People arriving on a shuttle bus enter the city’s new cold weather emergency shelter on Oct. 20, the first night it was open. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire File)

People arriving on a shuttle bus enter the city’s new cold weather emergency shelter on Oct. 20, the first night it was open. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire File)

Emergency cold weather shelter in Thane gets official OK from Assembly

City officials call shelter a success so far; skeptics say some homeless people are avoiding it.

A cold weather emergency shelter that began operating in Thane more than three weeks ago got official approval from the Juneau Assembly on Monday night by a 7-1 vote, with city officials saying the facility appears to be a success so far and there are plans to address concerns such as the lack of indoor plumbing.

The approval came after objections about the new shelter’s remote access, minimal facilities and selection process were expressed by people affiliated with the previous shelter at Resurrection Lutheran Church. Assembly members were also presented with petitions reportedly signed by about 250 people calling for the shelter to remain at the church while a more thorough public process about the shelter occurs.

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

The shelter, operated by St. Vincent de Paul through a contract with the city, is located about a mile south of the Goldbelt Tram. It opened without official Assembly approval on Oct. 20, with city and shelter leaders stating sub-freezing conditions and lack of alternatives for people without shelter justified the decision.

The facility is averaging 32 residents a night, with a total of 107 people registering on one or more nights to stay there, City Manager Katie Koester told Assembly members on Monday.

“There is more usership of the shelter when it gets colder,” she said. “We had some really cold nights a few weeks ago and it got up to 42 residents there.”

A shuttle bus brings people from the Glory Hall to the shelter when it opens at 9 p.m. and another bus returns to the Glory Hall, with interim stops along the way, when the shelter closes in the morning. Koester said staff at the shelter also go out in a vehicle several times during the late evening and early morning hours to see if there are people in the downtown area needing a ride to the shelter.

The shelter offers some food to people staying there during the evening and in the morning, but lacks a full-scale kitchen since the assumption is full meals are available to most of the occupants at the Glory Hall. The facility has outdoor outhouses and hand-washing stations, but no indoor plumbing in the shelter area.

“We are looking at investing into indoor restrooms,” Koester said. “It just makes a lot of sense. Over the long run that’s a good investment if we maintain Thane as a cold-weather shelter for a couple of years. And so we will be working on that this season.”

Koester said she is not aware of any incidents involving shelter residents that required a police response.

But claims by city officials and shelter operators that people staying there, and agencies providing services to those in need, are satisfied with the arrangement so far were met with skepticism by people affiliated with the Resurrection Lutheran Church shelter who testified during the meeting.

Leora Blackwell (left) presents a folder of signed petitions to Juneau City Manager Katie Koester during an Assembly meeting Monday night where members voted 7-1 to authorize the use of a city-owned warehouse in Thane as a cold weather emergency shelter. The petitions called for the shelter to be located at Resurrection Lutheran Church, which has hosted the shelter the past two years, to allow more time for public input about where the facility should be and how it should be operated. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Leora Blackwell (left) presents a folder of signed petitions to Juneau City Manager Katie Koester during an Assembly meeting Monday night where members voted 7-1 to authorize the use of a city-owned warehouse in Thane as a cold weather emergency shelter. The petitions called for the shelter to be located at Resurrection Lutheran Church, which has hosted the shelter the past two years, to allow more time for public input about where the facility should be and how it should be operated. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Leora Blackwell, a lifelong resident and worker at the church’s warming shelter, presented the petitions to city officials and said she has spoken to many people experiencing homelessness who are avoiding the shelter.

“I know that our numbers were always high at the church, but that was because they felt a lot more safe,” she said. “And it scares me knowing that their numbers are low now at Thane because that means a lot of them are are not using it. They’re actually staying in the woods.”

More than 70 people stayed at the church shelter last year during peak periods, exceeding the designated plan of housing 45 to 50 people a night.

Furthermore, Blackwell said many signing the petition were downtown business owners concerned that people experiencing homelessness would remain in that area overnight because of the difficulty getting to the Thane shelter, Blackwell said.

Many people experiencing homelessness are dealing with psychological or other difficulties, and can’t always be expected to understand things such as where and when to catch shuttles, said Karen Perkins, pastor at Resurrection Lutheran Church. She also noted four homeless people died in Anchorage last week during a storm that dropped more than two feet of snow on the city, as people without housing set up in makeshift camps in various locations when the city closed the mass shelter that was established inside the city’s sports arena during the pandemic.

“The people that aren’t using this are in danger and I think the news we got out of Anchorage last week is evidence of that,” Perkins said.

The church’s congregation voted in June and again in September not to negotiate with the city for a contract to operate the shelter this year. That decision was reversed in a close vote in early October, but by then city officials were looking at alternative sites and soon afterward signed the agreement with St. Vincent de Paul for the Thane site.

The ordinance approving the shelter takes effect 30 days after the Assembly’s vote. It states the shelter is “exempt from any and all requirements and prohibitions of Title 49,” referring to land-use codes that classify the warehouse site as an industrial zone where “assisted living uses — like the CWES — are normally prohibited.”

Assembly member Alicia Hughes-Skandijs was absent from Monday night’s meeting and vote. The lone opposing vote to authorizing the shelter was cast by Assembly member ‘Wáahlaal Gíidaak Barbara Blake.

“I think what it boils down for me is the inaccessibility to running water, which is a basic human need,” she said. “As I think about the way that this could have unfolded, in my thought process it could have unfolded a little more strategically, a little more planning, a little more thought process into a way to treat human beings with basic human decency.”

Speaking strongly in favor of the Thane location was Assembly member Wade Bryson, who is also a member of the Glory Hall’s board.

“The Glory Hall’s position is they could not be more pleased with the outcome of having the shelter in Thane,” he said. “They really appreciate the transportation in the morning. They’re able to have contact with the people. They have zero complaints from their shared residence or shared users…When I heard that they had no complaints from the people that they were in contact with that was all I need to hear.”

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

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