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Gap looms in cold-weather shelter for Anchorage's homeless

  • Author: Devin Kelly
  • Updated: September 21, 2016
  • Published September 20, 2016

As winter creeps closer, Anchorage officials are scrambling to find cold-weather shelter beds for roughly 90 homeless adults and close a gap in shelter space stemming from a health scare at the Bean's Cafe soup kitchen this past winter.

City homeless coordinator Nancy Burke is working with information from a city homeless count in August, the first summer count in several years. According to a memo from Burke that will be provided to the Anchorage Assembly, the count found 386 adults at shelters and Bean's Cafe and another 153 sleeping in camps or on the street.

Government subsidies helped move 60 adults off the street, according to Burke's memo. Even so, 479 homeless adults were counted in Anchorage in August. There is only warm, indoor space for 392 of them.

More than half will be able to stay at the Brother Francis Shelter and the Anchorage Gospel Rescue Mission, according to Burke's memo. A few dozen can find space at the Downtown Soup Kitchen and a fourth building on Fourth Avenue, as well as through a city-funded work van program, according to Burke's memo.

But that won't cover everyone, according to Burke. For the last several years, Bean's Cafe has offered overflow winter shelter space in its dining hall through an agreement with Catholic Social Services when temperatures fell below 45 degrees.

But that arrangement ended abruptly in February. An injured man who was sleeping at the overflow shelter bled on the floor. The employee overseeing the overflow shelter tried to mop up the blood instead of calling 911.

Despite the potential for bloodborne diseases, the employee — who was later fired — didn't report the incident to supervisors until a day later, after two meals had been served at the shelter.

Bean's Cafe closed for two weeks. The overflow shelter operation, which had space for 124 people, never resumed. Homeless clients moved to churches and a building on East Fourth Avenue owned by Anchorage Community Mental Health Services.

The Bean's Cafe incident led to the "realization that a kitchen is not the greatest place" for an overflow shelter, said Lisa Aquino, executive director of Catholic Social Services.

Burke said the incident also highlighted a staffing problem — that one employee has to supervise 124 people.

Without Bean's Cafe in the mix of overflow shelters, as many as 87 people could still be on the streets this winter, Burke said.

She also acknowledged that the number of homeless is a moving target. The city can't exactly predict how many of the homeless are seasonal workers who camp during the summer to save money, and how many of them will find other places to stay during the winter months.

Carmen Wenger, the executive director of the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness, said the projections are a positive step. She has been with the coalition for two years and said she hasn't seen predicted winter overflow numbers before.

In her memo, Burke floats a few solutions, such as allowing more people into the Downtown Soup Kitchen and the Fourth Avenue building, as well as the work van program.

But such steps need money and approval from the fire marshal. For example, Burke estimated that it would cost $23,500 to staff the overflow shelter at what's known as the Stolt building, which doesn't include the rent for the building or the amount it would cost to install a sprinkler system and fire alarm — both required to expand the sleeping capacity.

Burke said she also wants to explore opening up two churches to adults, as well as short-term rental housing subsidies.

When the temperature drops below 45 degrees, homeless families have had access to a well-established system of cold-weather shelters since 2010. But there isn't such a system for homeless adults without families, which is where city homelessness initiatives have so far focused most intensely.

"We'd like to get everyone accounted for," Burke said. "The big thing is, winter's coming and we don't want people to die on the streets."

Burke hasn't formally requested money from the Assembly for shelter overflow costs. She said the administration is putting the numbers together and is giving the Assembly "a heads up" about how the problem is being approached.

Burke said the administration is exploring ways to find money from sources other than the city budget.

Aquino, of Catholic Social Services, said the overall number of people without winter shelter is alarming.

"No matter what, we don't have a plan in place for all of those people who are unsheltered to shelter them," Aquino said.

She expressed frustration that winter shelter for adults fell only to a small pool of social service agencies, particularly her own.

She added: "The problem has grown, and I think it's too much for a single agency to take on."