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At the edge of survival: Bethel's homeless shelter and those it serves

  • Author: Lisa Demer
  • Updated: January 18, 2017
  • Published January 18, 2017

Bethel Winter House serves those who are homeless or temporarily on the streets from December through March in Bethel. (Lisa Demer / Alaska Dispatch News)

BETHEL — What is it like to be homeless in Bush Alaska?

In Bethel, where the temperature dropped to minus 23 Tuesday night, one couple living in an abandoned car at the airport found temporary shelter with relatives.

Another man whose tiny place has no electricity, heat or running water says he is used to the cold. He makes do bundling up with blankets and hopes to get a wood stove soon.

For some, Bethel Winter House is a vital if rough sanctuary that has been drawing a dozen to more than 20 people a night. Sometimes, it's at the edge of survival, the same as the people it serves.

The winter-only shelter, which also goes by its Yup'ik name, Uksumi Uqisvik, ran out of water for two days this week. Earlier this month, trouble came from people too inebriated to be there. Most every night, people walk a couple of miles or more to the shelter then huddle outside until the doors open at 9 p.m.

To save on energy bills, the thermostat is set at 65 degrees, and the main gathering room feels chilly. With all the bodies, though, the shared sleeping space warms right up.

The 4-year-old shelter is run by the Bethel Lions Club and is a safety stop for vulnerable people during the coldest months, December through March. It first opened in a church, but moved last year to a repurposed school building in Bethel's Tundra Ridge neighborhood.

At Winter House, home-cooked food from a rotation of volunteers is dished up each night — soups and stews, pasta and goulash. Some mornings, guests are offered cold cereal and are out the door by 7 a.m. But lately, with the extreme cold, the Salvation Army's Loni Upshaw lets everyone sleep in to 8 a.m. or so, then cooks up pancakes or waffles.

"Just got to get people up and moving and get them a hot breakfast," said Cynthia "Rosie" Coffey, one of the overnight staff members.

Bedding and chairs are stored in the Arctic entry room of the Bethel Winter House. (Lisa Demer / Alaska Dispatch News)

Some guests say they have homes or family to stay with in dry villages and come to Bethel to drink. Some come for work, or medical care. It doesn't really matter.

"All are welcome here for whatever reason," Coffey said. "I don't want anyone freezing to death even if they are an alcoholic."

Tuesday night, the shelter attracted a military veteran and a Yup'ik elder, a substitute school teacher and a janitor, 18 men and women in all.

One young man was running late to his new job at Gladys Jung Elementary School across town. Coffey loaned him cab fare. Another has a job stocking shelves at the AC Quickstop. Simeon Charlie had just had a job interview for a janitorial position.

"I hope to hear good news," he said.

Some say they save money staying at the shelter to get their own place later on.

There are rules. No alcohol inside. No drinking from bottles stashed outside. No violence, no cussing, no acting out. Bags are searched and everyone who wants to sleep there is patted down.

"If they are too intoxicated, they can't stay here," Coffey said. "It's not safe for anybody."

Things have gotten out of hand a few times, and police or community service patrol workers either were slow to respond or didn't come at all, said the shelter's volunteer director and one of the founders, Eva Malvich. Workers were using their own money for cabs to send highly inebriated people to Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp.'s sobering center. She questioned whether the shelter could stay open.

The situation has settled down.

The shelter's board hired a security guard, who checks for liquor bottles hidden outside. An emergency services group donated $100 for cab rides. Police chief Andre Achee told Malvich he would look into response times.

The police department was down to a single community service patrol worker to bring inebriates to the sobering center, but recently hired two more, said police Sgt. Amy Davis. Now community service is patrolling daily from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m., she said.

Winter House is making a difference for Bethel, she said.

"I definitely think it has cut down on exposure deaths," the sergeant said.

The shelter works with other agencies and businesses too. When pipes froze up at the sobering center for those who are extremely intoxicated, a client was brought to the shelter for the night, Malvich said. A cab company gives free rides late at night to those going to Winter House. But some walk there first.

The building is owned by the Salvation Army. Upshaw, a Salvation Army major and pastor, lives upstairs.

The building has two 1,000-gallon water tanks, filled by city water trucks, to supply Winter House as well as her upper-level living quarters. Most people in the community of more than 6,300 rely on what is known as hauled water.

"When we run out of water down here, I am out of water upstairs," Upshaw said of the shelter.

Shelter guests — some of whom who grew up using honey buckets — make do. When the tanks went dry, the toilet was flushed only when necessary with water brought in by a worker's son. Even when the tanks are full, shelter guests don't get to take showers — it would run out too fast, Upshaw said.

That is a sore point with some guests, who say they might have a better chance at getting work if they could shower and wash clothes there.

Upshaw thought that the city had been alerted by Winter House board members to fill the tanks every week. When it's just her, water is delivered every other week, to save money. The Salvation Army charges Winter House $1,000 a month, but that barely covers utilities, she said.

There was a miscommunication. So far this season, water trucks have only been coming every other week.

"Nobody has ever given me any orders to turn it on every week," said Jim Colonel, hauled utilities supervisor for the city of Bethel. "I can't just start giving people water."

He didn't even know the tanks had run dry until a reporter asked about it. He said he would send a truck right away.

"It is up and running," Upshaw said a bit later.

Bethel Winter House guests line up to get plates of pancakes and hash browns. (Lisa Demer / Alaska Dispatch News)

She had jugs of water on hand during breakfast. There was coffee, fluffy big pancakes with butter and syrup and hash browns.

Nelson Tomaganuk, 53, said a quiet prayer over his meal. He's from Hooper Bay and said he comes to Bethel for work. He planned to go to the state job center later in the day as he has been doing the past three weeks.

"It takes time for me," he said. "The other problem is drinking."

He said he knew he needed help and went through residential treatment last year. He said he is doing better, but still falls off now and again.

He is thinking about getting training through the local vocational school, Yuut Elitnaurviat, The People's Learning Center.

"What time is it?" Upshaw asked the room. Tomaganuk checked his phone. 9:07 a.m. The city bus would be there soon.

There was quiet conversation at the breakfast table, some of it in Yup'ik.

Upshaw said sometimes she must be strict to keep order. When a cup and plate went missing, she took away everyone's coffee privileges for two days.

A few minutes later Upshaw reminded everyone the bus was coming soon.

Charlie helped an elder with his hat. Look up, he told him in Yup'ik.

Everyone put on their snowpants, parkas and gloves and walked out into the Arctic air.

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