A warming shelter in Mat-Su for people who are homeless could open next winter

PALMER — A new overnight warming center designed for unhoused people in Mat-Su and thought to be the first of its kind in the region could be open by next winter.

The overnight-only facility will operate out of the Salvation Army building on Palmer-Wasilla Highway, and the building will be remodeled to accommodate it, officials there said.

Located just outside Palmer city limits, the warming station will be open only on nights when temperatures are forecast to fall below 15 degrees, and it will also provide two meals, sleeping cots and showers, officials said. Users will be required to leave the center in the morning. Transportation to the shelter from across Mat-Su will be coordinated through partner organizations, they said.

The Matanuska-Susitna Borough, a region the size of West Virginia, does not have a regularly operating group shelter or warming center. While some pop-up facilities offer periodic or emergency services during deep cold snaps — such as an overnight warming station that opened for a few days at a community center near Talkeetna in early February — no facility offers more consistent shelter during cold weather. Advocates said they’re unaware of such a warming center ever operating consistently in the region.

But with temperatures throughout winter frequently dipping well below 15, unhoused people sleeping on the street face a risk of frostbite or death from exposure, said Kevin Bottjen, a Salvation Army major who co-leads the facility with his wife, Salvation Army Major Tina Bottjen.

An average of 30 days from early January to late February have recorded temperatures at or below 15 degrees in Palmer, according to data from the National Weather Service.

The newly designed center will have space for about 20 people in a room that can be converted to other uses when the station is closed, said Kevin Bottjen. His team is waiting for final plan approvals from the Salvation Army state and national offices.


They hope to break ground this summer. Funding will come from donations and the Salvation Army, and the facility will be staffed by volunteers and employees, he said.

“Our goal is to make it so we’re an accessible, properly staffed as well as funded warming shelter,” he said.

This isn’t the Salvation Army’s first attempt at offering such a service in Mat-Su, but it will mark the first time in recent memory a facility has been specifically designed to serve as a shelter. In early 2021, a current building hosted a makeshift warming center staged in a hall otherwise used for church and community meetings, Kevin Bottjen said. But officials at the state office shut down the effort later that year because the building doesn’t have an emergency sprinkler system and has only one bathroom.

It’s also not the first attempt at such a facility by other advocates in Mat-Su, said Dave Rose, a coordinator with the Mat-Su Coalition on Housing and Homelessness. A converted school bus operated by Wasilla-based nonprofit A Black Sheep Ministry sporadically offered shelter from late 2021 to early last year but stopped due to a lack of funding. And homeless advocates have been unable to find a building rental option that meets fire code standards for housing people overnight.

“We looked, and looked, and looked, and looked — and haven’t been able to find a place,” Rose said.

That’s why instead of hunting for a rental, Salvation Army officials want to create their own. The $2 million remodel to their Palmer-Wasilla Highway facility will combine a pair of bright yellow buildings into a single, 10,000-square-foot space with a multiuse room specifically designed to serve as the warming center.

Plans call for 14 toilets, showers, a commercial-grade kitchen, church and community meeting space, plus space for a food pantry and warehouse already in operation.

Where the shelter fits in Mat-Su homelessness response

An estimated 115 people in Mat-Su experienced homelessness in January, with an estimated 94 over the same period in 2023, according to data from the Alaska Homeless Management Information System, which compiles data submitted by service providers. That number includes every level of homelessness, ranging from those currently living in transitional housing to people living on the streets. A point-in-time count conducted over the last week of January found similar rates.

Just how accurate those counts are is difficult to determine because of the size of the region and how the estimates are tallied, Mat-Su homelessness advocates said. For example, the annual point-in-time count relies on self-reporting or volunteers finding and tallying individuals on count day, which can lead to an inaccurate estimate. The homeless information system relies on service providers to submit data, but only some take that step, a 2022 Mat-Su Health Foundation study found.

That same study estimated that more than 620 Mat-Su households annually experience homelessness, a metric that includes single adults and multiperson groups. About half of those households were estimated as receiving no sustainable housing help through local services.

Those numbers are small when compared to Anchorage, where officials estimated about 3,000 people were sleeping outside or in emergency shelters over January of last year, while about 4,000 others were facing other types of homelessness, such as living in transitional housing or in the so-called coordinated entry program, according to the homeless information system. City-funded emergency shelters often sit at capacity over the coldest months.

Without a nightly group shelter option available, unhoused people in Mat-Su are served by a broad array of nonprofits that instead are focused on short- and long-term housing, mental health intervention and substance abuse recovery — services that Rose said can help those in need break out of homelessness. Emergency overnight help is offered on a case-by-case basis in housing that can include area hotels, said officials with Daybreak, a Palmer-based service that provides case management service.

But gaining access to those services requires users to connect with a case manager or assistance center during regular business hours, Rose said. A warming center can serve as an additional point of connection for those needing help, while also providing emergency shelter during dangerous cold spells, he said.

“At the warming center, they get interviewed there in a non-threatening way, talk to them about ‘Where are you at?’ ‘What’s your story?’ And then they are connected with our partners,” he said. “So it’s a warm handoff.”

Bottjen said he does expect some pushback on the warming shelter plan from business owners less than a mile away in downtown Palmer who might worry that such a service will draw an influx of homeless people from Anchorage.

But those concerns are unfounded, he said. Of those who utilized the Salvation Army’s previous temporary facility, about 80% were from the local area, he said.

“It’s not going to attract them, because it’s not a full-time shelter,” he said. “If it was a full-time shelter, yeah, it would bring them in. If they had an option other than the shelters in Anchorage, they’d get out of there.”

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Amy Bushatz

Amy Bushatz is a veteran journalist based in the Mat-Su covering Valley news for the ADN.