Eva Malvich knew June Swope, a 60-year-old grandmother found dead in an unheated building in Bethel on Dec. 7, 2012. Eva's son and June's granddaughter went to school together, and Malvich remembered seeing Swope with her granddaughter at a graduation that spring.
Days before Swope died, the body of Norbert Kashatok, a 48-year-old man who liked to visit the Yupiit Piciryarait Museum in Bethel where Malvich serves as curator, was discovered in an unheated building across the street from the museum. He too had succumbed to subzero winter temperatures.
A pattern of cold exposure deaths in the Western Alaska community, including three in the past year, stirred Malvich and a group of others to action. On Christmas Eve, a large, empty conference room in the Bethel Covenant Church will open its doors to the community's population of homeless adults and children needing shelter from cold.
The shelter, dubbed the Bethel Winter House, is described by organizers as the first emergency winter shelter in Bethel's history.
"Exposure deaths are preventable, and we should do something as a community," said Malvich, president of the Bethel Winter House Committee.
A survey conducted in January by the Bethel Homeless Coalition showed that 100 people were homeless in Bethel -- 36 of them children. Advocates refer to the population as the "hidden homeless" -- about half reported being sheltered by an agency, but the other half were either on the street, in transitional housing or staying with friends or relatives, according to the survey.
In the winter, those without a place to stay seek shelter in abandoned buildings, steam baths or rooms in smokehouses.
And despite a population of about 5,700 people and a tight housing market, no permanent emergency homeless shelter exists in Bethel.
"We've never organized a shelter project because we looked at long-term fixes," said Rusty Tews, a member of the Bethel Homeless Coalition and the manager of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation Sobering Center. Tews has worked at the sobering center for four winters now, watching people come in from 30-below temperatures at night to wait out the effects of alcohol.
He added: "I (still) need a longer-term solution, but I've decided we need to learn how to do this first."
Tews said he posted on Facebook several months ago expressing his frustration with the lack of progress toward a winter shelter. The flood of responses surprised him. In October, he, Malvich, about nine other community members formed a committee to start making plans.
It took just seven weeks to establish non-profit status and introduce the project to the public. The Bethel Winter House will operate for a 90-day period, from Dec. 24 to March 24, and rotate to a different church every 30 days.
Mats or cots with a blanket and pillow will line the floor, and organizers plan to serve up hot coffee and a homemade meal every night.
Tews said he hopes for a quiet launch, with little fanfare, just in time for the Christmas holiday.
"If I could give one gift to somebody on Christmas Eve, it would be a nice evening, a nice night," he said. "I think that's the feeling our entire group has. No one should be homeless on Christmas Eve."
To make a donation, visit a Wells Fargo branch and request the donation be made to "Bethel Winter House." Or, donate online at www.gofundme.com/Bethelshelter. The group is also seeking volunteers.
Reach Devin Kelly at email@example.com or 257-4314.
By DEVIN KELLY