Kotzebue homeless shelter run by a sole volunteer reopened after the holidays — and closed again on Tuesday. It is one of the few facilities in Northwest Alaska set up to help residents who live in overcrowded households.
The shelter, located in the basement of the Eskimo Building was open for Kotzebue residents and people from surrounding villages from November to April 20, seven days a week, from 9 p.m. to 9 a.m. It fits 15 people and usually provides them with snacks and a warm place to sleep. Everyone is welcome, as long as they are not intoxicated.
On Tuesday, the facility closed, said Martin Shroyer, the sole volunteer operating the shelter.
“We do not have the manpower to run the shelter right now,” Shroyer said.
In 2022, 53 people cycled through the shelter, averaging five people a night, said Bree Swanson, who represents the Maniilaq Association on the Northwest Alaska Homeless Coalition that manages the shelter.
“Some nights we only get one. Some nights we get two. Last night we had four, so it’s picking up,” Shroyer, the chair of the coalition, said of the number of clients last week. “Last year, there were times they had more than 10″ people staying at the shelter.
“There’s always a housing need here,” he said.
Homelessness in Northwest Alaska
Homelessness in Kotzebue — and in the Northwest Arctic — looks differently than in big cities like Anchorage, Swanson said.
Oftentimes, residents do have a home but it doesn’t have electricity or a heating system, so they need a place to warm up. At other times, residents who have substance use issues or personal conflicts with their family members might be temporarily displaced from their homes, she said. But most of the time, people came to the shelter because their households are overcrowded.
“We don’t have enough housing for people, so typically people are overcrowded in their homes,” Swanson said. “They aren’t homeless but they truly don’t have a home that’s just their own.”
The Northwest Arctic Borough has some of the highest rates of overcrowding in the state, according to the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation. In 2017, approximately 39 percent of households were considered overcrowded.
In search of housing, Kotzebue residents go with whatever option is available.
“They utilize anything they can,” Shroyer said. “I’ve seen people staying underneath buildings. I’ve seen people staying in Conexes, I’ve seen ... six, seven people in one house.”
The latter scenario was the case for William Ahkpuk.
Ahkpuk came to Kotzebue from Buckland eight months ago after his mother, father and two brothers passed away. He said he was struggling to find work in his village. Plus, “it’s too quiet in Buckland.”
Finding housing in Kotzebue was hard for him as a nonresident, he said. Here, he usually stays at his friend’s house, but there are six other people and very limited space. Sometimes, when the house is full, he has to sleep on the floor or find another place to go.
“It’s pretty tough out there, especially when your friends already got people staying at the place. You have to find your own place,” he said. “Gotta find a truck or car to sleep in.”
When Ahkpuk found out about the shelter, he welcomed the opportunity to have a warm place to rest. He stayed there regularly for the past few weeks and every morning, after the shelter closed, he went to the hospital to get coffee and then to look for odd jobs.
“I’m happy the shelter is open so we can rest and sleep and wake up another day,” said William Ahkpuk last week. “It is helpful. It’s warm. It gives us a little food here and there.”
“I wish they could leave the shelter open till at least 12 o’clock when it’s (still) pretty dark out there and cold,” he said.
Keeping the facility open is a challenge, considering that Shroyer is the only person managing it. In fact, the shelter was closed during holidays and for most of December because Shroyer was out of town.
To keep the facility running, every evening, Shroyer went to the shelter, checked the heat, emergency lights and utilities and stocked bedding and snacks — microwaveable meals, noodles, chips, candy and coffee. Then he opened the shelter and stayed there for the night with the clients.
“It’s been a little slow in getting organized to hire somebody, so I said, ‘Well, I’ll just volunteer to open it,’” Shroyer said about the shelter. “I’m just doing it to help the people here.”
On Tuesday, he decided that singlehandedly operating the shelter was not sustainable.
While the shelter is a long-time facility in Kotzebue, it recently underwent major changes.
About seven years ago, Northwest Inupiaq Housing Authority started a homeless shelter in one of their buildings, Shroyer said. They later moved that shelter to the current space, rented from the Kikiktagruk Inupiat Corporation.
In 2020, representatives from the Northwest Arctic Borough, the Northwest Inupiaq Housing Authority, NANA Corp. and the Maniilaq Association formed a Northwest Alaska Homeless Coalition to have a dedicated agency for addressing homelessness in the region. In addition to the winter emergency shelter, the coalition provided a summer day shelter, hot meal and food voucher programs and rapid rehousing service.
By 2023, the coalition received its nonprofit status. That meant a change in the way it operates and receives funding, Swanson said.
“We are in the early stages of being our own organization,” she said.
Last year, the coalition hired personnel to run the shelter and other services, but this year, it is volunteer-run, said Shroyer. That was one of the reasons why it was difficult to operate the shelter this year, he said.
The coalition members are currently working to source funding and hire staff to manage programs, as well as to purchase a washer and dryer and provide shelter customers with a shower, Swanson said.
“We’re hoping the coalition can expand and show people the need for what we’re doing,” Shroyer said.
The need in other Northwest Alaska villages
Outside of Kotzebue, in other Northwest Alaska places, the need for housing and services for the homeless population also exists.
“We do have homelessness in Selawik,” said Tanya Ballot, Selawik, tribe administrator. “There are folks that couch surf, from teenagers to adults.”
The Selawik tribe opened a shelter in a multipurpose building, named Atautchikun‚ ”We work together as one” in Iñupiaq, Ballot said. The facility now has four beds and two occupants, but can potentially fit 10 people after more renovations, she said. The clients are charged $100 a month to use a facility, but those who can’t afford the fee can provide light cleaning services instead.
To create the facility, the city and tribe officials rehabilitated the building constructed in 1987 and still plan to add a soup kitchen area, laundry and shower.
The building is more than just a shelter. The city hosts bingo games there, and residents have had wedding receptions and community meetings in the space as well. The building is also a central place for search efforts.
In the future, local officials hope the building will serve as a safe space for women and children, for those who want to learn to craft and cook and teenagers who struggle with mental challenges or “everyday teenage issues,” Ballot said.
“We don’t want it to be only for the homeless,” Ballot said. “We want to make the best use of it as we possibly can for our community.”
Noorvik needs housing and assistance with homelessness as well, said tribe administrator Glenn Skin. He explained that while the village is scheduled to have two new houses built this or next year, multiple local families currently live sharing a unit. He hopes the issue will be addressed by building more homes.
“There’s a number of people that are without homes as we speak,” he said. “I don’t know if a homeless shelter would work. I’d like to see homes built for these people, for placing these people into adequate housing in Noorvik.”
In Buckland, the homes are also overcrowded, and grandparents often live with their children and grandchildren, said Nathan Hadley Jr., Northwest Arctic Borough Assembly council member representing the village.
“They don’t have anywhere else to go,” he said. “Before the pandemic, there was 10 people living in my house.”
Hadley said that more housing development is needed in Buckland, as well as other villages.
“All the villages are growing, and the lack of housing that is developed in the villages adds a lot of stress, not only for the grandparents and parents but (also) the children,” Hadley said. “Children are really important as people growing up will who need a home in the village for the future.”