The property at 9290 Hurlock Avenue near the intersection of Egan Drive and Mendenhall Loop Road was vacant Monday, Dec. 7, 2020, but a group of nonprofit organizations are partnering to try and turn the site into a youth homeless center. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire)

The property at 9290 Hurlock Avenue near the intersection of Egan Drive and Mendenhall Loop Road was vacant Monday, Dec. 7, 2020, but a group of nonprofit organizations are partnering to try and turn the site into a youth homeless center. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire)

City considers proposed youth homeless center

Project will likely need city funding even as economy struggles

A group of nonprofit organizations is trying to turn a Mendenhall Valley property on Hurlock Avenue into a youth homeless shelter, but the project will require additional city funding to operate, proponents of the project told city officials.

Speaking to the City and Borough of Juneau Assembly Committee of the Whole Monday night, Zach Gordon Youth Center Manager Jorden Nigro said much of the funding had already been secured through state and federal grants and donations, but a further $120,000 would be needed annually from the city to run the program, and $586,000 would be needed for renovations in the next few years.

While the project was broadly supported by the Assembly, there was concern about the city taking on additional costs amid the current economic climate.

“I believe it’s a worthy project so you have my support on that but I’m just giving you a caveat that [when we’re in] in budget time, and we’re looking at cutting positions or programs, I don’t see the $120,000 being realistic,” said Mayor Beth Weldon. “In that regard, I wish you luck in finding that.”

[City needs to weigh role in social services, manager says]

The project is being spearheaded by the Zach Gordon Youth Center, which would operate the shelter program that would provide 24-hour, drop-in homeless shelter for youths. Under the proposed plan, the Tlingit and Haida Regional Housing Authority would maintain the property that would be leased from CBJ.

The property is the former site of Juneau Youth Services and already has many of the amenities needed to run a shelter, such as a commercial kitchen, said Gus Marx, who called in on behalf of the Juneau Coalition on Housing and Homelessness to express support for the project. There is currently no shelter for homeless youth, said Marx, who also works for Juneau Youth Services.

Young people can often find themselves homeless suddenly, or may only need shelter for a short time following an incident at home such as a family fight, Marx said. Youth homelessness is different from adult homelessness, Marx said, and children often need services that homeless shelters for adults don’t provide.

Several people called in to support the project including Central Council Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska President Richard Chalyee Éesh Peterson and AWARE executive director Mandy Cole. Others were opposed to the project. One caller said the public process had been rushed and favoritism was shown toward nonprofits over local residents. Another caller expressed concern with the Zach Gordon Youth Center, currently a daytime drop-in center, running a 24-hour shelter.

But Nigro said she had previously run residential facilities, and the center will include several safety provisions that would help protect youth, staff and the community. There will be staff awake at the site 24-hours a day, Nigro said, and cameras will be installed in common areas and a secure entrance with a check-in station for everyone entering and exiting the building, she said. Additional fencing will be installed at the property as well, Nigro said.

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There was an increase in youth homelessness over the summer, Nigro said, up significantly from past years. Many homeless youth “couchsurf” or find ad hoc housing, she said, but that’s become increasingly difficult during the COVID-19 pandemic. Furthermore, Nirgo said, Bartlett Regional Hospital has seen an increase in youth and adult psychiatric hospitalizations since March. The shelter would be able to connect youth to additional services for issues like mental health should the child need it, she said.

The property is currently being leased by Legacy Partners Alaska, which wanted to build a senior care facility on the site. Under the proposed arrangement, the city would take back the property at no cost and then lease it to THRHA to maintain the physical assets of the site while ZGYC ran the shelter program.

The committee moved two ordinances to its Dec. 14, meeting; one for taking the property back, the other for the leasing arrangement. Both ordinances will be open for public comment.

Speaking to the Empire Tuesday, Marx said there are options available for grants or other sources of funding which the program might be able to secure to cover the $120,000 needed from the city, but those were only speculative. At the meeting, Assembly member Michelle Bonnet Hale said she felt if the city took the steps to approve the project, the Assembly would likely find itself voting to fund the program as well.

“I think that’s a fair assessment,” City Manager Rorie Watt said.

State and federal funding has decreased recently and local municipalities were increasingly bearing the cost of social services, he said.

“If the city appropriates funds for this project, you should expect it to be a regular part of your budget,” he said.

• Contact reporter Peter Segall at psegall@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SegallJnuEmpire.

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