Homeless below zero: After a man’s death in a Fairbanks snowbank, a city reckons with emergency shelter

Fairbanks is America’s coldest city. It has no low-barrier shelter.

FAIRBANKS — Charles Ahkiviana died here, just beyond the lights of a Fred Meyer parking lot.

Two days before Christmas, a man on a smoke break found the 55-year-old’s body frozen in a snowbank bordering a scrap of spruce forest.

It was cold in Fairbanks that day — a low temperature of 32 degrees below zero, with a windchill at one point of 54 below. Alaska State Troopers determined Ahkiviana died of hypothermia.

Ahkiviana had been homeless in Fairbanks for years, his sister Kiatcha Nyquist said.

He was diagnosed with schizophrenia and had long struggled with drugs and alcohol. Whenever he visited her, he brought a small gift — an eyeglass chain, a trinket.

“He wanted to feel like he had something to offer,” Nyquist said.

He drew the public’s attention in death more than he had in life.

Local news media published stories based on the troopers’ account, making public a quiet reality: Unhoused people sometimes die in the Fairbanks cold.

Fairbanks is the coldest city over 25,000 people in the United States, said Rick Thoman, a climate expert at the International Arctic Research Center.

Ahkiviana’s death was a moment for community reflection, and for “fury and shame,” Jennifer Jolis, the former director of the soup kitchen, wrote in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

“How many other camps are there?” she wrote. “How many others are in danger?”

Activists in Fairbanks, a city of 30,000 people, describe a caring, creative community that helps its vulnerable homeless residents with a patchwork of offerings.

But the Fairbanks safety net has a gaping hole.

Despite an average January temperature of 8 below zero, the city lacks a low-barrier emergency shelter. No place consistently offers an open door and an unconditional warm cot to anyone, at any time, no matter how frigid outside.

So the estimated 50 to 100 unsheltered people who live in Fairbanks find ways to survive. They walk all night in bunny boots, trying to stave off frostbite. They crowd into motel rooms 10 at a time. They build forested encampments and dig snow caves. They squat in abandoned houses and sleep in cars.

Six weeks after Ahkiviana’s death, a man who said his name is Ryan perched on the curb of the busy Fred Meyer parking lot holding a sign: “NEED HELP God Bless.”

He was just down the block from the empty lot where the body had been found. A rumpled nylon tent remained in the lot, buried by new snow.

Ryan said he’d spent years intermittently homeless in Fairbanks. He’d known several homeless people who died.

How did they die?

“From freezing,” he said.

Golden Heart city

Upstairs at the Fairbanks Rescue Mission, Pete Kelly and John Coghill examined a shiny plastic bunk bed designed and constructed locally. It was built to resist infestations of bed bugs and other menaces of close-quarters living.

“This is space-age plastic,” said Kelly, the executive director.

The Rescue Mission is the biggest provider of emergency shelter in Fairbanks and a longtime Fairbanks institution. It can house up to 200 people in a disaster.

The mission has plenty of space, with comfortable rooms that look more like a college dorm. About 90 people, including women and families with children, stayed overnight on a recent weekday, Coghill said.

But some say the mission’s rules — you have to be sober and drug-free to enter — mean it isn’t sheltering the people who need it the most.

The men who run the shelter were among the most powerful lawmakers in Alaska for decades.

Kelly, the Rescue Mission’s executive director, spent more than 14 years representing Fairbanks in the Alaska Senate, including four as Senate president.

John Coghill served for more than 20 years in the Legislature, with a stint as Senate majority leader. He’s in charge of the day-to-day operations of the shelter.

Both say their faith guided them to shelter work. Each had recently lost a bid for reelection when they joined the shelter staff.

The skills of politics have transferred to their current work at the Rescue Mission, Kelly said.

In Juneau, he said, he learned, “Don’t promise things you can’t deliver.”

It’s the same at the Rescue Mission, he said.

Under their leadership, the shelter runs with a tight set of rules: To enter, prospective guests must pass a breathalyzer test and submit to a urinalysis for drugs. Clients are expected to move through a structured program toward self-sufficiency.

“If you’re willing to help yourself, we’re willing to help you,” Kelly said.

The rules are in place because the shelter needs to be an orderly, secure place, especially for people who are newly in recovery, Kelly and Coghill say. Women and families with children also stay there.

The mission can’t help everyone, they say.

“We have been criticized because there’s a level of mental illness that we just can’t take care of,” Kelly said.

Both talk about “extending grace” — allowing a man who stole back in, letting people ride out extreme weather in the foyer — but there are limits.

“If we have to tell (someone) to leave, we make sure they have hats, gloves, good boots, winter clothes, sack lunches,” Coghill said. “We’ll send them out with as much as we can.”

Advocates say the Rescue Mission does important work — but it shouldn’t be the only option for emergency shelter in Fairbanks.

“I understand why they have the limitations they do. I really do,” said Hannah Hill, executive director of Stone Soup Kitchen. “And we need to have low barrier shelter. … It’s very much about the lack of alternatives.”

Sobriety as a precursor to housing “just isn’t how homelessness works,” said Brynn Butler, housing coordinator for the city of Fairbanks. People can’t really work on their addictions, she believes, until they have stable and secure housing.

She was once an addict and homeless herself, living in cars and abandoned houses. Later, in recovery, she worked in encampment outreach and got to know people who lived without shelter in Fairbanks. She became the city’s housing coordinator in December, less than a month before Ahkiviana’s death.

Lynda Purvis, a case manager with the Tanana Chiefs Conference, hears a lot about Anchorage’s current version of a large, low-barrier shelter: Sullivan Arena. To her, it sounds like what Fairbanks needs.

“I really wish that we had something like that here,” she said. “Somewhere you could throw cots down, give you something warm to drink and just get out of the cold.”


Robyn Demientieff soaked up the warmth inside the Centennial Center, a conference space at the city-owned Pioneer Park.

Demientieff, with short hair and a sprinkling of tattoos under her eyes, spent the previous night huddled in a hotel hallway grasping a few hours of sleep, then disappearing before anyone could kick her out, she said. She’d made her way to Project Homeless Connect for snacks and an application for a Housing First apartment. Her old friend Starla Adams sat with her.

Around them, behind folding tables, sat representatives of Fairbanks’ many social service groups, offering snacks, free haircuts and applications for housing and ID cards. A yearly event, Project Homeless Connect is meant as a one-stop shop for unhoused people to connect with services in a single location.

Demientieff said she’d been homeless on and off in Fairbanks for years. There was a strange logic to the way emergency shelter worked here, she thought:

“To go to the mission you have to be sober,” she said. “To go to the sobering center you have to be drunk.”

People get drunk simply to qualify for admission to the sobering center to dodge a night in the cold, she said. Demientieff was hoping her application for a Housing First apartment would be accepted.

“At least I’d have somewhere to go at night,” she said. “They won’t judge me.”

The friends agreed that surviving homelessness in Fairbanks involves strategy and hard work. A “warming center” is open sometimes, but not always. People can be taken to the downtown crisis recovery center but can’t stay more than 23 hours. The soup kitchen is open 7:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. A food pantry serves meals on Wednesdays.

On this afternoon in January, the temperature was dropping into the teens and single digits. Demientieff wore snow overalls with no shirt underneath, a sweatshirt and a thin jacket.

“I can get you a jacket if you need one,” Adams quietly offered from across the table. She was staying at a women-only shelter.

Demientieff slid out of her chair and headed for the bus stop, lugging a bag. She had no idea where she’d spend the night. The Rescue Mission wasn’t an option for her, she said. Maybe she’d head downtown.

“If you could walk a mile in my shoes and survive, I commend you,” she said.

Scott Walston was standing at the bus stop, carrying his belongings over his shoulder with a stick. Walston is from Utah but said he’d been homeless in Fairbanks for about five years, on and off. His shelter options are limited: He’d been to the Rescue Mission but had been kicked out.

“I couldn’t stop drinking,” he said.

He spent all night walking. He does that sometimes. He prefers the big-box stores of East Fairbanks, he said. Safer to be among the Walmarts and Safeways. He’s practically become nocturnal, he said: Walk all night, ride the bus all day. In the coldest weather, he’s passed nights in empty houses. You curl up against your friends, hedging body heat against freezing.

“Been there, done that,” he said.

Searching for camps

Niko Thompson trudged through heavy snow, his path lit by a headlamp. He was searching for the camps of unhoused people he knew existed in Fairbanks. They were proving elusive.

At one trail into a greenbelt, he saw only fox tracks in the new-fallen snow.

At the northeast edge of town, he called toward an empty tent in the trees. He stepped into a dilapidated building.

“Anybody there?” he hollered. “I have some bus passes, McDonald’s gift cards.”

No one answered.

Thompson, a veteran who got out of the military in Fairbanks and stayed, runs a program through the Rescue Mission that aims to help homeless veterans but extends help to all unhoused people. Tonight, his job was to survey camps as part of an annual point-in-time count of unhoused people.

In Fairbanks — unlike in Anchorage — the camps tend to stay hidden, invisible from roads. Usually, the camps are small. The biggest he’d seen was seven people living in one place: a junked bus.

After hours of searching, he’d found only one active camp. Nobody seemed to be there.

“Doesn’t mean they aren’t out here,” he said.


Wherever the unsheltered in Fairbanks may have secreted away for the night, about 100 people showed up for breakfast the next morning at the Stone Soup Cafe, a no-judgments grassroots soup kitchen.

The philosophy of The Bread Line, which operates Stone Soup Cafe, is different from the Fairbanks Rescue Mission: It’s a come-as-you-are place, with minimal rules. It also offers a place to be indoors for two hours a day.

On this January morning inside the building near downtown, volunteers served apricot oatmeal with lentil stew and pork chops available to go.

Ahkiviana’s death may have momentarily raised community consciousness about the dearth of shelter, said Matt Davis, a longtime cook at the Stone Soup Cafe. But he wondered if it would be long-lasting enough for action. The suffering was everywhere if you noticed it. Look around, he said: Lots of the guests eating breakfast were missing fingers due to frostbite.

“We bring (concerns about adequacy of shelter) to the attention of our local governments. And every time we do, it’s, ‘Well, we have a rescue mission.’”

After breakfast, people filtered outside to splinter into smaller groups or to walk off alone.

Kenneth Cooper, in fatigues and a long white beard, smoked a cigarette with fingertips made tender by repeated bouts of frostbite. On the best days he crashes with friends, he said, though he tries to avoid staying for more than a night at a time.

He’s no longer welcome at the Rescue Mission, he said. Now, in the coldest weather, Cooper sometimes burrows into a snowbank and makes a dugout shelter, big enough for just himself, he said. He runs a PVC pipe up through the snow to create a vent and burns a candle for warmth. Or he waits until the coldest, darkest hours to nurse a single cup of coffee at the only all-night diner in town.

Several other people said they stay in abandoned houses.

One such house was midnight dark in midmorning, the walls mildewed and molded. The only source of warmth was an electric oven left open and glowing red. Trash and random belongings — piles of clothes, a power drill, fast-food cups, towels — were heaped hip-deep on the floor. Someone was sleeping on a mound of detritus, partly covered with a blanket.

Back in the parking lot of the soup kitchen, Lakota Head, tall and wearing capri leggings in the cold, was in mid-beef with the occupant of an idling truck.

“Fuck you, Donna!” she shouted.

Anger tends to dissipate fast in a place this cold, Head said a few minutes later. People need each other too badly. The ethos would extend to Donna, the woman she had been cursing out.

“She could come to me later today or tomorrow or next week or, you know, whenever and just be like, ‘Dude, I’m cold,’ or ‘I’m sick.’”

Head, who sometimes comes to the soup kitchen for breakfast, said she’d help her however she could.

“If we’re mad at each other, it don’t matter — that just evaporates. Because what becomes important is the fact that we have to survive.”


Butler, the city’s housing director, senses there’s momentum for change. She doesn’t see Fairbanks directly taking on a low-barrier shelter as the Municipality of Anchorage has in the form of Sullivan Arena. But at minimum, the city could develop a cold-weather plan that might allow it to activate emergency shelters in extreme weather.

She thinks the need for more shelter may be becoming obvious enough that if a funding source can be secured, a site located and workers hired, it could become a reality. Not this winter. But maybe next.

“That’s my hope,” she said.

There’s still a belief among some in Fairbanks and beyond that homelessness, and the addiction that often presages it, are essentially self-inflicted conditions, Butler said. It’s a pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps perspective that’s at odds with what Butler says is now known about addiction as a disease.

The idea is that “if they just wanted it bad enough, they could have a house,” Butler said. “And that’s just not the case.”

“Addiction … is a trauma response,” she said. “It’s not going to heal until you’re safe and secure. And then you can start to focus on that.”

In January, Charlie Ahkiviana’s family held a funeral service and placed an obituary in the News-Miner describing his independence and pride. Instead of flowers, they asked for donations to the Fairbanks Native Chapel. Or the Fairbanks Rescue Mission.

On a Tuesday night at the end of January, Scott Walston walked into a pool of light from a streetlamp on Gaffney Road.

He’d taken a bus to a spot where he had cached supplies in an encampment, only to discover someone had ransacked it. No great loss, he shrugged.

In the distance, he watched two figures walking bunched together. At this point he knew the streets of Fairbanks and their inhabitants so intimately he could recognize people by the shape of their silhouettes, he said.

Walson didn’t know where he’d end up, whether a door would open to a warm room or if he’d wander the streets until morning.

“Well, I’d better keep walking,” he said.

• • •

Michelle Theriault Boots

Michelle Theriault Boots is a longtime reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. She focuses on in-depth stories about the intersection of public policy and Alaskans' lives. Before joining the ADN in 2012, she worked at daily newspapers up and down the West Coast and earned a master's degree from the University of Oregon.

Marc Lester

Marc Lester is a multimedia journalist for Anchorage Daily News. Contact him at mlester@adn.com.