Juneau pastor says church needs more funding to run city’s warming shelter

a church
Resurrection Lutheran Church in Juneau, photographed on Aug. 22, 2023. (Katie Anastas/KTOO)

Last winter, Resurrection Lutheran Church was prepared to serve about 45 to 50 people at its warming shelter each night. They often served more. One night, 70 people slept at the church.

Pastor Karen Perkins said they need more financial support from the city to run the warming shelter this winter.

“Last year, because of this huge swell in population, we couldn’t keep up under the figures of the contract,” Perkins said. “There were some times where it became really difficult to manage.”

Perkins estimates that the church needs about $290,000 to adequately staff the warming shelter. She’s still waiting to hear whether the city will provide that much money. As city leaders continue to negotiate with the church, they’re considering an alternative: a Capital Transit bus.

Deputy Manager Robert Barr shared the idea at a Juneau Assembly meeting last week.

“There are a handful of communities that, if worse comes to worse, will use a public transit bus, keep it idling overnight, keep the heater on and allow people who have been unable to get into another shelter around town to stay warm,” Barr said.

A ‘realistic’ number

Last year’s $200,000 contract was enough for the church to pay for a part-time manager and a bookkeeper in the daytime and two full-time staff members at night. But when 10 or 20 more people sought services there than expected, they needed another staffer. 

“There’s this myth that we allow people to use drugs there and we allow people to drink there, which we don’t,” Perkins said. “But we also don’t search people when they come in, because it’s part of honoring their dignity. But if there are too many people, the staff don’t catch it. It came to the point where we struggled to manage the safety of the people who were there.”

Recently, the church’s congregation narrowly voted against applying to run the warming shelter this winter. Perkins said some members were concerned about the loitering, vandalism and other property damage that happened last year.

“That is much less likely to occur when the numbers are managed better,” she said.

Perkins said the church has found ways to do that. With the help of donations, they began serving warm meals, which helped people rest. With the planning commission’s approval, they extended operating hours slightly so people could stay indoors until buses started running. But that required staff to work overtime.

“Part of our model is very much dignity and cooperation,” Perkins said. “People are much more likely to be cooperative under certain conditions.”

Perkins would like to see those conditions reflected in the city’s contract.

She said last season, during the uptick in patrons in the early months of the year, the city gave the church an additional $40,000 to pay for a third staff member, bringing the total payment for last season to $240,000. 

Perkins would like this year’s contract to provide enough funding to pay for a third staff member a few days a week and make the manager position full time. She estimates those changes would bring the total to around $290,000.

“We want to have a number that’s realistic this year,” she said.

‘The last-ditch option’

Barr said he’s still talking to church leaders about how they might amend the warming shelter contract to make it more appealing to the congregation.

He said he couldn’t comment on the ongoing contract negotiations, but that he does expect the cost to go up this year. Funding for the warming shelter would come from the city’s operating fund and a state Department of Health grant.

“We have to balance the services that we’re looking for with being fiscally responsible with taxpayer dollars,” Barr said. “That’s sometimes hard when you potentially only have one provider.”

Each year, the city requests proposals from groups that are interested in running the warming shelter. No one applied this time.

The shelter has changed locations and providers several times since it began in a now-demolished building on Whittier Avenue downtown in 2017. St. Vincent de Paul started running it at their community center on Teal Street in the Mendenhall Valley in 2019, then moved it back downtown to the Juneau Arts and Culture Center when the pandemic began. In 2021, Resurrection Lutheran Church took over for St. Vincent de Paul when they pulled out of their contract.

“Finding space for any use right now is challenging,” Barr said. “Finding space for this particular kind of use is particularly challenging.”

The decommissioned city bus would have seats for only 35 people — and no beds. Barr said he thinks using a bus as a warming shelter would lead to people to seek out other options. 

“The bus option is the last-ditch option. It’s not the one we want to choose,” Barr said. “But I think if that’s what was available, that we would see more people choosing to make use of some of the other sheltering space that’s available that would be better than this one.”

Completely full

But Mariya Lovishchuk, the executive director of Juneau’s emergency shelter and soup kitchen, says other sheltering space is limited. At the Glory Hall’s shelter, all 43 rooms and 12 overflow bunks are already full.

“I don’t remember the last time we were not completely full,” she said.

Glory Hall staff try to move people from the emergency shelter into permanent supportive housing as soon as they can. But the 64 units in the Glory Hall’s Forget-Me-Not Manor are also full. They’re working on adding 28 more units to Forget-Me-Not Manor and building seven new units downtown, but they won’t be finished by winter.

Lovishchuk said there’s typically an increase in the number of people seeking shelter services once the Mill Campground closes in the fall. This year, it’s scheduled to close on Oct. 16.

“We’re working really hard right now with our community partners to make sure that everyone in our shelter who has any other location to go that is better – be it permanent supportive housing, be it transitional housing – gets there before the winter comes, so we have as much space as possible open,” she said.

In the meantime, Perkins hopes a revised contract will allow the church to staff the warming shelter safely. If the church reaches an agreement with the city, she plans to bring it back to the congregation for another vote.

“Even though it’s a city contract and a secular service, the reality is we do it because of our faith,” she said.

The congregation’s next meeting is scheduled for Sept. 10.

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