A cadet-blue building nestled in Nikiski will open its doors to the Kenai Peninsula’s homeless community next month. The long-awaited shelter — which will be the first of its kind on the peninsula and provide beds for up to 40 people — will also work to connect residents with the resources they need to get back on their feet.
Efforts to establish a cold weather shelter on the peninsula have been in the works for years, with places like the Challenger Learning Center in Kenai and Soldotna Prep School floated as potential shelters. The Nikiski building became available in September and is a former bed and breakfast, fish camp, engineering firm and medical building.
“We didn’t even know it existed,” said Tim Navarre, president of the Kenai Peninsula Foundation. A central fund for homelessness prevention was launched through the foundation earlier this year.
As configured on Monday, the shelter had 22 available beds in 14 rooms, but there are plans to add bunk beds and have room to add cots to the area in the garage if needed. Including the extra cots Navarre said can fit in the shelter’s garage, the building can house up to 40 people. The building also sits on an acre of property, meaning there’s space to expand.
Additionally, the building has six showers including three private showers and bathrooms and one large shower room with stalls, according to an information packet compiled by Nikiski Offices and Lodging. There’s a TV room, a kitchen with appliances, a dining hall, mud room and outdoor area. There is dumpster service in the area, paved parking, outside plug-ins for vehicles, coin-operated washers and dryers and handicap-accessible rooms.
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 that number is expected to be much higher. The figure includes more than 250 homeless youth as reported by the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District.
According to 2019 data collected by the Kenai Peninsula Homelessness Coalition, which has a stated goal of helping homeless individuals and families achieve stability, the coalition was able to place 59 people into emergency lodging, such as a hotel or motel, prevent 649 from becoming homeless via intervention programs, put 300 people into permanent housing and provide services to 376 people.
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.
Most participants — 21% — fell into an “other” category, which includes things like landlord issues, problems with current housing, loss of benefits, loss of home to fire or home not habitable, as the reason for their homelessness. Ninety-one percent of people who participated in the 2021 Project Homeless Connect event said they would use a cold weather shelter if one existed, as reported by the event’s media liaison Jodi Stuart in an April presentation to the Soldotna City Council.
Bridges Community Resource Network, Inc. President Kathy Gensel said they plan to work with local transportation providers to make getting to the facility easier for people not already in Nikiski. She said they’ve heard concerns about the building’s location being too far north or not being located close enough for people to walk to the grocery store.
“We understand that, but we have to start somewhere,” Gensel said. “If we don’t start, we’ll never get anywhere.”
The building was made available as-is, complete with furnishings, fire alarms and carbon monoxide detectors. What isn’t already there, Navarre said, is being provided in part by community members who want to contribute. That includes the building’s former owners, who put in new dishwashers and emergency ladders for the upstairs bedrooms when they knew the building would be used as a shelter.
Gensel said they think word of mouth will help get the information out through the network of people currently experiencing homelessness. But Navarre said they’ll also count on community members to reach out to people they know are struggling.
“They’re aware of families in need of shelter, even today of kids that are either couch surfing, or in some cases in, they’re living in their car with their two young children,” Navarre said. “Those are the type of families we want to get in the family rooms upstairs and accommodate them, and make sure they have a warm and safe Christmas.”
The shelter is the product of large-scale collaboration across the central peninsula. It will be operated with staff and volunteers from Love INC. One meal per day will be provided by the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank and nearby churches will offer opportunities for residents to build community.
Homelessness doesn’t stop when they get to the shelter, however. Love INC Executive Director Leslie Rohr said that the standard duration of someone’s stay at the shelter will be 30 days, after which their situation will be evaluated. In the interim, Rohr said the shelter will work to connect residents with community resources to get them to the next level in their life, whether that be finding stable housing, finding a job, completing an education requirement or connecting with a rehabilitation center.
“(For) people who are actively working their program, connecting with all of the resources and doing the things that they need to do, that could be extended another 30 days,” Rohr said. “People who aren’t interested in making changes kind of move down the priority list because we have so many people in need and we have such a limited housing inventory.”
In determining whether or not someone will be given a room at the shelter, Rohr said they will use a “vulnerability index” as described by their grant by how they provide services under the Continuum of Care. That includes factors such as how long someone has been homeless, whether or not they have young children or whether someone has medical problems, among other things.
“If you (have) a list of 32 people, you take the most vulnerable first,” Rohr said.
Currently, Love INC.’s homeless prevention and permanent housing placement efforts are funded by the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation independently of the actual shelter, which wasn’t acquired until after the AHFC grant had been awarded. Until the next grant period opens on July 1 of 2022, Rohr said they’ll be relying on community support for operating expenses.
The group has already received a $50,000 donation from the estate of George Pollard, who died earlier this year, through the Kasilof Community Church. 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. The building will officially and temporarily be owned by Bridges Community Resource Network, Inc., but will be operated and staffed by Love INC.
Rohr, Navarre and Gensel plan to have a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the shelter — which has not yet been named — next month.
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.