From the inside, it’s difficult to distinguish the Juneau Housing First Project from any other partially constructed building. But soon enough, this maze of plywood sheets and lumber studs will house the city’s most vulnerable homeless residents.
“Right now, they’re living under the bridge, on the streets,” said Mariya Lovishchuck, the director of the Glory Hole, downtown’s homeless shelter and soup kitchen. “This is going to be tremendously different for them.”
Standing in what will eventually be one housing project’s 32 bedrooms, Lovishchuck told several project stakeholders that it has been more than 20 years since some of the people experiencing homelessness in Juneau have had a permanent room to call their own.
Among those in the room with Lovishchuck Thursday afternoon was Bruce Denton, vice president of the Housing First Project’s board of directors. As he looked around the room, Denton recalled something that the late Bill Hobson, a Seattle-based advocate of the homeless, once told him.
“One of the big challenges for the caseworkers who work in places like this is getting people to come out of their rooms,” Denton said, echoing Hobson, who died earlier this year.
Hobson ran Seattle’s Downtown Emergency Service Center for more than 20 years and helped advise the board of the Juneau Housing First project. By the time the facility is completed in May 2017 — and opened the following month — Hobson’s will be but one name on a long list of contributors who helped build a good idea into a much-needed service. Anchorage and Fairbanks already have permanent housing options for the homeless.
John Gaguine’s name, as well as those of his parents, will also be on that list. Gaguine, who walked through the housing project on Thursday, has donated $45,000 to the project. The money comes from the Benito and Frances C. Gaguine Foundation, named after John’s parents.
“I’m well aware of the need, and it seems like an excellent idea and something we really need here,” he told the Empire Thursday.
Gaguine’s donation will go into a pool of money collected by the Juneau Community Foundation to fund the Housing First Project. Amy Skilbred, executive director of the Juneau Community Foundation, said that the foundation is trying to raise $200,000.
The Sealaska Corporation has also contributed to this goal. It recently donated $25,000 to fund the project.
So far, at least nine community organizations have contributed to the roughly $7 million project. Donations and grants currently total nearly $6.2 million. Lovishchuck, who is helping coordinate the project, said that the board is still trying to raise about $900,000 to cover the rest of the cost.
“To have so many entities involved in this project, it’s unprecedented, and it’s amazing, and we’re so grateful,” she told the Empire after the facility tour.
Lovishchuck expects that the impact of the Housing First Project will be felt beyond the 32 homeless residents it serves. The project will likely reduce costs for organizations that are currently providing services to the city’s most vulnerable residents.
Between Jan. 1 and Sept. 30 of this year, 33 patients identified as homeless accounted for about 720 visits to Bartlett Regional Hospital’s emergency department. In total, the charges for these visits amounted to more than $2.6 million, according to data furnished by Lovishchuck. She estimates that these costs will drop with fewer people living on the street.
As Skilbred noted Thursday, “If the right people are in the right place, we’re all better off.”