Public safety and transportation were among the key concerns Nikiski residents raised during a town hall meeting held Wednesday night to share information about a new cold weather shelter opening in the community.
State House Rep. Ben Carpenter, who represents Nikiski, facilitated the meeting, which he said he organized after receiving questions about the shelter from constituents. Leslie Rohr, executive director of Love INC of the Kenai Peninsula, fielded questions for about two hours from an audience of roughly 100 attendees.
The shelter, which Rohr told the audience the organization would like to see open before the end of the year, will officially and temporarily be owned by Bridges Community Resource Network, Inc., but will be operated and staffed by Love INC. It’s located off the Kenai Spur Highway in Nikiski and has been years in the making.
Data gathered from previous homelessness outreach events, such as Project Homeless Connect, demonstrate a need for such a shelter on the peninsula. A rough estimate puts the total number of people experiencing homelessness on the peninsula to be about 875 people, but the actual number is expected to be much higher. The figure includes more than 250 homeless youth as reported by the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District.
Those who spoke in opposition to the shelter Wednesday said they didn’t want to see crime and drug use go up in the community, while those in support said the shelter was an overdue community need that would help address programs already going on in Nikiski. Many questioned why the shelter was being put in Nikiski.
“Why an emergency shelter? Because we want to save lives. Why in Nikiski? Because that’s where the opportunity presented itself,” Rohr said.
Some community members said they weren’t made aware that the shelter would be coming to the area and that they would have liked to have had a say. Carpenter pointed out the lack of zoning in Nikiski, which is unincorporated borough land.
“This is not a government entity doing this,” Carpenter said. “It is a private entity. It is no different than a private business, buying a piece of land. There’s no zoning here.”
Allison Bushnell, who works in housing intake for Love INC, shared her experience with shelter living with attendees Wednesday. Bushnell said that both of her parents struggled with substance abuse after her brother died in a bicycle accident. She and her sister split time between two shelters, including Love INC’s Family Hope Center at the Merit Inn in Kenai, after her parents separated. Bushnell said both of her parents were able to obtain stable housing and employment and have been in recovery for over 10 years.
“Not only did Love INC providing safe, stable shelter change the course of my life, but it also helped my dad achieve sobriety,” Bushnell told attendees Wednesday.
Wenda Kennedy owns the Nikiski Village Mobile Home Park located less than 1 mile from the shelter. She attended the town hall meeting on Wednesday and told Rohr she’s worried that shelter residents will steal from her tenants. Kennedy told the Clarion on Thursday that while she wants the shelter to be successful, she’s concerned about supervision and whether it will put further pressure on already strained resources. She, like others in attendance Wednesday, is concerned about the lack of police and trooper presence in Nikiski, noting that it can sometimes take troopers 45 minutes to reach Nikiski after being called.
“We have to solve problems on our own,” Kennedy said Thursday.
Rohr answered several questions about how security will work at the facility during the meeting Wednesday. There will be at least two staff at the 22-bed facility at all times, in addition to security cameras and alarm systems. All residents will be screened prior to entry and will not be allowed to leave the building after 10 p.m. People with a history of violent crimes or crimes against children will not be allowed to stay at the shelter.
Multiple people who spoke drew from memories of the Merit Inn in Kenai, where Love INC operated the Family Hope Center for about four and a half years. “One audience member called it a “drug den,” while another noted the frequent 911 calls.” Rohr conceded that drug use occurred in the facility and that it saw frequent 911 calls, but noted that when the facility closed the same behavior just became more spread out.
“After the Merit Inn closed, those numbers didn’t go down drastically,” Rohr said. “They were just dispersed all over the community.”
Another difference between the two facilities, Rohr said, is that where the Merit Inn had more than 100 beds, the new facility is insured for 22.
“I caution you, please, please do not look at the Merit Inn as the downfall of the community and (why) we should avoid providing service to the homeless population, because over 975 individuals went through that program,” Rohr said.
In the event that someone is found to be using drugs while at the facility, she said, it does not necessarily mean that they will immediately be put out on the street. Rather, Rohr said Love INC will work to connect the resident with treatment options, such as placement into a detox or treatment center.
In addition to having a no alcohol or drug policy, Rohr said the shelter has a 30-day time frame in mind. If someone is not showing progress after 30 days, she said, the spot will be given to someone else.
Data from the 2019 Project Homeless Connect event show that nearly one in five program participants reported experiencing homelessness due to the loss of a job. That’s compared to 15% who cited illness or injury as their primary reason for homelessness, 14% who said domestic violence and 4% who cited substance abuse.
Other audience members were concerned about long-term revenue sources for the shelter.
Love INC has already received a $50,000 donation from the estate of George Pollard through the Kasilof Community Church for the shelter, as well as an anonymous $54,000 donation. Rohr estimates the facility will cost between $12,000 and $15,000 per month to operate. The building was purchased as-is for $360,000, half of which was covered by grants from the Rasmuson Foundation and Cook Inlet Region Inc., or CIRI.
Rohr said Wednesday that while she will continue to apply for grants, moving forward they’d like the shelter to be supported in part by the community. She said that 42% of the people served through Love INC already live in Nikiski.
As it relates to transportation, Rohr said Love INC has partnered with Central Area Rural Transit System (CARTS), Alaska Cab and churches who have said they will help with transportation to the shelter. Rohr said she’s also put in a grant that would be used to buy a 15-passenger van.
Peninsula Community Health Services CEO Ben Wright told the group Wednesday that PCHS will offer $10,000 worth of tokens for Alaska Cab to bring people to PCHS for services.
By the end of the nearly two-hour meeting, some audience members said their perspectives on the shelter had changed.
April Hall, a pastor at North Star United Methodist Church and Kenai United Methodist Church, pushed back on the idea that people using the shelter are “bad” and underscored a Christian call to help people in need.
“When God calls something good to a place, the devil is usually there,” Hall said. “I’m going to tell him to flee because our church is less than a half a mile from there, and I’m not worried about anything. We will help you in the best way that we can and I hope that our community will stand up … I just say, Amen. It’s about time. Let’s get the show on the road because it’s so overdue.”
People interested in learning more about the shelter or who want to read the coalition’s draft strategic plan can visit kenaipeninsulahomeless.org. People interested in applying to volunteer at the shelter can reach out to Love INC. at 907-262-5140.
Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at email@example.com.