People staying at the city’s cold weather emergency shelter during its final night of operation board a bus bound for the Glory Hall and other locations in town early Tuesday morning. In the background are tour buses that a company says were broken into and damaged during the winter by people staying at the shelter, and one of the first cruise ships of the season. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

People staying at the city’s cold weather emergency shelter during its final night of operation board a bus bound for the Glory Hall and other locations in town early Tuesday morning. In the background are tour buses that a company says were broken into and damaged during the winter by people staying at the shelter, and one of the first cruise ships of the season. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Juneau’s homeless head outdoors with no official place to camp as warming shelter closes for season

“Everybody’s frantic. They’re probably all going to be sleeping on the streets by the stores again.”

Johanna Church says she’s got a place to stay with a family member in the coming days, but it was a stressful final night for many of the nearly 50 people at the city’s cold weather emergency shelter as they prepared to depart early Tuesday morning with no designated campground or other place to go.

“Everybody’s frantic,” the lifelong Juneau resident said while spending a few last minutes gathering items on her cot at the Thane shelter before boarding a bus outside headed for the Glory Hall and other locations throughout town. “They’re probably all going to be sleeping on the streets by the stores again.”

As people rose from their rows of cots for the last time, they packed sleeping bags and — in a privileged few cases — tents provided to them during their final stay by St. Vincent de Paul Juneau, which as the shelter’s operator made a public plea online this week for donations of such items. Stacked on tables near the entrance were the remaining boxes of food, socks, underwear, hygiene products and other items the shelter has been distributing during the winter, with staff encouraging people staying there to take what they wanted to carry.

D.J. Milton, 63, carrying his belongings to the door of the warming shelter just before the bus arrived Tuesday morning, says he knows where he’ll spend Tuesday night since he’s been camping out during summers for roughly 20 years.

“I’ve got a campground up on the mountain,” he said, noting it isn’t near the Mill Campground where people stayed for the past few years. “I like my solitude. I like to be by myself.”

Greg Martini, a staff member at the city’s cold weather emergency shelter, offers farewells and bags of food to people departing the shelter early Tuesday morning, the final day of operation for the facility until this fall. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Greg Martini, a staff member at the city’s cold weather emergency shelter, offers farewells and bags of food to people departing the shelter early Tuesday morning, the final day of operation for the facility until this fall. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

While the warming shelter had problems both within and outside the facility at times during the winter — the first year it was located at the city-owned warehouse, after being at a downtown church the previous two years — Milton said generally he was satisfied with how it was operated.

“It was a lot better than my tent for the winter,” he said. “It saved me.”

For the first time in many years a city-sanctioned campsite for people experiencing homelessess is not available after the warming shelter closes for the season, due to a multitude of illegal activity at the nearby Mill Campground last year and inability of city officials to find a suitable alternative site.

A proposal by city administrators earlier this year to relocate the campground at a roadside lot next to the shelter has been shelved due to a year-long construction project that just started on adjacent property and concerns by surrounding business owners about trouble caused during the winter by shelter occupants.

As a result, a policy of “dispersed camping” where people are on their own is in effect indefinitely. The Juneau Assembly, meeting as the Committee of the Whole on Monday, agreed to consider an ordinance at its April 29 meeting authorizing a homeless campground at a to-be-designated site — thus allowing quicker official action if a suitable location is found, including potentially the roadside lot if issues regarding it can be resolved — but Assembly members and city administrators agreed there are no ideal solutions at present.

However, Mayor Beth Weldon, who proposed the ordinance as recommended by city staff, said “dispersed camping” isn’t necessarily worse than not having a designated campsite.

“I called around the state…and talked to some other mayors, and I was surprised that they all said ‘We don’t do that because if you put them together in a campground you tend to have much more illegal activity,’” she said. “So I’m willing to give it a try and see what’s happening.”

Workers do early-stage construction work Monday on a planned year-long expansion project for Timberwolf Ventures, located next to a lot where city officials proposed a campsite for people experiencing homelessness. Juneau Assembly members on Monday night tabled an ordinance authorizing the campground there due to construction activity and other concerns expressed by businesses in the vicinity. (Photo by Laurie Craig)

Workers do early-stage construction work Monday on a planned year-long expansion project for Timberwolf Ventures, located next to a lot where city officials proposed a campsite for people experiencing homelessness. Juneau Assembly members on Monday night tabled an ordinance authorizing the campground there due to construction activity and other concerns expressed by businesses in the vicinity. (Photo by Laurie Craig)

Assembly member Alicia Hughes-Skandijs said she supports the policy for now, but “I see this as a setback.”

“As far as the city goes I don’t think dispersed camping is any kind of solution,” she said. “So I will be pushing still for us to find something and try to overcome those obstacles.”

Among the final two people to depart the shelter after staying there for the final night of the season was Michael Holland, a Juneau resident for five years who was still packing his belongings when the bus departed at 6:45 a.m. He said was planning on spending his first night outside the shelter at Sandy Beach.

While Holland agreed Mill Campground was a troublesome site last year — with city officials citing drug use, violence and theft among the many issues — he said that campground and another site further south in Thane operated with fewer problems for many years, and he felt more could have been done to crack down last year on illicit activities.

“What I was disappointed about is…the park rangers, they really dropped the ball last year,” he said, referring to city Parks and Recreation staff who were responsible for maintenance at Mill Campground. “They were the authority and they busted their heads against a couple of these (troublemakers) over there that don’t intimidate, and all of a sudden they just they dropped the ball.”

But as a last — and potentially late — departure from the warming shelter, Holland and another person who slept in until the last moment got their own ribbing reminder of the rules.

“If you guys aren’t out in five minutes you guys are trespassed for the night,” Travis Johnson, a staff member at the shelter, told them in a joking tone, with all gathered acknowledging at that point such a violation wouldn’t have any effect on their ability to seek shelter that evening.

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

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