An agreement for a winter warming shelter appears likely, but the question is who will host it — Resurrection Lutheran Church after its congregation voted 25-24 on Sunday to again allow the shelter in its basement downtown, or St. Vincent de Paul Juneau which is well into discussions with the city about hosting the shelter at Mount Jumbo Gym in Douglas.
Key issues for both possibilities are when a shelter could be opened — since the Mill Campground, where many people experiencing homelessness stay during warmer months, is scheduled to close Oct. 15 — and what concerns people living nearby have and if those are addressed.
Either option will keep the city from resorting to its “last-ditch” option of putting people on a public transit bus with its engine running and using a portion of the Downtown Transit Center lobby to shelter people on cold nights. Deputy City Manager Robert Barr said Sunday his next step will be discussing the church and gym options with the parties involved.
“We have been operating under the assumption that we wouldn’t be able to use Resurrection Lutheran to provide cold-weather emergency sheltering this year,” he said. “And so we’ve been coordinating and negotiating and working with St. Vincent de Paul on an alternative. So we’re a little bit a little bit down the road on that process. And so I need to coordinate with the whole provider community that’s been participating in this including, including St. Vincent and Resurrection Lutheran, to determine what the best course of action is moving forward.”
The shelter is supposed to be open from late in the evening until early morning on days when the temperature is below freezing, but remained open during warmer nights last winter. There were also nights when the shelter exceeded its designated capacity with more than 70 people staying there.
Resurrection Lutheran Church allows shelter by one-vote margin after rejecting it twice
The congregation’s vote Sunday at Resurrection Lutheran, occurring at the end of a contentious two-and-a-half hour meeting, came after two previous meetings where members failed to approve hosting the shelter.
The two key differences in circumstances Sunday compared to the most recent meeting a month ago were 1) a “usage fee” church leaders will request from the city for “wear and tear costs” in addition to the previously contracted operating expenses, and 2) several new voting members of the congregation — some of whom have either worked at the warming shelter previous or are not Juneau residents.
The presence of the new members was one aspect of a debate at the meeting focusing on whether the church was acting in accordance with its constitution and procedures. The larger debate focused on actions by people staying at the shelter such as inappropriate or threatening behavior, drug use, littering and periods of overcrowding that some congregants said weren’t handled well by the church.
“We are one block from an elementary school and one block from the senior center,” said Linnea Osborne, a congregant who voted against hosting the shelter. “Those are vulnerable populations. And I am totally in favor of the concept, not the location with the use of this church, I just want to put that out there. Because even though I hear a lot of conversations on this, we never hear the safety element. And this isn’t just about managing the shelter, you can’t manage what happens outside.”
A neighbor’s perspective and concerns about the shelter was expressed by Miguel Rohrbacher, who lives with his wife Becca Antonoplos and two-year-old child in the house adjacent to the side of the church’s front entrance. He said he has talked to leaders at the church numerous times since it started hosting the shelter, but without meaningful results.
“We’ve always been met with concern or interest,” he said. “But those things, our different concerns, haven’t been resolved. And that gives me really serious pause about this going forward next door to our house.”
Rohrbacher said the narrow strip of yard between the church and his house has been filled with people fighting, using drugs attempting to steal things, using the space as a toilet and engaging in other problematic behavior.
“When my wife has asked people to stop these things she’s been called names I can’t say in a church,” he said.
If the church is going to operate the shelter, Rohrbacher said, among the remedies it should take are constructing a fence between the two properties, providing a large dumpster for trash rather than assorted smaller cans, and a portable toilet for people to use when the shelter isn’t open.
Covering such costs, as well as repairs and upkeep of the church, would be part of the “usage fee” the church is seeking in addition to the $285,000 operational contract the city is offering. Church leaders said during Sunday’s meeting the specific amount will be part of the negotiations with the city, while Barr said he is willing to consider such a fee without committing to an amount.
Pastor Karen Perkins said church leaders have been trying to talk to as many people in the community as possible about concerns from people in the surrounding area, including trying to avoid overlapping periods where people departing the shelter in the morning would encounter children on their way to school.
As for evenings, she said, “the only complaints we ended up getting was from people who wanted us to let people in earlier because they didn’t want the people on the street.” She acknowledged there was an unexpected surge of people at the end of last season, but there are contingency plans to deal with such incidents during the coming winter.
But Perkins, who last week said a third rejection vote to the shelter would likely mean “an end to my pastorate” at the church, said the ultimate issue is some people are going to need a cold-weather shelter soon and right now the city doesn’t have a plan in place for one.
“Letting people die on the streets to me outweighs the difficulty that this is and the burden that it is for us to take it on,” she said.
Osborne, among some other dissenters, said it’s not an all-or-nothing situation where there will be no shelter if it’s not at the church, since the city already had mentioned the bus and transit center as an emergency option.
“The city has an option that may not be one that some people find acceptable, but others do,” she said, adding “it may not be desirable, but maybe it’s also going to be a motivational factor to bring in other sources to help these folks to get them into other shelters.”
When the members finally voted on whether to allow the church to negotiate a one-year contract to operate the shelter — either by secret written ballot in person, or via a poll or text message if attending online — church President Karen Lawfer announced the tally in front of her was tied 24-24.
“I have not voted and I vote ’yes,’” she said. “Motion carries.”
That declaration raised more objections — but after the congregation voted to adjourn and thus officially moot — by a person who noted the members had agreed to cast written ballots on the question, whereas Lawfer’s was vocal. However, the official vote count also did not include one ballot by a member who wrote “open the shelter” rather than a proper “yes” vote.
Lawfer, when asked in an interview after the meeting about the new members of the congregation providing the votes necessary to pass the question, said there were also multiple people opposed to hosting the shelter who have not regularly attended the church lately, but have been showing up at meetings related to the shelter.
The vote essentially gives church and city leaders a week before the campground closes to negotiate the monetary and other terms of operating the shelter, which church leaders said will include trying to address concerns congregants and neighbors raised.
But the question now is if the city will reach an agreement with the church or opt to complete an alternate agreement to place the shelter at the Mount Jumbo Gym.
St. Vincent de Paul enters the winter shelter discussion
David Ringle, executive director of the local St. Vincent de Paul chapter, said Sunday he chose to enter discussions with the city because of the uncertainty about the winter shelter and because his organization has several experienced staff members who can operate one. He noted the organization previously operated the warming shelter leading up to and during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, first at its complex on Teal Street before moving to the Juneau Arts and Culture Center downtown in March of 2020 to allow for more spacing between sleeping spaces.
“When I saw that Resurrection Lutheran was having trouble passing a congregation resolution I was looking for any possible ideas,” he said.
Mount Jumbo Gym, which is owned by the city, was targeted during discussions with city officials because it is a building of sufficient size for the number of people who have sought shelter recently, Ringle said. He acknowledged he hasn’t talked with residents and business people near the gym yet due to the last-minute nature of the idea, and that he would expect some public opposition.
Opening a warming shelter at the gym will require a conditional use permit from the Planning Commission, which will include allowing for public comment, while the church already has one, Barr said. But he said some advantages to the gym make it worthy of consideration in the city’s view.
“Mount Jumbo ticks a number of the boxes that we need to tick for the cold weather shelter,” he said. “A large congregate space easily monitored by a relatively few number of staff, access to bathrooms, inside, warm, all those things. And we own it so it’s easier for us to put it into place. Also, there’s not a lot of service displacement by using Mount Jumbo Gym. Most all other city spaces would require some significant disruption to current activity.”
Transportation for shelter occupants to and from the shelter is a consideration, but the city has provided such service for people to daytime locations such as The Glory Hall in past years regardless of the shelter’s location, Barr said.
The permitting process and other logistical considerations mean the shelter at the gym couldn’t open immediately after Mill Campground’s scheduled closure, Ringle said. But he does believe St. Vincent de Paul can operate a shelter at the gym for a lower cost than at the church.
“It would take us two to three weeks to start up,” he said. “But I know how the warming shelter was run…and I think we can provide with some pretty good expertise with people who are working there that would probably be less than Resurrection Lutheran, but I still have to crunch numbers.”
Ringle said he hopes to submit a written proposal for hosting the shelter to Barr on Monday.
Supporters of both shelter projects say they plan to proceed
While leaders at Resurrection Lutheran and St. Vincent de Paul each acknowledge their shelter proposals aren’t perfect, both plan to proceed in negotiations with the city because they believe their alternative to be the best option.
Perkins said she isn’t familiar with the specific plans of using the gym as a shelter, but it does not appear to be a suitable location.
“If you think about the actual path to that place and you think about how dark it is, and you think about where the people are hanging out during the day and no sidewalk, I just have a hard time imagining that being someplace that people can safely get to,” she said, adding “it’s better than a bus, but it sounds dangerous to me.”
Perkins said the church got a “courtesy call” from Barr, who said Mount Jumbo Gym was being considered as a possible warming shelter option — but not mentioning any potential operators. That possibility was not raised at Sunday’s church meeting.
When asked if knowing about such a possibility might have affected a close vote — or could result in calls for a re-vote — Perkins said 10% of the voting congregation — which would be six members — can submit a written request for the church president to call the meeting. The meeting would require 10 days’ advance notice and an announcement made on the two preceding Sundays.
Because of those requirements, a meeting for a new vote might be moot if the church has already signed a contract to operate the warming shelter, since it would remain valid unless any trigger clauses in it are met, Perkins said.
Ringle said he is continuing to pursue the gym as a warming shelter because of “the fact that three votes were held and there was no consensus.”
“I don’t know if Resurrection Lutheran can get a contract going,” he said. “The thing is I have three workers ready to work and probably a fourth, and I have some community members actively looking and discussing options for this. So we want to be part of the solution.”
Barr said while the campground is scheduled to close next weekend that’s not a fixed date — and neither is opening the warming shelter immediately after, since it opened in mid-November two years ago.
The Mill Campground does close Oct. 15, but that is a kind of loose, rolling closure,” he said. “It takes it takes some time for people that move out. It takes some time for us to clear things up. Time is tight, there’s no debate from me there, but there are details that we need to figure out for sure.”
• Contact Mark Sabbatini at email@example.com or (907) 957-2306.