Albert Dick packs belongings into a dry bag at Mill Campground shortly before its official closing for the season at noon Monday. Many people experiencing homelessness who were staying the campsite this summer left before the final day due to problems such as bears ransacking tents. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Albert Dick packs belongings into a dry bag at Mill Campground shortly before its official closing for the season at noon Monday. Many people experiencing homelessness who were staying the campsite this summer left before the final day due to problems such as bears ransacking tents. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Homeless out in the wind and rain as Mill Campground closes, but warming shelter to open Friday

Due to cold forecast, city plans to open converted warehouse before Assembly gives official OK.

Garrett Derr said he didn’t know where he would be sleeping Monday night as he packed up the last of his belongings under a shelter tent at Mill Campground shortly before the site for people experiencing homelessness closed at noon for the season with no winter warming shelter in place. 

“I don’t know. I’ll just hang out in the streets,” he said. “Nothing I haven’t done before.”

But Derr’s period of uncertainly now appears as if it will be significantly shorter than officials anticipated a few days ago, as an expedited effort is underway to open a city-owned warehouse near the campsite as a winter warming shelter starting Friday, according to Deputy City Manager Robert Barr. That is occurring even though the Assembly, which has to approve the use of the warehouse for such a purpose, isn’t scheduled to meet until Monday.

“I would say that we’re opening at the time that we’re opening because we wanted to make sure that we beat the weather,” he said. “Weather is unpredictable. And it was also a goal to be open as close to the closure of the Mill Campground as possible.”

[Winter warming shelter now likely to be at CBJ Ballot Processing Center, officials say]

Nate Abbott, building maintenance supervisor for the City and Borough of Juneau, explains on Monday plans to clear a portion of a city-owned warehouse about a mile south of the Goldbelt Tram during the next couple of days so it can be converted for use as a winter warming shelter starting Friday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Nate Abbott, building maintenance supervisor for the City and Borough of Juneau, explains on Monday plans to clear a portion of a city-owned warehouse about a mile south of the Goldbelt Tram during the next couple of days so it can be converted for use as a winter warming shelter starting Friday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

The warming shelter has traditionally been intended to be open nights when the temperature is at or below freezing, although it remained open every night last winter when it was located at Resurrection Lutheran Church. Overnight temperatures on Friday are expected to be in the mid-30s on Friday and about 30 degrees Saturday and Sunday, with rain and possibly snow during most of the period, according to National Weather Service Juneau.

“We are just looking at a difficult situation,” said Dave Ringle, executive director of St. Vincent de Paul Juneau, which is nearing a contract agreement with the city to operate the shelter. “And I appreciate the city being here as quick as it is knowing full well that if I have a choice about what exact procedures vs. saving lives, or meeting the needs of people who otherwise wouldn’t have their needs met, I err on the side of making sure the services are provided.”

City Attorney Robert Palmer said the Assembly is scheduled to introduce an ordinance allowing the warehouse to be used as an emergency shelter at its Monday meeting, which is when newly elected members following the Oct. 3 municipal election are also scheduled to be sworn in. But he said it doesn’t appear there is a way for the Assembly to avoid procedural requirements that would mean waiting until its subsequent meeting currently scheduled for Nov. 13 — to approve the ordinance.

Operation of the warming shelter has been an uncertain and contentious issue for months after the congregation of Resurrection Luther Church voted in June not to seek a contract with the city for the coming winter. A second vote in September also rejected the shelter, resulting in city officials considering a number of alternatives including a “last-ditch” option combining a bus with its motor running and a portion of the Downtown Transit Center lobby.

The congregation, in a third meeting Oct. 8, reversed its stance by a 25-24 vote, but by then Barr was well into discussions with St. Vincent de Paul as the shelter operator at a different location, with the city-owned warehouse emerging as the preferred site two days later.

Fate Wilson examines the interior of his shelter at Mill Campground on Sunday, which was ransacked recently by a bear. Residents at the campground said bears have been a constant problem and resulted in numerous people leaving the campground before it closed for the season Monday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Fate Wilson examines the interior of his shelter at Mill Campground on Sunday, which was ransacked recently by a bear. Residents at the campground said bears have been a constant problem and resulted in numerous people leaving the campground before it closed for the season Monday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

A miserable and messy situation at Mill Campground

Fate Wilson had one of the largest and most elaborate shelters at the campground this summer, beginning with the antique maritime wheel hanging on the door outside the entrance. Inside, under tarps draped over a solidly built frame of poles from trees and other wood, were separate sleeping and living spaces — with a fireplace, indoor garden and a bar among the features in the latter.

But on Sunday the interior was in shambles and not because of the impending move a day away, according to Wilson. Instead it was ransacked by bears, which is why a majority of the campground’s summer residents were gone by Sunday.

“People were scared of the bears,” he said. “I mean you hear every night. There’s two or three of them and I literally had to chase them off all the time.”

As such, there were far too many belongings to sort through — and either pack or discard — for Wilson and a sheltermate before Monday’s noon closing, especially since he said he’s been sick recently.

“Just hard living out here,” he said. “You know, just being cold every night when you’re in the bed you can’t have a fire, when you’re just getting wet.”

Wilson said he spent much of his summer recycling materials, which included bringing useful items to the campsite for others. But on Monday just before noon vast amounts of items ranging from clothes to cooking items to sleeping gear — plus lots of trash and items damaged beyond usefulness — were strewn all over the campsite. He and other campers said they were worried about the city showing up with heavy machinery and bulldozing away everything — valuable possessions and trash alike — during the afternoon.

Garrett Derr, a resident at Mill Campground, examines a hoodie left on a tent platform by a former occupant on Sunday, the day before the campground closed for the season. Numerous residents left ahead of the closing date, leaving large amounts of possessions and trash behind. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Garrett Derr, a resident at Mill Campground, examines a hoodie left on a tent platform by a former occupant on Sunday, the day before the campground closed for the season. Numerous residents left ahead of the closing date, leaving large amounts of possessions and trash behind. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Derr, who spent his last night at the campground under the meal shelter tent, also spent time along with fellow campers going through what other people left behind, looking for items that might be of use in the coming days. But he said trying to clear out the campsite as the city requested or save everything worthwhile wasn’t possible.

“We can try to do our best, but the thing is there’s still a lot there’s a lot of things that are left behind that are worth something to somebody,” he said.

By late Monday morning most of the remaining residents were carrying away possessions in bundles, strapped to aging bikes, in wheelbarrows and by other means. At least one person put their belongings in the bed of a truck waiting at the base of Thane Road several hundred yards away, while others dropped items off in bundles either near the woods away from the campsite or along the side of the road.

As of 12:15 p.m. no city vehicles or officials had arrived to enforce the campground’s closure. Barr, while declining a short time later to comment on the specific timing and actions city officials were planning in terms of a shutdown, said he didn’t expect abrupt and drastic measures.

“It always takes a little bit of time, it’s not usually a one-day effort,” he said. “So we’ll work with folks.”

The city is working with other agencies such as the Glory Hall and other “navigators” to determine if there are housing options for people departing the campground since the winter warming shelter is intended to be an emergency option for people, Barr said.

“We would really prefer to the extent that we can to connect people with other and better housing resources,” he said.

Two people depart with belongings from Mill Campground shortly before it officially closed for the season on Monday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Two people depart with belongings from Mill Campground shortly before it officially closed for the season on Monday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Wilson said he stayed at the church warming shelter last winter and appreciated its operations, but felt there were too many other people who didn’t.

“I just think that the people staying there were inconsiderate and they were really ungrateful, and they didn’t really appreciate what they had and all that kind of stuff,” he said. “If they would have treated more like their mom’s home instead of a flophouse then it would have all been better.”

Concerns about behavioral and property damage issues were raised by some church members, as well as neighbors near the church, during the two years it operated the shelter. Church leaders, after the first two votes by the congregation to host the shelter for a third year, scheduled the third meeting (and resulting narrow vote of approval) by stating they were planning to ask for extra funds from the city to cover “wear and tear costs” in addition to the contract for operating costs.

A person loads belongings on a shopping cart along the side of Thane Road at the turnoff to Mill Campground after it closed for the season at noon Monday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

A person loads belongings on a shopping cart along the side of Thane Road at the turnoff to Mill Campground after it closed for the season at noon Monday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Converting a warehouse into a warming shelter

As a departed camper tried to figure out how to get a pile of possessions into a shopping cart at the base of Thane Road, several hundred yards away city workers were inside the warehouse being used for storage, clearing about one-third of the space at the southern end to make room for the shelter scheduled to open Friday.

“My goal is that for the most part we will hopefully have the bulk of the items cleared out today, maybe tomorrow,” said Nate Abbott, building maintenance supervisor for the City and Borough of Juneau.

There are also safety modifications city workers will make, including changing some doors so they allow easy exiting in an emergency, Abbot said.

“Right now on this end we only have heat detectors,” he said. “So we’re putting smoke detectors in (and) life-safety stuff that needs to be put in.”

Portable toilets will placed outside the building and hand-washing stations inside, but the shelter won’t have indoor plumbing or shower facilities, Barr said.

A city worker on Monday moves stored items out of a section of a warehouse that is being converted for use as a winter warming shelter starting Friday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

A city worker on Monday moves stored items out of a section of a warehouse that is being converted for use as a winter warming shelter starting Friday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

“It’s a cold-weather emergency shelter,” he said. “I think it’s important to emphasize the emergency piece. This is a shelter of last resort. So the city, what we’re providing is a warm, covered space.”

Barr said the operating hours of the shelter are initially scheduled to be “at least 11 p.m. to 6:30 a.m., likely longer.”

He said the city is working to ensure transportation is available for people getting to the shelter, since it is far from the Glory Hall where many may get meals and other services during the day, and a considerable walk from downtown for people spending days there.

“There’s two parts to our transportation plan, an evening and a morning part,” he said. “The evening part St. Vincent de Paul is working on in coordination with the Glory Hall to provide shuttle service from points in downtown to Thane. And then the morning plan will be transportation from the shelter and then out towards the valley, likely to have a few stops on the way, provided by Capital Transit.”

A city-owned warehouse about a mile south of the Goldbelt Tram is scheduled to open as a winter warming shelter starting Friday. The shelter will have cots, hand-washing stations, outdoor portable restrooms and other basic services. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

A city-owned warehouse about a mile south of the Goldbelt Tram is scheduled to open as a winter warming shelter starting Friday. The shelter will have cots, hand-washing stations, outdoor portable restrooms and other basic services. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Cots, tables and chairs, food, and other similar items for people at the shelter are being provided by St. Vincent de Paul. Ringle said they are getting items from various sources, such as a business clearing out a space filled with tables and chairs, and a staff with shelter experience is ready to prepare the shelter for occupants when the warehouse space is cleared.

Barr and Ringle said the shelter can use additional volunteers, which may require various amounts of training or experience depending on the tasks involved. People interested can contact Jackie Bryant, the shelter’s designated director, at jackie@svdpjuneau.org.

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

Vernon Ollenberger gets ready to go to his job as a dishwasher on Sunday before spending his last night of the season at Mill Campground before it closed Monday. He said he doesn’t know where he’ll spend Monday night and the following nights until a winter warming shelter opens. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Vernon Ollenberger gets ready to go to his job as a dishwasher on Sunday before spending his last night of the season at Mill Campground before it closed Monday. He said he doesn’t know where he’ll spend Monday night and the following nights until a winter warming shelter opens. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

A resident at Mill Campground looks through items to keep and discard on the ground near the meal shelter on Sunday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

A resident at Mill Campground looks through items to keep and discard on the ground near the meal shelter on Sunday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

An assortment of furniture, clothing and other household items are exposed to the elements at Mill Campground on Sunday after being left behind by residents who departed ahead of Monday’s closing. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

An assortment of furniture, clothing and other household items are exposed to the elements at Mill Campground on Sunday after being left behind by residents who departed ahead of Monday’s closing. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

An assortment of furniture, closing and other household items are exposed to the elements at Mill Campground on Sunday after being left behind by residents who departed ahead of Monday’s closing. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

An assortment of furniture, closing and other household items are exposed to the elements at Mill Campground on Sunday after being left behind by residents who departed ahead of Monday’s closing. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

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