Steven Kissack and Jennifer Ross accept pizzas from a person who dropped them off anonymously where they were sitting at the sheltered entrance to a building on Front Street on Sunday evening. Ross and Kissack, accompanied by his dog Juno, were among a group of people gathering at the entrance who said they might spend some of Christmas Eve and/or Christmas Day at the warming shelter south of downtown, but were uncertain about their plans. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Steven Kissack and Jennifer Ross accept pizzas from a person who dropped them off anonymously where they were sitting at the sheltered entrance to a building on Front Street on Sunday evening. Ross and Kissack, accompanied by his dog Juno, were among a group of people gathering at the entrance who said they might spend some of Christmas Eve and/or Christmas Day at the warming shelter south of downtown, but were uncertain about their plans. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Just a typical Christmas Eve among homeless friends on Front Street

Food, drink, stories and dog adoration share much of the spirit as multitude of gatherings indoors.

Steven Kissack was the teller of stories amidst a group of friends who were listeners of stories. There also was, of course, much adoration and chatter about his dog, Juno, who spent most of the evening nestled cozily into a corner without paying much attention.

Boxes of pizza dropped off by a holiday well-wisher and various drinks — with and without alcohol — were in a center space between the roughly half-dozen people, although their numbers ebbed and flowed as they sought out things such as bathrooms that were well beyond the usual range of a typical dining room on Christmas Eve.

Kissack, 34, a Juneau resident experiencing homelessness who said he’s lived here for the past decade, was in a sense the “host” of the gathering at a sheltered entrance to a building on Front Street, where he had set out his sleeping bag and other belongings — including Juno’s water dish and sleeping pad. Others experiencing homelessness who knew him came by to share the food, listen to his stories and offer a few of their own.

They gathered after most of the shops open for last-minute Christmas Eve shoppers were closed, with only a handful of bars and a dispensary still open nearby. The weather, which at times had delivered pounding rain and fearsome winds during the past day, offered something of a holiday evening repose with light sprinkles, an occasional breeze and a temperature in the high 30s.

“Oh man, I’ve been hiking out when it was snowing and raining, and I was so wet that I thought I would I would die,” Kissack said. “It’s just been way worse weather than this, it’s not even close. I mean, technically, if you’re in doorways freezing you shouldn’t be able to live very long.”

With Kissack early in the evening was Jennifer Ross, who said she grew up in Sitka and has been a Juneau resident for 22 years. Like others who gathered in the doorway Sunday night, she said she got to know Kissack due to her own unfortunate circumstances that left her without a place to live.

“Lots of different reasons,” she said. “COVID didn’t help.”

A group of friends experiencing homelessness gather outside the covered entrance of a building on Front Street on Sunday evening, sharing food, stories and other experiences on Christmas Eve. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

A group of friends experiencing homelessness gather outside the covered entrance of a building on Front Street on Sunday evening, sharing food, stories and other experiences on Christmas Eve. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Shortly before 7 p.m. a shuttle van used by the city’s warming shelter in Thane came by, with the driver telling the gathering the shelter was opening early for Christmas Eve. People thanked him, and then discussed when and if they planned to go there, with some noting they’d been told movies were being shown there and the shelter would be open extended hours Christmas Day.

At about 7:15 p.m. another vehicle parked nearby, and a man got out and fetched several pizza boxes, offering them to people in the doorway. They were accepted with thanks and, while Ross immediately started eating a slice from one box, Kissack took a moment to explain that if you look closely at the Bullwinkle’s moose mascot on the boxes you can see the image of an owl within it.

Perhaps 15 minutes later another car stopped briefly, with the driver sharing handwarmers for people wanting them. As with the pizza, Ross took immediate advantage and began kneading a pair of them to provide warmth while Kissack continued his discussion as others arrived.

Much of the discussion was about things that might be heard at any Christmas Eve gathering of family and friends, including opinions about various iterations of Spider-Man, debating what animals can swim across oceans, and Dungeons and Dragons. Some of the comments within those topics, however, might have raised eyebrows in a more traditional setting.

“The last time I played D&D was 2016 and I was in prison,” one of the people standing in a semicircle around the doorway chimed in.

The mood was generally casual and relaxed, although as the evening progressed loud voices of people frequenting the bars down the street could be heard as they wandered out for smoke or other breaks. Monte Nix, sitting in a corner of the doorway across from Kissack, spent much of the time listening with a quiet dignity and appearance matching that of a graduate student returning home for holiday break — but like many others is experiencing homelessness due to a misstep.

“I just got fired from Subway,” he said. “I broke a window, I was like really drunk and intoxicated.”

Nix said he apologized the next day and tried to patch things up, acknowledging “I just can’t drink” if he wants to stay out of trouble.

The group also discussed obvious topics of shared local interest such as the warming shelter, with opinions varying from liking it offering more space than a church that provided the shelter last year to disliking rules about things such as bathroom use they feel are overly strict. Kissack said items of his have gone missing while staying there, while a couple of other people were wearing hats and gloves they said they got from the shelter in recent days.

Juno, a canine companion to local resident Steven Kissack, is rousted from her slumber by the approach of another dog at the sheltered entrance of a building on Front Street on Sunday night. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Juno, a canine companion to local resident Steven Kissack, is rousted from her slumber by the approach of another dog at the sheltered entrance of a building on Front Street on Sunday night. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Some of the narratives were familiar to the other people gathered — and they coaxed Kissack to share certain favorites with a newcomer to the conversation.

“Tell him about my last name — Davis,” said Curtis Davis, sitting in one of the far edges of the entryway.

“Davis means the light and the darkness, or Damian is calling on the Davis,” Kissack explained, with the “Damian” reference originating from a Greek word meaning “master,” “overcome,” or “conquer.”

Kissack claims to have an IQ of 240, which is hard to believe literally since it would be the highest of any living person (a Chinese-American mathematician with a score of 225-230 is credited as the highest, according to the BBC). But there’s little doubt he has plenty of intellect listening to his thesis-level vocabulary about a wide range of stream-of-consciousness topics such as quantum physics involving rocks (“when it breaks apart there’ll be a little spark in between the two spots that broke” that he compares to a “dynamic lightning bolt”).

He also, not surprisingly, has acquired plenty of street and survival skills over the years.

“A sword isn’t as good as a knife if a bear attacks you because you can’t move the sword right, but you can stab the bear in the eye with a knife and survive,” he said. “It’s also the best weapon for melee combat because it’s a throwing weapon.”

Kissack said he grew up in Florida, then moved to Texas where his mother died. Afterward, he said he moved about frequently before ending up in Juneau. He said did painting and construction work at first, without planning to remain in Juneau as long as he has, but difficulties including an assault case involving a police officer in 2021 affected his situation (he disputes the official narrative of the incident).

He has since avoided serious incidents, although he has been cited several times for non-criminal infractions such as illegal camping, according to the Alaska Court System database. But he said he plans to keep living where he’s visible.

“I plan to just stay right in view of the public until I can get out of here so nothing else keeps me in jail or something,” he said.

As with just about any family gathering involving pets or children, anytime Juno stirred to do anything noticeable like welcome new arrivals or bark at other approaching dogs she found herself the center of conversation. Kissack said he acquired her as a youngster six years ago.

“I just found her,” he said. “She’s perfect. She’s the runt.”

The canine companion has made Kissack known to many local residents, who as of late have inquired about both his well-being and Juno’s as winter sets in.

“People give me so much stuff to feed her that she basically eats almost people food,” he said.

As some people in the doorway started departing as the hour grew late, either toward the warming shelter or other places they planned to spend the night, one further thing many of them shared in common was an uncertainty about what they’d be doing Christmas Day.

“I have no idea where I’ll be,” Nix said.

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

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