Kevin Jainese sets up his cot along the 40 already provided by staff at the city’s new cold weather emergency shelter at a warehouse in Thane on Friday night, the first for the new facility. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Kevin Jainese sets up his cot along the 40 already provided by staff at the city’s new cold weather emergency shelter at a warehouse in Thane on Friday night, the first for the new facility. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Amidst a contentious process, a quiet opening night for city’s new cold weather emergency shelter

Staff — some recently homeless themselves — welcome first overnighters to converted Thane warehouse.

Vernon Ollenberger was among the people experiencing homelessness staying at Mill Campground until it closed last Monday, so it wasn’t a surprise he showed up just before the city’s new emergency warming shelter opened Friday night. But he wasn’t seeking shelter — he was among the staff helping people staying there get registered and in other ways until the next morning.

Ollenberger, who worked as a dishwasher during the summer, said he was able to move into housing near downtown during the past week. Among the first “guests” he registered as he started his new job at the shelter was fellow camper Garrett Derr, who said he spent the Wednesday after the campground closed — when record rainfall fell — inside a large pipe at a construction site.

[City: Emergency warming shelter to be open daily 9 p.m.-7 a.m. (8 a.m. Sundays) starting Friday]

Vernon Ollenberger, left, a staff member at the city’s new cold weather emergency shelter, goes over the rules on a sign-in form with Garrett Derr. Both men spent the summer at Mill Campground until it closed a week ago Monday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Vernon Ollenberger, left, a staff member at the city’s new cold weather emergency shelter, goes over the rules on a sign-in form with Garrett Derr. Both men spent the summer at Mill Campground until it closed a week ago Monday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Together they went over and became familiar with the list of rules and other paperwork required for all people staying at the shelter in a city-owned warehouse about a mile south of the Mount Roberts Tram — essentially just across the street from where the campground is located.

“Fighting, yelling and disturbing people sleeping means leaving the shelter immediately,” Ollenberger read aloud. “No smoking, alcohol or drugs in the building. You will remain clothed at all times.”

“Can I take my shoes off?” Derr asked, getting an affirmative response.

Derr remained focused on the remaining point-by-point items, such as asking specifically what qualifies as a weapon when told those are prohibited. Jackie Bryant, director of the shelter being operated by St. Vincent de Paul Juneau, told him it referred to anything visible that could be a possible weapon such as a knife, wrench or machete, which the shelter staff would generally put into secure storage and return to its owner in the morning.

People arriving on shuttle bus enter the city’s new cold weather emergency shelter on Friday night. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

People arriving on shuttle bus enter the city’s new cold weather emergency shelter on Friday night. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Other questions about rules — and some disagreements about them — came up among people arriving. One departed after being told anyone going outside for any reason except using the portable toilets just outside the entrance couldn’t reenter the shelter that night, upset that meant no smoking breaks. Some other people arriving on a shuttle bus at the shelter’s scheduled 9 p.m. opening — the first of several shuttles during the evening and into the early-morning hours Saturday — also ultimately opted to spend the night elsewhere.

But the staff were also agreeable to reasonable requests, such as when Kevin Jainese, also among the first arrivals, asked for permission to use his own heavy-duty (and heavyweight) cot he’s been carrying around with the rest of his possessions, rather than one of the rows of FEMA cots already lined up in neat rows. Bryant let Jainese set it up near the other cots — and despite a strict rule about all guests taking their belongings with them each day so the janitorial staff can clean the shelter — allowed him to leave the cot there the next morning with his assurance he would return that evening.

Dave Ringle, executive director of St. Vincent de Paul Juneau, picks up an item dropped by a person arriving at the city’s new cold weather emergency shelter on Friday night. SVDP is operating the shelter in a city-owned warehouse about a mile south of downtown Juneau. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Dave Ringle, executive director of St. Vincent de Paul Juneau, picks up an item dropped by a person arriving at the city’s new cold weather emergency shelter on Friday night. SVDP is operating the shelter in a city-owned warehouse about a mile south of downtown Juneau. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

But one frustration for Jainese was the requirement that all guests have to depart the shelter when a bus to take them into town arrives at 6:45 a.m. each morning (an hour later on Sundays). He said that doesn’t necessarily allow a full night’s sleep and the officially named “emergency warming shelter” will be leaving some people out in the cold most of the time, especially with subfreezing temperatures forecast during the weekend.

Ollenberger tried to placate Jainese.

“The silver lining anyway is that you’re going to get out of here and get on a warm bus that’s going to freely take you anywhere in the city,” Ollenberger said.

The first overnight at the shelter was generally quiet, with a simple evening meal of items such as ramen noodles and sandwiches provided to guests, along with coffee and a hot/cold water dispenser. Many of the overhead lights were turned off at 10 p.m., although the on-and-off cycling of an industrial ceiling ventilator was a less-than-tranquil presence.

Travis Johnson, a staff member at the cold weather emergency shelter, offers food and drinks to people Saturday morning shortly before the arrival of a bus and the closure of the shelter until that evening. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Travis Johnson, a staff member at the cold weather emergency shelter, offers food and drinks to people Saturday morning shortly before the arrival of a bus and the closure of the shelter until that evening. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

The shelter’s opening occurred after several months of uncertainty when the congregation at Resurrection Lutheran Church, which hosted the shelter the past two years, cast a tie vote in June about hosting it for a third winter, thus preventing the church from seeking an operating contract with the city. The congregation rejected the idea again in September, prompting city officials to explore a range of options before deciding on the warehouse with St. Vincent de Paul — which operated the shelter before the church took over — staffing the facility. That decision remained in place after the church congregation narrowly reversed its decision earlier this month about hosting the shelter.

Using the warehouse as the shelter requires the approval of the Juneau Assembly, which is scheduled to give initial consideration to an ordinance Monday night that would then be subject to public input at a subsequent meeting before it could be implemented. Leaders at Resurrection Lutheran Church are circulating a petition calling for the shelter to again be housed at the church — citing concerns about the location and logistics of the warehouse facility, as well as city leaders bypassing of official process to open the facility due to subfreezing weather during the weekend.

[Resurrection Lutheran Church leaders circulate petition to again operate winter warming shelter]

Travis Johnson, a staff member at the city’s new cold weather emergency shelter, drives a shuttle van through downtown Juneau on Friday night in search of people who might want a ride to the facility to spend the night. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Travis Johnson, a staff member at the city’s new cold weather emergency shelter, drives a shuttle van through downtown Juneau on Friday night in search of people who might want a ride to the facility to spend the night. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Due to the shelter’s location well away from downtown, two shuttle buses are scheduled to depart the Glory Hall each night at 8:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m., with stops at Foodland IGA and the Downtown Transit Center, before arriving at the shelter. But the shelter staff also went out roughly hourly during that first overnight, driving through downtown streets looking for people — often familiar faces — who might want to stay at the shelter, but were unable to get there on their own and/or unaware it was now open.

Driving the van was Travis Johnson who, like Ollenberger, was homeless himself before recovering and joining St. Vincent de Paul’s staff. Johnson said he had an extensive history of theft, substance abuse and other trouble — some of which resulted in prison time — until his girlfriend (and now wife) became pregnant with their first child in 2019.

“Somehow I had Jackie’s number, and I called Jackie and told her my situation, and she petitioned for me and put in a word for me,” he said.

That led to a makeshift apartment in a space being used for storage, plus “a small job during the cleaning the sobering center,” at St. Vincent de Paul, before eventually becoming part of the shelter staff when the organization was operating it a few years ago, Johnson said. Along with Bryant, he became part of the staff with previous experience at the current shelter.

Carie Simons, a staff member at the city’s new cold weather emergency shelter, offers a person sitting on South Franklin Street a ride aboard a shuttle bus to the shelter on Friday night. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Carie Simons, a staff member at the city’s new cold weather emergency shelter, offers a person sitting on South Franklin Street a ride aboard a shuttle bus to the shelter on Friday night. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

During the first van trip through town he and fellow staff member Carie Simons saw a few people they exchanged words with and offered rides to. But only one person sitting on a sidewalk on South Franklin Street accepted the offer, after collecting his possessions and a husky by his side (shelter rule for pets: they’re OK as long as they haven’t bitten anyone).

Subsequent trips during the next few hours found no takers, leaving the roughly 10 people spending the night at the shelter with plenty of room to stretch out among the 40 cots present during the first night. At about 6:30 a.m. Saturday most were stirring or being roused, grabbing coffee and a quick breakfast of items such as instant oatmeal, with a few questions here and there about whether the shelter had items such as spare socks.

Melody Beierly packs her belongings Saturday morning after spending her first night at the city’s new cold weather emergency shelter. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Melody Beierly packs her belongings Saturday morning after spending her first night at the city’s new cold weather emergency shelter. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Packing up her few things while drinking her first cup of coffee was Melody Beierly, who said she hoped to spend the day ahead doing some labor for her uncle and was grateful for the chance to get some sleep indoors beforehand. She stayed at the church shelter last winter — which had more than 70 people at its peak during some nights — so the first night at the warehouse was relatively calm.

The new shelter location doesn’t have showers and flush toilets — instead there are the portable toilets outside and hand-washing stations inside — and meals are much simpler since there isn’t a kitchen. But Beierly, who said she planned to return to the shelter that evening, didn’t mind the absence of such amenities.

“I’m happy that there’s actually at least outhouses,” she said.

• Contact Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com or (907) 957-2306.

A person staying at the city’s new cold weather emergency during its first night exits to board the bus taking shelter occupants elsewhere in town Saturday morning. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

A person staying at the city’s new cold weather emergency during its first night exits to board the bus taking shelter occupants elsewhere in town Saturday morning. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

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