The same crews that pick up intoxicated people from Anchorage streets are now overseeing an overnight homeless shelter at Bean's Cafe on East Third Avenue, a temporary fix that city officials hastily engineered last month as temperatures plunged to single digits.
Steve Ashman, an official in the city health department, said he hopes the emergency arrangement with the Anchorage Safety Patrol will become long-term. The deal came together just days after Bean's Cafe, the city's largest soup kitchen, said it would not directly manage a nighttime shelter this year.
Since mid-November, safety patrol officers have been monitoring the dozens of people who show up each night to sleep on the floor of Bean's Cafe. The safety patrol seemed like a logical fit, because officers frequently interact with people who are homeless or living on the street, Ashman said. Everyone leaves by 6 a.m., before the Bean's Cafe staff comes in to prepare the day's meals.
The nonprofit has authorized the city to use the building at 1101 E. Third Ave. until Dec. 18. Officials are searching now for what property to use next, Ashman said. But no matter where the nighttime shelter ends up, Ashman said he hopes the safety patrol will manage it.
Since a spate of outdoor deaths in 2009, Anchorage has adopted policies aimed at offering shelter to anyone who needs it when temperatures drop below freezing.
Each year, there have been more people who want shelter than Brother Francis Shelter — the city's largest homeless shelter — has room for. It's an annual scramble that officials say will continue until the city finds more housing for the chronically homeless. City homelessness coordinator Nancy Burke says Anchorage has maxed out its existing housing options, with very few openings each month.
As Burke and others try to find more homes for the homeless, the only option for many — besides illegally camping — is the city's emergency shelters. "Overflow" shelter happens when temperatures go below freezing and Brother Francis Shelter reaches its limit of 240 people.
Until early 2016, Catholic Social Services, the separate nonprofit that runs Brother Francis Shelter, had operated an overflow shelter inside the Bean's Cafe building. But the agency backed out after an incident in which an injured man bled on the floor.
Bean's Cafe oversaw the nighttime shelter this past winter. Then, last month, executive director Lisa Sauder said her agency would no longer run it, citing insurance problems. She also said the agency wants to stick more closely to its mission of feeding the hungry.
The city's use of the building now is meant to be temporary, Sauder said in a recent interview.
"Hopefully they will find another solution as quickly as possible," Sauder said.
Before Sauder's announcement, Ashman said, the city was prepared to pay Bean's Cafe $24,000 a month in federal funding to run a nighttime shelter there. He said it took him by surprise that the deal fell through.
Temperatures had dropped to below 20 degrees by then. City officials were concerned about people who were camping on the street outside the shelter, Ashman said.
He and other officials knew that Securitas, the private contractor that runs the Safety Patrol for the city, had experience with people who are homeless. Securitas also runs the Anchorage Safety Center, a sleep-off facility near the Anchorage jail. Fewer people have been spending the night at the sleep-off center, freeing up some staff, Ashman said.
In just days, Securitas and the city had worked out a short-term agreement, Ashman said. As well as stationing safety patrol officers at the overflow shelter, the contract protects Bean's Cafe against any loss or damage, according to an unsigned version of the document.
Ashman said he hopes to incorporate the cost and responsibilities for the overflow shelter into the larger contract the city holds with Securitas. That contract was under negotiation this week.
In the meantime, there are no mats at the temporary shelter. People are sleeping on chairs or on the bare floor, Ashman said. Between 40 and 70 people have stayed there.
Ashman said that under a longer-term agreement, the city and the Safety Patrol contractor would try to make the space more comfortable.
"Right now, we just wanted people out of the cold," Ashman said.