Juneau to become third city in Alaska to shelter high-risk homeless

Juneau will become the third city in Alaska to offer permanent supportive housing to the high-risk, chronically homeless. Those are the people who have been on the streets the longest, and may suffer from addiction or mental health issues.

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This concept drawing by MRV Architects shows the proposed Housing First project in Juneau. The facility would be built in Lemon Creek on land contributed by Tlingit-Haida Regional Housing Authority.
This concept drawing by MRV Architects shows the proposed Housing First project in Juneau. The facility would be built in Lemon Creek on land contributed by Tlingit-Haida Regional Housing Authority.

The Glory Hole offers three meals a day and connects homeless people with services to look for work and find housing. Up to 43 people can sleep in the shelter’s beds, but a deal breaker to staying overnight is being intoxicated. You have to pass a breathalyzer with a blood alcohol level under 0.10.

Trevor Kellar is the outreach coordinator and housing specialist at the shelter. He says he doesn’t like telling people they can’t stay.

“It can be a bummer to kick folks out, especially in the winter asking them to leave when it’s really cold is just so hard to do. But we just try to hold a line of this is what we are, this is how we serve, these are our sobriety requirements,” he says.

Juneau is estimated to have nearly 600 homeless people. Forty of those are considered high-risk, and thus the hardest to house. That’s about to change for some. The Glory Hole just received a grant from the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation to build a Housing First project.

(Graph by Scott Ciambor/ Alaska Mental Health Board)
(Graph by Scott Ciambor/ Alaska Mental Health Board)

Mariya Lovischuk, The Glory Hole’s executive director, says before you can address substance abuse or mental health issues, you need to put the person in housing.

“You need to give the person no strings attached housing in order for the person to stabilize,” she says.

The grant includes $3 million dollars in capital funding as well as $1.2 million for operational costs for the next three years. Tlingit-Haida Regional Housing Authority is contributing land in Lemon Creek where the project will be built. Lovischuk says there were a lot of obstacles to overcome to get the 32-bed facility to this point. One of them was her initial aversion to the idea.

“When I first heard about the concept I thought this is such a ridiculous idea this will never work and I’m philosophically actually opposed to it,” Lovischuk says.

She also thought it would enable residents to drink, so Lovischuk visited some of Housing First facilities in Seattle to find out for herself.

“It really took seeing how it works to realize when someone is in constant crisis and has been on the street for 12 years. You can’t just expect them to go to rehab,” Lovischuk says. “A lot of those people have been to rehab many, many times and they’re trying.”

After that, Lovischuk noticed patterns of behavior around The Glory Hole. For instance, she says a sober guest, fresh out of rehab would say, ‘Oh, I’m really excited I’m not going to drink anymore!’”

Then the inevitable stress of living in a shelter would cause them to relapse.

“’Oh, this person moved my stuff. Oh, my phone got stolen,’ and seeing that mounting and mounting, and then seeing that excitement about having a good life after rehab disappear — it was really heartbreaking,” she says.

Rainforest Recovery Center emergency vehicles patrol downtown Juneau several times a day looking for chronic inebriates. The program has a room where people can sleep off their intoxication, but the service is costly. In a two-month span, one client racked up over $33 thousand dollars in expenses that included trips to the emergency room.

Lovischuk hopes the Housing First facility will cut down these costs. The units will be more like apartments — everyone will have their own.

“So it’s definitely not going to be a shelter,” she says. “Nobody has to have annoying roommates. It’s going to be like people’s own little home.”

The Juneau Housing First Collaborative is looking for additional funding for the $7 million project, but Lovischuk says they would like to start breaking ground this summer. Once built, it will be funded by a combination of grants, donations and residents paying a small portion of their income for rent. The City and Borough of Juneau committed $1.5 million to the project in January.

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