Anchorage overnight shelters packed during cold spell

 Two women stand outside Bean's Cafe, bundled against the cold. (KTUU)
Two women stand outside Bean's Cafe, bundled against the cold. (KTUU) (KTUU)
Published: Jan. 10, 2020 at 8:08 PM AKST
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Anchorage shelters as well as about 10 churches are housing many of the city's homeless through persistent subzero temperatures -- and some are packed to the brim.

"We're trying our best every day to provide that safe, warm environment and hot meals," Bean's Cafe Executive Director Lisa Sauder said.

This is the fourth consecutive winter the Municipality of Anchorage has contracted the daytime soup kitchen to provide cold weather overnight shelter services. Bean's has a daytime capacity of 250 people at one time, but there are many more seeking shelter.

Sauder says clients have enough time to sit down to eat a hot meal and warm their bodies. On busy days, however, she says she's forced to cycle people back outside to make room for the line waiting in the cold.

"We've been at capacity during the day, every day, especially around meal time," Sauder said. "Probably for the first time in memory, we've actually had people waiting to come inside to get meals."

Bean's can provide up to 166 beds per night, and is one of a handful of overnight cold weather shelters for single adults and youth in Anchorage. Other shelters include Catholic Social Services, Brother Francis Shelter (240 beds); Anchorage Gospel Rescue Mission (100 beds); AWAIC (52 beds); Downtown Hope Center (50 beds); and Covenant House AK youth shelter (60 beds).

There are a total of 668 adult/youth shelter beds available on any given night in Anchorage, according to Housing and Homeless Services Coordinator Nancy Burke with the Municipality of Anchorage.

Family shelters are counted separately, according to Burke, given the very different needs of the populations. Catholic Social Services Clare House shelter has a 49-bed capacity, and Salvation Army McKinnell House has 45 beds. Burke says there are also about 10 churches across Anchorage voluntarily providing shelter. Each church is part of a rotation -- every night of the week a different church houses 20 people and monitors them all night with volunteer staff.

It's unknown exactly how many homeless individuals are currently living in Anchorage. The Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness has not yet completed its annual "point-in-time" count. In its count completed Jan. 22, 2019, 802 people were sheltered at emergency facilities, 212 were in transitional housing, and 97 were on the street, or unsheltered.

Burke uses a recently developed application tracking nightly bed availability to confirm shelters are not filling to capacity. In fact, she says there has yet to be a night this winter where all 668 beds were filled. Using one point-in-time example from the first week of 2020, on average 56 beds remained empty each night.

A quick drive through Anchorage confirms some people are indeed choosing to camp outside despite subzero overnight temperatures. Channel 2 approached one tent, but the occupant would not comment as to why he was not seeking shelter.

The muni is asking people to call its non-emergency line at 311 to report people camping outside. They will follow up with the report and likely attempt to get the individual to shelter.

Some shelters may not be filling up


night, but others like Brother Francis Shelter are frequently reaching nightly capacity. Catholic Social Services Executive Director Lisa Aquino thinks some may choose to stay outside to avoid the race to a shelter bed.

"We were full before 6 p.m. yesterday," Aquino said Friday at the campus on 3rd Ave. "I think that people who are making plans to sleep outside are making them early, because they know unless they line up down here they're not going to get a bed."

"So I think we just have to be really vigilant and keep our eyes open for people, because this temperature can kill," Aquino finished.

Aquino says shelters are accepting donations like blankets, towels, and other items to help keep people clean and warm.

According to the Department of Health and Social Services the State Medical Examiner Office has investigated nine deaths from hypothermia across Alaska since Oct. 1, 2019. Two people died in Anchorage, one in October and one in December. One person died in Fairbanks due to hypothermia on Jan. 1, 2020.

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