Alaska News

Juneau’s new emergency warming shelter location isn’t a solution — it’s a stopgap

In a warehouse about a mile south of downtown Juneau, Julien Piccard sat at a table near his cot with a late-night dinner of ramen and a plastic-wrapped sandwich.

The temperature was just below freezing outside on Thursday, Dec. 21, as he and a few dozen people settled in for the night at the city’s new emergency warming shelter location off of Thane Road.

Piccard has been without stable housing since 2007. For the last few years, he’s relied on Juneau’s winter emergency shelter, a city-funded space that’s meant to be a last resort for unhoused people to survive the night when temperatures drop below freezing.

“If it wasn’t for this place, I don’t know what I would do honestly. It would be bad,” he said.

Piccard said it isn’t where he wants to be — surrounded by strangers in an industrial warehouse meant for storage, not housing. But if he wants to make it through this winter, it’s where he has to be.

“I haven’t always been in this position, you know?” he said. “I used to work, have a family … When you’re in Juneau and you get down to the bottom, no matter how hard you fight and claw, and try and get your way back up, you can’t.”

For two years, the city’s emergency shelter was located downtown at Resurrection Lutheran Church in the Flats neighborhood. But this summer, the church’s congregation was split on whether to run the shelter again, citing rising costs and wear and tear to the church. No other providers offered to fill in because they didn’t have a suitable space.


As winter approached with no plan in place, city leaders decided in October to relocate the shelter to the city-owned warehouse in Thane and work with St. Vincent de Paul to operate it. The organization previously ran the shelter from 2019 to 2021.

The warehouse was warm inside last Thursday night. A temporary plywood wall separates the shelter from half of the building that’s used as the city’s ballot processing center. The cold air outside quickly dissipated to the smells of soup, and the sounds of low chatter.

The warehouse has heating, insulation and electricity, though its bathrooms are port-a-potties that sit just outside. There’s no running water. It’s open from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m. and St. Vincent de Paul provides meals at night and in the morning.

Shelter manager Jackie Bryant said this winter on its busiest nights, nearly 50 people have stayed there, and 163 individuals have used the shelter since it opened in late October. Despite the snowier and colder winter expected ahead, Bryant said after her first visit to the warehouse, she was sure the new shelter could provide the basics for people to get through the night.

“That was my first reaction: it was warm in here,” she said. “That’s what they need.”

Bryant said the warehouse has been running better than she expected, but it’s still just an emergency stopgap to Juneau’s greater housing crisis.

“A warming shelter is not a solution,” Bryant said. “It just keeps people alive, which is what it’s designed for, to keep them alive during the winter. It does not replace housing by any means. But there’s a real need for it.”

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Ogla Askoak, one of the shelter’s staff, knows that need well. She stood at a table near the shelter’s entrance and helped new patrons sign in as they came in for the night.

“I really enjoy working with these people. I look forward to coming to work all the time,” she said.

Askoak said she understands the struggle of being unhoused in Juneau because she’s been on the other side of the table.

“I was homeless before, me and my kids. We lived in a smaller village, and we didn’t really have any help, anyone to reach out to,” Askoak said. “And then we came here to Juneau with no place to go.”

Askoak said she and her daughter first went to AWARE’s shelter, then to St. Vincent and found stability here. Askoak has worked with people experiencing homelessness for over a decade. She said the new shelter works, but she wishes it had a kitchen.

“I find myself somewhat bored, because that’s the one thing I really enjoy doing is baking, being in the kitchen, seeing everyone happy that they got something warm to take out,” she said.

Julien Piccard said he wishes they had more blankets and cots, and a place to store belongings during the day.

“You can’t leave anything here. So you can’t you can’t really build anything up, you know, like clothing or something like that,” Piccard said. “It’d be cool if there was some place where we can store some stuff, you know? But it is what it is.”

One problem both shelter staff and guests mentioned is the location. St. Vincent de Paul and the city coordinate transportation from the Mendenhall Valley and downtown to the shelter, using a city bus in the morning and a 15-passenger van at night.


The city bus takes patrons to the Glory Hall’s Teal Street campus, stopping on request along the way. In the evening a van run by St. Vincent De Paul makes two or three laps from the Glory Hall through downtown to the shelter. Staff say it makes a few more trips from downtown during the night.

Bryant said she’s not a fan of the shelter’s distance from downtown, either.

“I really don’t care for the location. I’m gonna be honest, I really don’t. But it’s working,” Bryant said. “We’re used to being downtown in the JACC, or when it was at St. Vincent’s. You’re right there.”

That includes quick access to emergency services. She was initially worried the distance would mean longer wait times if help was needed for medical or safety reasons. So far, she said that extra help has come quickly.

For now, Bryant said the shelter’s biggest needs are more blankets and socks.

This story originally appeared on KTOO Public Media and is republished here with permission.