With temperature falling and need rising, shelters turn some homeless away

As many as dozens of adults are being turned away from downtown Anchorage emergency shelters each night this winter even as recent temperatures dipped to  zero.

Officials are trying to figure out what to do. The city's homeless coordinator, Nancy Burke, is working with downtown social service agencies and city fire inspectors to squeeze more people into existing shelters.

Burke had predicted the shortfall in September as she tried to account for every person who would be on the street once cold weather hit. Less shelter space was available than last winter after a bleeding man at an overflow shelter at Bean's Cafe, a soup kitchen, led to a health scare that closed the shelter.

And it's taken far longer than expected to connect people with federal housing subsidies, which could have helped the city meet the demand, Burke said.

Just before 5 p.m. Wednesday, several dozen people were crowded in the entryway at Brother Francis Shelter on East Third Avenue. The shelter was about to open for the night.

The shelter has hit its capacity of 240 people by 9 p.m. most nights, said Lisa Caldeira, shelter director. An informal system has evolved, where people leave belongings to save a spot in line.

One of the people in line was a 26-year-old man who gave his name as Nickolai. He said he's been homeless about two weeks and on Tuesday tried for the first time to stay at Brother Francis. He said he showed up about 9:45 p.m. and was told there wasn't room.


He said he spent the night in someone's tent across the street, then came early Wednesday to make sure he got a spot.

"If it wasn't for someone walking out last night (saying), 'I got a tent,' I would have just been walking around all night," he said.

Rodney Cameron, 49, was also among those crowded in the front entry. He's been homeless on and off since 1986, he said. But he's never been turned away from the shelter before, until a week ago.

He ended up sleeping on the floor of a hotel room, where a friend was staying.

"That saved me," said Cameron, shivering in a khaki jacket. He had a toothbrush container and tissues sticking out of his jacket pocket.

In Anchorage, it's not uncommon for there to be more people seeking shelter than there is space. Waitlists at shelters in the winter of 2009 spurred the city to adopt an emergency cold weather plan.

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Right now, when the temperature falls below freezing, an emergency shelter system plan is launched. A network of churches opens up to keep homeless families sanctuary.

But this winter, there's a space shortage for adults. Catholic Social Services used to offer overflow space for some 120 adults at Bean's Cafe next door. But the nonprofit stopped that practice abruptly in February after an injured man bled, and the only employee supervising the shelter failed to immediately report the incident.

Burke and nonprofit leaders have been trying since September to fill the gap. Burke said it's taken a "frustrating" amount of time to qualify people for subsidies available through the federal government. People have to come up with bank records, among other documents.

"I equate it to the level of paperwork that you have to do to refinance your home," Burke said.

There's enough money to put between 30 and 40 homeless people in housing, but it hasn't happened yet, she said.

On Tuesday, Burke sent a memo to agencies in the downtown area. She floated a range of options for adding space, all of which require city fire marshal approval.

Those include allowing more women in the Downtown Soup Kitchen, which Burke described as "underutilized," and doubling the number of people allowed for a Brother Francis overflow at 1000 E. Fourth Ave.

Burke also recommended creating a new "warming room" at the Fourth Avenue overflow. She said agreements are being signed and the city hopes to adopt a formal plan next week.

On Friday, and until April, Bean's Cafe will start offering an overnight shelter service for 50 men, said Lisa Sauder, executive director.

The beds will be located in the building's main day-shelter area, not the kitchen, she said. She said the organization will be targeting people who have been unwilling to be sheltered, or who are participating in a new work program at Bean's.


It's the first time Bean's — which is not affiliated with Catholic Social Services — has run an overnight shelter, Sauder said. She said the idea is to help free up beds at Brother Francis.

"It's important we step up before we have a tragedy," Sauder said.

There will also be more staff members working, a ratio of one per 25 people, Sauder said.

At Brother Francis, meanwhile, the turn-aways have affected those who have been homeless and are volunteering at the shelter.

Alexander, a 32-year-old, had been volunteering on a night shift in customer service at the shelter.

But he's stopped. He said it was too hard to refuse people.

"It was bothering me," Alexander said. "It's against my beliefs. I can't say no."

He's now on a morning shift.


The same thing happened to George Dow, 50. Dow has been homeless about four months. He volunteered for some time in the kitchen at night.

Even though volunteering would have helped guarantee him a bed, Dow said he had to stop. He kept giving out food after hours as well as free coffee, even though he wasn't supposed to.

"My conscience just wouldn't allow me to go, 'I'm sorry, I've got to close the door on you,' " Dow said. "But there's rules, and rules are made for reasons. I understand that side as well. You can't always help everybody."

Now Dow comes to the shelter early to make sure he gets a spot. If there aren't bunks available, Dow signs up to be one of the 20 people at the overflow shelter a block away.

It's quieter there, he said.

Devin Kelly

Devin Kelly was an ADN staff reporter.