A previous version of this article incorrectly spelled the name of Juneau’s Economic Stabilization Task Force co-chair. His name is Max Mertz, not Merz. The article has been updated to reflect the change. The Empire regrets the error.
Dozens of Juneau residents eat their dinner in the rain downtown every night, they say they have nowhere else to go.
But there’s a program germinating to fix that.
“The worst part of being homeless in Juneau is there’s nowhereto go out of the rain,” said Steve Kissack, eating dinner under the awning of the Glory Hall. “People lose so much of their stuff. There’s a large group of homeless people who got kicked out of here that don’t have anywhere to go.”
A proposed project to use CARES Act funding to pay local restaurants to help feed Juneau residents experiencing homelessness or food insecurity is slowly making its way to reality. This could help address concerns from residents and businesses downtown about people eating on the sidewalk, said Mariya Lovishchuk, executive director of the Glory Hall.
“We’re just handing out to-go boxes at the Glory Hall,” Lovishchuk said in an interview Thursday. “People don’t have a place to sit, people don’t have a place to eat. The food program solves this. That’s why we really, really support it.”
The Juneau Cares Act, as the program is known — not be confused with the federal CARES Act — has been examined by the Juneau Economic Stabilization Task Force and the Juneau Economic Development Council. It would be administered by the United Way of Southeast Alaska, whose President and CEO Wayne Stevens, spoke highly of the program, and it would pay up to $1 million to local restaurants as well as helping some of Juneau’s most vulnerable people.
“Somebody has a bad day and they throw food in the street and they wonder why there’s food on the street all the time,” Kissack said. “And at least someone almost always has a bad day.”
Helping the most vulnerable
“We’re really hopeful that folks can recognize that this is a problem for our community,” said Mandy Cole, executive director of AWARE, which would also benefit from the food supplied by the program. “It’s disproportionately affecting the hungry and those who live downtown, but it’s a problem for the whole community. If there’s a better solution, great. But we can’t wait longer. ”
The program, proposed initially by Larry Cotter, has gained widespread support from the social service agencies that deal most directly with those experiencing homelessness and food insecurity, including leadership from Glory Hall, AWARE, St. Vincent de Paul Society of Juneau and Juneau Youth Services.
“It makes the shelter’s job harder when people are coming in because they’re hungry,” said Dave Ringle, general manager of SVDP in Juneau. SVDP is running the warming shelter, currently hosted at the Juneau Arts and Culture Center. “We’re all struggling with how do we make the services these people need work in this new environment? It’s a huge challenge.”
The JACC has served as a shelter over the summer, and is slated to continue as SVDP’s shelter until at least until Sept. 15, Ringle said. That’s a need felt just as strongly by Glory Hall, where volunteers are preparing food instead of working with clients to help with their issues.
“We’ve been trying to figure this out for months. This is the only option that’s like, ok, this makes sense. We don’t have months to hash this out,” Lovishchuk said. “What’s the absolute minimum standard of living that someone deserves? I think food.”
The proposal has also been greeted enthusiastically by at least some restaurants.
“There’s no downside. It’s an absolutely fantastic idea, especially in Juneau,” said Evan Wood, co-owner of Devil’s Club Brewing Co., in a phone interview. “I give major kudos to the people who spearheaded and got it going. We’re very eager to get involved in the process.”
While proposals to feed people in shifts or staggered over time were floated, they’re not viewed as viable by those who’d be doing the providing, Lovishchuk said.
“Survival is the top priority. Wther’s it’s 6:25 or 5:15, you’re hungry,” Lovishchuk said. “The motivation isn’t to keep the streets orderly, it’s to feed the hungry. The food program solves this. That’s why we really, really support it.”
While they’re not married to this plan in particular, Cole said, something needs to be done, and the social service groups don’t see a better idea.
“We don’t need to advocate for a process, we need to advocate for a result,” Cole said. “People don’t have a dignified place to eat, and it causes problems for theneighborhood.”
Before the program can have its desired effect, it would need to be turned into an ordinance, go through a formal process and ultimately be OKd by the Assembly.
Exactly when that could be considered, let alone happen, is unclear.
The Assembly’s brutal schedule of meetings as they handle the coronavirus has meant that ordinances get passed relatively quickly, said Max Mertz, co-chair of the city’s Economic Stabalization Task Force. But all things take time.
“The Assembly has been working very hard on our behalf,”Mertz said.“Even meeting as often as they’ve been meeting it takes a couple weeks to get through that process.”
However, Mertz is a big proponent of the idea.
“I love the idea,” Mertz said. I think it’s a great idea. It kills two birds with one stone. It feeds hungry people and puts people who are out of work back to work.”
The proposal itself allows factors for a varying number of people per meal between 175 to 300, with cost per meal between $5 and $10, according to Cotter. That money would go to Juneau restaurants and workers. The cost of the meals depends largely on the preparation; meals that can be prepared and served communally are less expensive than ones that require individual preparation and packaging. The cost is calculated based on the program running from July 1 to Dec. 31, when all CARES Act funding must be expended.
The cost at the low end, with the smallest group of people eating the cheapest meals, is $318,500. The cost at the other end, with the largest group of people eating the priciest meals, is $1,092,000.
Many, including Cotter, are predicting joblessness to swell, and the population experiencing homelessness to increase as the summer winds down. He and other supporters of the plan hope it can go into effect before a bad situation gets worse.
“It doesn’t take Nostradamus to see a little bit of linkage between not working all summer and not being able to pay rent or buy groceries,” Stevens said. “It’s not just our community, it’s every community across the region, every region across the state, every state across the country.”