In second vote, church congregation again declines to host Juneau’s emergency shelter

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Deputy City Manager Robert Barr speaks at a Resurrection Lutheran Church congregation meeting on Sunday, Sept. 10, 2023. (Katie Anastas/KTOO)

The congregation of Juneau’s Resurrection Lutheran Church voted against running the city’s emergency cold weather shelter again this winter on Sunday. It’s the second time they’ve voted on the topic this year.

Pastor Karen Perkins said she was “stunned.”

“I really don’t know what the city is going to do,” she said Sunday after the vote.

The congregation first voted on whether to apply to run for the city’s warming shelter in late June. That vote was split 14-14, according to congregation president Karen Lawfer, which meant they didn’t submit a bid to the city. 

Neither did any other organizations in Juneau, so Lawfer called another congregation meeting to reconsider. Deputy City Manager Robert Barr spoke to members of the congregation as they sat in the church’s pews.

“I’ll be frank and blunt,” he told the congregation. “We don’t have a great alternative.”

Before this vote, Barr told the Juneau Assembly that the alternative might be a decommissioned city bus kept idling overnight. It would have 35 seats – space for far fewer people than the 70 who sometimes slept at the church last winter. 

Still, some members of the congregation asked whether other city-owned facilities could house the shelter. 

Barr said the city’s warehouse in Thane wouldn’t work because the city needs it for storage year-round. The part of the Downtown Transit Center not used by the Juneau Police Department isn’t big enough. The Juneau Arts and Culture Center, where St. Vincent de Paul ran the warming shelter during the pandemic, is now used again by the arts organization. 

But that wasn’t enough to convince the congregation. Lawfer said that out of 31 people who voted, seven more voted no than yes.

“I’m really very sad and disheartened,” Lawfer said after the vote.

Lawfer said the first vote was before the city’s deadline for bids. She thinks some people voted no then because they thought another provider would offer to run the warming shelter instead.

“Now that there’s nobody else to do it, I don’t know what they’re thinking,” she said. “I honestly don’t know what they’re thinking.”

Lawfer said that Resurrection Lutheran’s warming shelter setup was “not perfect, but it did work.” She’d been optimistic that the church and the city could come to an agreement on the number of staff needed to safely run it again. 

Now, she’s not sure what will happen next for the people who relied on the warming shelter.

“I’ll be walking down the street and they’ll stop – or the police will stop – and go, ‘What are these people going to do?’ People ask me, ‘What am I going to do?’ and I don’t have an answer for them now,” she said.

In an interview Monday morning, Barr said the bus is still the last-ditch option. He said he’s meeting with other local providers this week to discuss alternatives, but those providers still lack a large enough space for the shelter.

Perkins, the pastor, worries people will die without an adequate warming shelter space. Anchorage has already broken its record for the number of outdoor deaths in a year.

She said through tears that she’s proud of the way her church ran the warming shelter. 

“I think it was good for the community. I think it was good for these people that I’ve come to know and love, and who quite frankly are starting to come to church here because they know they’re not going to get judged,” she said. “They trust some of us. And it takes years for people on the street to trust you.”

The Glory Hall’s 55 emergency shelter beds are full. So are their permanent supportive housing units. The city’s seasonal Mill Campground is scheduled to close on Oct. 16.

“I have to trust that God is present, and God will do something,” Perkins said. “God will do something in and among us. Maybe it will be something great that I can’t imagine. Just because my imagination doesn’t capture it, doesn’t mean God can’t do something great.”

She said she believed God was working among her congregation, and she would have to trust in that.

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