The location of a winter warming shelter in Juneau took another abrupt turn Monday as officials said the preferred site is now a city-owned warehouse south of downtown currently being used as a municipal election ballot processing center, with St. Vincent de Paul Juneau operating the shelter once necessary modifications are in place.
The announcement comes a day after Mount Jumbo Gym in Douglas was named as the site the city was negotiating with St. Vincent de Paul to operate. On the same day another option reemerged as Resurrection Lutheran Church — which hosted the shelter the past two winters — voted 25-24 during a congregation meeting to allow the shelter for another year.
But Deputy City Manager Robert Barr said in an interview Monday the city is “no longer looking at Mount Jumbo” and intends to use the warehouse instead. He said a contract hasn’t been signed with St. Vincent de Paul to operate the shelter at that location, but “I expect that to be done in a day or two.”
The warehouse nearly a mile south of the Goldbelt Tram is roughly in the same part of town as Mill Campground, which is open for people experiencing homelessness during warmer months. The campground is scheduled to close in mid-October, with the opening of the warming shelter typically coinciding with that date.
Barr, who has previously noted the campground’s closing date is not firm, said he could not give a specific timeline on when the shelter at the warehouse might be ready to open, but “we’re going to do our best to coordinate those things.”
The Juneau Assembly will need to approve the use of the warehouse as a warming shelter, Barr said. The next scheduled Assembly meeting is Oct. 23, listed as a “re-organization meeting” when winners of the Oct. 3 municipal election are scheduled to be sworn in.
That requirement would likely be quicker than the process for Mount Jumbo Gym, which would require a conditional use permit from the Planning Commission, including an opportunity for public comment. Beyond a commission meeting scheduled Tuesday, the next scheduled meeting is Oct. 24.
Concerns about the impacts caused by people staying at the shelter are what created the uncertainty this year, with the congregation at Resurrection Lutheran Church voting in June and again in September not to submit a bid to the city to operate the shelter for the coming winter. But during a contentious two-and-a-half hour meeting Sunday, a congregation with several new members since last month voted in favor of allowing the shelter.
However, the vote on Sunday came the same day Barr said the city was pursuing a different option.
Reconsidering previously rejected options
The warehouse was previously considered and rejected as a site for the warming shelter, Barr said. As a result, as of last week he was discussing a “last-ditch” option of putting people on a public transit bus with its engine running and using a portion of the Downtown Transit Center lobby to shelter people on cold nights.
However, a decision by city officials to ensure adequate shuttle service exists for people using the shelter led to a reevaluation, Barr said.
“We’ve looked at dozens of facilities,” he said. “And early on in the process we ruled out facilities outside of downtown because of transportation challenges associated with people getting to a good facility outside of downtown. We’ve since resolved those transportation challenges. We’re going to operate a shuttle to get people to and from (the shelter), so that reopened areas that we had looked at and ruled out before.”
In addition to the warehouse in Thane, the city-owned Mount Jumbo Gym in Douglas was another previously rejected site, Barr said.
“Thane has as an obvious advantage of not being in the middle of a residential neighborhood or in close proximity to a school,” he said. “So that’s why we landed on Thane.”
St. Vincent de Paul has previously operated a warming shelter at its Teal Street facility, with the shelter relocated to the Juneau Arts and Culture Center at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March of 2020. Dave Ringle, executive director of the local St. Vincent de Paul chapter, said Monday he believes the warehouse has “a lot of advantages” compared to Mount Jumbo Gym and Resurrection Lutheran Church.
“We’re looking at the best solution, both as a place for the community and as a place where you can put an acceptable number of people with minimal disruptions,” he said.
Converting the space after the city finishes its election work — with results scheduled to be certified Oct. 17 — will require work such as installing additional bathrooms and other shelter necessities, but “that would actually be less time than a conditional use permit hearing,” Ringle said.
Plans for the shuttle are still being determined — a process that will likely continue and evolve after the shelter begins operating — but mornings will be easier than evenings, Barr said
“In the morning everyone is leaving at the same time generally,” he said. “Most people are going out to The Glory Hall for breakfast. That’s pretty straightforward. Evening transportation is a little bit trickier. And I would imagine that will be something that will evolve as we get a sense of the clientele, and where they’re at and where they’re arriving from.”
Evening service will likely not be “a single point of departure or a single drop-off time,” Barr said.
Pastor: “It’s better than being on a bus, but it’s a disaster”
Numerous concerns about using the warehouse as a warming shelter were expressed Monday by Resurrection Lutheran Church Pastor Karen Perkins, stating the church remains by far a safer, more accessible and more suitable option.
“The reason I fought so hard for us to do it is that something needed to happen in a place that people could get to in their worst condition,” she said. “Because that’s what an emergency warming shelter is for people at their worst.”
Putting a shelter in a less-central location like the warehouse, and expecting people experiencing mental and other difficulties to remember the location of the shelter, and the means of getting there, is something Perkins said she has seen fail previously.
“It’s better than being (sheltered) on a bus, but it’s a disaster,” she said. “There’s going be some people sleeping in the doorways downtown because they won’t have gotten to the bus on time, or they won’t remember where the bus is, or because they have PTSD.”
More concerning is creating a life-threatening situation due to the delay in opening a shelter beyond mid-October in order to meet city requirements and get the facility properly equipped, Perkins said.
“How many people are going to die in-between now and when it gets ready?” she said. “And then how many people are going to have to die before they figure it out?”
Meanwhile, due to the congregation’s vote on Sunday, if the city could reach an agreement with church leaders during the next few days “we could still be open by the time the temperature drops below 32,” Perkins said.
Some unclear signs remain
An official notice sign outside Mount Jumbo Gym on Monday announced it was under consideration as a “backup cold weather emergency shelter…should Resurrection Lutheran Church not provide the CWES for winter 2023-24.” It also announced a Planning Commission hearing about a required conditional use permit to use the gym as a shelter was scheduled Oct. 24.
Barr said he was not aware of the city getting many inquiries from residents or businesses near the gym on Monday, likely because of the scant amount of time the public had to learn about the possibility before the city opted not to pursue it.
“I think the reason that we haven’t gotten much feedback yet is simply because we’re talking about hours, not days,” he said. “So I just think that people haven’t had time to digest where we are because this is evolving very rapidly.”
That rapid evolution also means “I wouldn’t rule anything out at this point,” including reentering discussions with Resurrection Lutheran about operating the shelter if circumstances warranted, Barr said.
“I’m super grateful for them and their work, grateful for their continued work whether it’s with this shelter or with other things that they do,” he said, noting “they operate a very important food pantry for the community.”
As part of the church’s third vote on hosting the shelter this winter, following the two failed votes, church leaders said they planned to ask the city for an unspecified amount of “wear and tear” funds, in addition to the $285,000 operational contract offered by the city, to cover damage and other problems caused by shelter occupants. Barr declined to discuss specific figures for a contract to have St. Vincent de Paul operate the voting center, but said the fact it’s a city-owned building would be a factor in the amount.
• Contact Mark Sabbatini at email@example.com or (907) 957-2306.