Thanks to a last-minute grant proposal, quick actions by city governments and a local high school student’s environmental project, the central Kenai Peninsula is closer than ever to having an emergency cold weather shelter in place this winter.
Leslie Rohr, executive director of Love, INC, and Marnie Alcott, CEO of the Challenger Learning Center, have teamed up in the past month in an effort to establish the Challenger Learning Center as the location of an emergency cold weather shelter, provided that Love, INC receives a grant recently made available through the CARES Act.
Rohr submitted the application for the grant to the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation last Friday. Attached were letters of support from the Kenai City Council, the Soldotna City Council and the Challenger Learning Center.
The grant, if received, would provide the funds needed to hire staff and to lease the Challenger Learning Center from November through March for two winter seasons, Rohr said on Wednesday.
Rohr will know by Sept. 25 if the application has been accepted, but there’s no guarantee that Love, INC will receive all the funds that were requested.
The Emergency Solutions Grant Program makes just over $5 million available for local governments and nonprofits in Alaska — $2 million is directed to rapid rehousing and prevention services, which Love, INC currently provides, while $3 million is set aside for the operation or improvement of emergency shelters.
In the application submitted by Rohr, she requested $400,000 from the first pool of money and $525,000 from the second pool.
Because the funds for these grants are so limited, the letters of support from Kenai and Soldotna will put the application higher on the priority list and increase the chances of Love, INC receiving all of the funds that were requested, Rohr said. If the funds aren’t received, Rohr said she has other potential avenues of funding in mind as a backup.
Falling into place
The partnership between Rohr and Alcott started on Aug. 19 at the awards luncheon for the annual Caring for the Kenai Competition, which challenges local high school students to come up with unique projects that tackle environmental issues in their community and help people prepare for natural disasters. One of the finalists this year, Soldotna High School Sophomore Regan Evans, created a documentary where she spoke to Rohr, local police officers and peninsula residents who have experienced homelessness about the extent of the issue in the community.
Alcott was one of the judges for this year’s competition. She said that, after seeing Evans’ video, she felt compelled to act.
“It’s like, there’s gotta be something we can do,” Alcott said on Wednesday. “We’re sitting here right now with an empty building because we can’t have our school kids in here. And we’ve got dormitory facilities. And so at the awards luncheon we held for the finalists, Leslie was there and I said there’s gotta be something we can do that’s a mutually beneficial arrangement. And she said she was in the middle of writing this grant and asked to meet and talk about it.”
From there, Rohr and Alcott discussed the stipulations of using the Challenger Learning Center as an emergency shelter, as well as the potential issues that could arise.
“A concern of mine was, how can we safely do this while still being able to fulfill some of our mission, as far as having educational programs for the students,” Alcott said. “I can tell you that, talking to her, I just felt really great about the possibility of being able to be a resource, and I came back and talked to the staff following the meeting and it’s like, this just feels good.”
Evans said Thursday that she had never expected her project to lead to this kind of partnership.
“My goal was to show that there was a need for a cold weather shelter or some sort of shelter to happen,” Evans said. “What’s happening now is more than I had ever envisioned, and the people at the Challenger center and Love, INC have been really awesome with getting this going. They deserve a lot of credit, and this was a lot more than I ever intended for my project.”
When she first started working on the project last winter, Evans said one of the challenges was getting people to understand what homelessness and environmental advocacy have to do with one another.
“Caring for the Kenai is kind of an environmental platform, so a lot of people did a double take when I told them my project was on homelessness, because it’s not normally thought of as an environmental issue,” Evans. “I thought of our environment a little differently. It’s not just our trees and plants and animals and all that, our communities are a part of our environment. And when I looked into our community and our environment, I saw that one of our greatest needs was homelessness and the people out there who don’t have a shelter, so my idea was to make a small documentary to help the community realize that there are homeless out there that need our help.”
Evans first met Rohr and learned about Love, INC, while filming her documentary and has been actively volunteering there ever since. Because Evans is home-schooling this year, she is able to work on additional video projects at the nonprofit as part of her curriculum.
“As I got into the project, I realized how little I knew about the homeless. I think I was like most people, where I kind of knew that we had a homeless population but didn’t think much of it. But as I got into it I got to meet people who were homeless and see what was happening to them, and I kind of got into it on a personal level, and it really has changed how I view things.”
Rohr was notified of the Emergency Solutions Grant Program through AHFC on Aug. 7. Sept. 4 was the deadline to submit the grant application. Over the course of August, Rohr and other concerned citizens like Janice Nightingale and Twyla Munday attended city council meetings for Kenai and Soldotna as well as the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly, asking those government bodies to support the project.
The Soldotna City Council and Mayor Pete Sprague agreed to draft a letter of support at their Aug. 26 meeting. The Kenai City Council with Mayor Brian Gabriel followed suit on Sept. 2, just two days before the grant application was due. Rohr said she submitted the application that Friday with about 15 minutes to spare.
The ideal location
One of the biggest challenges that the shelter development work group has faced in the past few years is finding a suitable location, one that was both financially feasible and could meet the building codes required of a shelter.
Several local churches volunteered to open their doors at the beginning of this year, but after discussions with local fire marshals the group realized that most of the churches did not meet the standards required to allow groups of people to stay overnight.
The Challenger Learning Center, however, already has two 19-bed dormitories, lounge rooms, showers, a commercial kitchen and other amenities that are up to code and needed to run a shelter, because student groups and sports teams stay there throughout the year for their educational programs.
“We have to get some inspections done on the building, but you know, we feel great about it,” Alcott said. “It’s funny because Jeremy (Hamilton) the fire marshal called up as soon as he heard about the possibility of this so we could get it done. We also need to have our hood vent cleaned and things like that, but other than that the building is in good shape.”
Alcott said that, as the project moves forward, she would like to see the Challenger Learning Center offer additional services specific to homeless youth on the peninsula that go beyond simply providing them a hot meal, a warm bed and a place to do their school work.
“That’s another piece that we’re super excited about,” Alcott said. “Being able to take a kiddo and say ‘OK, let’s look at where your interests are,’ whether it’s construction, higher education, maritime trades, culinary trades, and then be able to show them the pathways and resources available right here on the Kenai Peninsula and in the state.”
Evans’ documentary on homelessness can be found on youtube by following this link: https://youtu.be/4OO_y3-vCzc
To contribute to a gofundme organized by Evans, with all proceeds going to Love, INC, go here: https://gf.me/u/yn6jw9