Members of the Emergency Cold-Weather Shelter Workgroup meet at the Independent Living Center in Kalifornsky, Alaska on Dec. 17, 2019. (Photo by Brian Mazurek/Peninsula Clarion)

Members of the Emergency Cold-Weather Shelter Workgroup meet at the Independent Living Center in Kalifornsky, Alaska on Dec. 17, 2019. (Photo by Brian Mazurek/Peninsula Clarion)

Emergency cold weather shelter still without home

Alaska Housing Finance Corporation rejected a grant application to support the proposed project

As Alaska approaches the winter months, the ongoing effort to establish an emergency cold weather shelter on the Kenai Peninsula is back to square one after being rejected for a grant from the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation.

In a Zoom meeting on Thursday morning with members of the Shelter Development Workgroup, Leslie Rohr, executive director of Love, INC., broke the bad news about the grant to those who were in attendance.

Last month, Rohr applied for AHFC’s Emergency Solutions Grant program, which the Corporation made available for projects that deal with homelessness in communities around Alaska. If received, the money would have been used to establish and operate a cold weather shelter somewhere on the Kenai Peninsula.

Of the 13 applicants, Rohr said, seven received funds, and Love, INC. was not one of them. Rohr listed the different agencies that received the funds and said she was glad they were able to receive assistance.

“Those are all worthy projects, and we will try again next time,” Rohr said. “I know it was a difficult decision to make, but it doesn’t help us open a shelter.”

At the same time that Rohr was applying for the AHFC grant, the Challenger Learning Center in Kenai was brought up as a potential location for the shelter.

Following discussions between the City of Kenai and the Challenger Center’s Board of Directors, however, Rohr said that the Center would only agree to operate as a cold weather shelter if it was meant exclusively for unaccompanied homeless children that are enrolled in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District’s Students in Transition Program.

The shelter work group estimated that, at most, 10 kids would use the shelter on any given night. At a cost of $300 per night for one of the Challenger Center’s dorms, and with no grant funding from AHFC coming this winter, that option is no longer as feasible as the group had initially hoped.

The group was visibly discouraged by the news about the grant and the Challenger Center, and decided it would be best to refocus their efforts on identifying a suitable location, finding alternative funding and training more volunteers.

“Are there no revenue sources that understand the crisis we’re about to face?” Karen Martin Tichenor, pastor of Soldotna United Methodist Church, said during the meeting.

Rohr said that the City of Soldotna has been sensitive to the issue, and she is planning on submitting a “wish list” of the different supplies needed to operate the shelter to city council member Justin Ruffridge.

Ruffridge told the Clarion Tuesday that he reached out to Rohr wondering how the city could use its remaining CARES Act funds to assist in the effort to have a cold-weather shelter in the area.

“We’re just trying to work on using the CARES funding to help out our nonprofits in whatever way possible,” Ruffridge said. “People are going to continue experiencing negative outcomes because of this pandemic.”

Ruffridge said that, if Rohr can send him an itemized list, an estimated cost and a brief narrative on how the funds would be used by the end of the year, he would present the funding request as a resolution at the next Soldotna City Council meeting on Oct. 28.

John Czarnezki, director of Economic Development and Planning for the City of Soldotna, noted during the Zoom meeting that there must be a connection made to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic in order for grant funds to be distributed.

As far as possible locations, Rohr has been in talks recently with the Kenai Peninsula Borough about the potential use of the Soldotna Prep School, and Peninsula Grace Church on Kalifornsky Beach Road was also mentioned as a possible location.

Winter is fast approaching, and while temperatures have not reached below 20 degrees Fahrenheit — which would be the target temperature for opening the shelter — the area is expected to reach below-freezing temperatures several days this week, according to the National Weather Service. Rohr said that she has seen a “steady stream” of unhoused people come through the doors of Love, INC. in the past two weeks and has identified about 120 people on the peninsula through Love, INC. who either live in the woods or in cars. That number includes many family groups, Rohr said.

Rohr has also seen the negative consequences of sleeping outside when the temperature is below freezing. Three Love, INC. clients, including one who is a veteran, had to undergo amputation due to frostbite last year, Rohr said.

Below is a documentary by Regan Evans, a student at Soldotna High School, about homelessness on the Kenai Peninsula.

Despite the current roadblocks, the work group also discussed training additional volunteers in how to run the overnight shelter, which includes CPR and trauma-informed care.

Jodi Stuart, a probation parole officer with the Department of Corrections, helped train the first round of volunteers, and she offered her services once more during the Thursday meeting.

Stuart said that she plans to incorporate an additional training module on trauma-informed care specific to Alaska Native populations into future training sessions, which the group agreed would be a good addition to the training program.

No dates for volunteer training were established, but the work group plans to meet again virtually on Oct. 29 to discuss any updates from the borough or the City of Soldotna.

To contribute to the effort to establish a cold-weather shelter on the peninsula, follow this link to the GoFundMe associated with Evans’ video: https://gf.me/u/yn6jw5

Reach reporter Brian Mazurek at bmazurek@peninsulaclarion.com.

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