Recent sunny weather in Juneau has been a welcome treat for many residents of Juneau this summer, but as fall grows near — and with it cooler temperatures — people experiencing homelessness may face grim options for shelter.
According to Deputy City Manager Robert Barr, the city is considering repurposing a public transit bus to use as a winter warming shelter, running it idle during the night time for people experiencing homelessness to stay on.
“This is really the last ditch option if we don’t find a better one,” he said.
He shared the idea in an update to the Assembly Monday night, as it was recently shared the congregation at Resurrection Lutheran Church, which operates and is the location of Juneau’s winter warming shelter, narrowly voted not to apply to run the shelter this year.
“Right now there’s no emergency shelter in place at the church this winter,” said Pastor Karen Perkins last week, saying a variety of different reasons were brought forth by the congregation behind the decision.
Each year the city puts out a request for proposals to see if anyone in the community is interested in running the warming shelter, which during recent years has been the church.
Following the bid process, the shelter typically opens in mid-October — following the closure of the Mill Campground — and welcomes patrons during nights when the temperature in Juneau is below freezing. Last winter Perkins said the shelter saw upwards of 70 patrons some nights.
Now, without the church, Barr said the city has received no other applicants to run the shelter, and currently doesn’t have a plan come October if nothing changes. He said the church has indicated there may be a chance another vote may take place soon in favor of opening the shelter. He said a collaboration between the city and Tlingit Haida Regional Housing Authority may also be an option.
“We’ll continue to explore other options as they present themselves, as they come available, but our last-ditch option if nothing pans out is the bus,” Barr said.
The bus planned to be used is actually due to be decommissioned, but instead if it is used as a shelter it would be outfitted with a heating system. The bus has 35 seats, which would be the maximum number of patrons that could be accommodated.
Barr said he’s hopeful the bus idea won’t become reality, and the city will be able to find a solution with Resurrection Lutheran Church or other entities.
The idea to run an idle bus as emergency shelter isn’t a novel idea — many municipalities in the Lower 48 have used this method to keep people experiencing homelessness safe and out of the cold during freezing nights.
Other cities in Alaska are also similarly considering “last-ditch options” for sheltering people experiencing homelessness, as across the state it is estimated that 2,000 people experiencing homelessness and the numbers continue to climb.
According to recent reporting in the Anchorage Daily News, Anchorage isn’t planning to shelter its homeless residents in a singular mass facility over the winter, and instead is fielding a variety of ideas like hotel rooms, small warming areas or utilizing private buildings. Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson also recently suggested buying plane tickets for people experiencing homelessness to warmer cities in the Lower 48.
Mayor Beth Weldon said she hasn’t considered the ideas being brought forth in Anchorage. She said the bus idea isn’t ideal, but given the situation she thinks it could be a viable solution.
“I think it’s a plausible idea,” she said. “Sometimes we can’t get people to do these things because it’s not a pleasant thing to do.”
Assembly member Alicia Hughes-Skandijs said she is concerned about the bus shelter idea, and she is hopeful the city won’t have to go get to the point where that is the only solution.
‘I’m concerned, but at the same time it would not be acceptable if we didn’t provide an option, so the bus would be like a worst-case scenario and I do appreciate that,” she said.
Barr said discussion about the winter shelter plans will continue to take place throughout the fall, and by mid-October the city will likely come to a decision on what it plans to do, whether it be the bus idea or finding another entity to run a shelter.
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