‘Honestly, where are they gonna go?’: Bethel’s only low-barrier emergency shelter may close early this year

a Bethel Winter House sign
A sign for the Bethel Winter House. (Gabby Salgado/KYUK)

After sheltering hundreds from the cold last winter, Bethel Winter House is grappling with the possibility of closing its doors early this season due to lack of funding.

The facility is the area’s only low-barrier emergency shelter, meaning anyone age 18 and up can spend the night. On a recent, freezing November evening, about 25 people were doing just that.

Before they rolled out sleeping pads for bed, the emergency overnight shelter’s executive director, Jaela Milford, opened the cafeteria window. She called out for Elders and women first, and about half of the residents that night got in line.

One of the Elders in line said he stays at the shelter regularly. He didn’t want to give his name, but said that he has a job in Bethel which he loves. He said that he just hasn’t been able to save up enough for a place of his own.

“I feel real sorry for us homeless people,” he said. “They suffer a lot.”

He said that it’s hard for him and other residents to find a place to go once the shelter closes its doors at 7 a.m. It’s often well below freezing at that time. He worries not just for himself, but for the other people there with him.

“Blowing snow and really cold out there,” he said. “Honestly, where are they gonna go?”

Bethel Winter House opened for the season in October. Milford said that her goal is to keep the shelter open until the river breaks up later in the spring each year, but the exact day depends on funding. This year, it may have to close as early as February. Without a heated, indoor option, conditions that time of year are dangerous.

“Without Bethel Winter House, to put it bluntly, people will die,” Milford said.

She said that since Bethel Winter House opened for the season, it has served about 100 people. Milford estimates that the shelter needs about $150,000 to keep its doors open.

In addition to a warm place to sleep, Bethel Winter House offers dinner, showers and laundry. Last year, more than 300 people used the shelter. Many say on their intake forms that they’d be sleeping outside or in their cars if it weren’t for Bethel Winter House.

“Already, we are seeing people come in and they are frozen from just walking in the times that we are unable to be open, during the 12 hours we’re closed,” Milford said.

Bethel Winter House gets most of its funding from the city’s Community Action Grant program — local money that goes to nonprofits. Other sources of funding have been less reliable, Milford said. The organization has struggled to get money from federal grants, which Milford has found tend to go to long-term housing solutions rather than short-term, emergency options.

“Without us catching them at the bottom, they’ll fall through. And we’ll never be able to get them housing,” Milford said. “So we are the first step. And unfortunately, people want to fund the last step and not the first one.”

But even as the shelter struggles to keep its doors open this year, it’s working on a longer-term solution. The organization received grant money to build a 20-bed, long-term housing facility attached to the current shelter.

Milford said that they’re set to break ground in the coming months and complete the project in 2024. The housing project will use the shelter’s services, like its overnight front desk staff and connections to resources, to meet the needs of the people living there and fulfill grant requirements. Though rent payments will cover many of the building’s expenses, the new facility will be reliant on the shelter’s staff as it gets underway. Milford said that could be a problem.

“As of now, no, Bethel Winter House does not have the resources to take on another multimillion dollar building attached to it,” she said.

For now, the shelter is focused on raising enough money to stay open through the cold months. If it doesn’t, residents say that they’re not sure what they’ll do. One woman, who stays at the shelter every night, said that there are cracks around her door at home and there’s no heat. It gets bitter cold in the winter.

“It’s a nice warm place. A place to get out of the cold,” she said.

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