Spokane, Washington, he investigated. A few years earlier, they'd worked with the homeless in Spokane's Skid Row area. Hurley met with these two brothers and invited them to Anchorage to perform street ministry with the chronically homeless here.

Initially, the brothers used vacant state office space on West Fourth Avenue as an overnight drop-in shelter. However, the number of people using it grew so fast that fire and safety code concerns forced the fire marshal to shut it down essentially evicting the homeless back onto the street. This was May 1983 and winter was just over. Two of the brothers, known as Brother Bob and Brother Dave, finally found a safe place — the rose garden on the west end of the Delaney Park Strip. This was the exact spot Pope John Paul II had, two years earlier, celebrated Mass.

They erected a tent city at the rose garden and encouraged the homeless to join them. This move created a problem for the commissioner of public safety, John Franklin, and Mayor Tony Knowles. "As a new mayor I immediately asked my public safety commissioner, who was in charge of police and fire departments, 'What should we do?' " recalled Knowles. "His immediate answer was simple. 'We need to help and protect them.' "

With winter just ending, both men wanted a permanent solution in place before the next winter at year's end. As an interim solution, the Alaska Railroad allowed a temporary tent city to be set up on railroad land. The rose garden campers quickly moved to this site, which was supplied with drinking water and portable toilets by the city.

"That was the beginning of a journey," continued Knowles, "which started with contacting the archbishop, who brought the participation of Brother Bob and Dave to start, with the municipality, an emergency temporary residence in an empty space on Fourth Avenue. Because of their leadership, the community willingly accepted the moral responsibility for this issue and those in need knew they had a caring and loving partner.

"Using a federal development grant, and with the assistance of the Anchorage utilities and the Anchorage Assembly, land and a building were developed for a permanent structure on Post Road. After many years and many renovations and improvements it now provides essential services for hundreds of Alaskans."


Looking ahead, Knowles added, "I believe that understanding and being responsive to the needs of both those with homes as well as those who had no home was an important part of being the kind of community we should be. I will always remember the Brother Francis Shelter as a great moment that I was honored to be involved with and showed our community character and moral responsibility.

"In thinking about the relevance for our future we must understand that this facility is only temporary solution and the necessity of a more permanent resolution is essential. The proliferation of homeless camps and a fear for the safety of those in the camps and the neighborhoods that surround them call for the next step of permanent residences."

The new facility quickly became too small for the growing need and a new facility was erected in the early 2000s. Archbishop Roger L. Schwietz recalled that time saying, "My fondest memory was getting in a big machine that was tearing down the old building, and helping tear down the walls. It was a hopeful moment that we were finally getting it built from the ground up; to help the homeless and respect their dignity."

When asked about his vision for Brother Francis Shelter at its 50th anniversary, Schwietz said he'd like to see "more developed programs to help people get on their feet, more effectiveness in developing housing, and more accomplished in getting a good number of people off the street."

From 6 to 7 p.m. Oct. 2, in anticipation of the upcoming feast day of St. Francis (Oct. 4), a small event will be held and a plaque will be unveiled at the shelter, commemorating the work and dedication of Brother Bob and Brother Dave — who helped start Brother Francis Shelter, named for their patron saint.

"This is coming from the community — a couple of donors wanted to pay tribute — and it is being put on by our Brother Francis Shelter Advisory Council," said Lisa D.H. Aquino, director of Catholic Social Services, explaining the celebration. "This is a group of people who have been connected with the shelter since it began. As we see an increased focus on homelessness again in our community now, we thought it might be nice to celebrate the work done by caring individuals more than 35 years ago."

Crop Hunger Walk 2016 on Sunday

A dedicated group of people from Anchorage's interfaith community will once again do a friendly and fun walk starting at First Congregational Church wending its way through the university area. Safe and kid-friendly, this walk is the place and time to make new friends and support organizations that address hunger locally and afar. Sponsored by the Interfaith Council of Anchorage and Church Women United, this year's event is organized by Paul and Dave Boling, ministers at First Christian Church.

"If you care about hunger, locally or globally, this is the perfect event for you," says Paul Boling. "Regardless of your faith tradition, you can designate the recipient of your funds, and there is a diversity of traditions to pick from." Twenty-five percent of the money is given to local charities. This year F.I.S.H. and Lutheran Social Services Food Pantry have been chosen as local recipients, and the remainder of the money goes to Church World Services, which represents 35 denominations.

Last year's walk raised $15,000. This year's goal is $20,000. Online registration and donation information is located at

Registration at First Congregational Church, 2610 E. Northern Lights Blvd., is at 12:45 p.m. The walk starts at 1:30 p.m. led by the Crow Creek Pipes and Drums. Come join us to have fun and do your part to fight world hunger. Entertainment and munchies follow.

Chris Thompson

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits Anchorage-area churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog,