Stakeholders and community members gathered Friday in Nikiski to celebrate the opening and early success of the Nikiski Shelter of Hope — a new shelter serving the Kenai Peninsula’s homeless community.
The 22-bed shelter, the first of its kind on the Kenai Peninsula, officially opened at the end of December 2021 and welcomed its first resident on Dec. 27. The cadet-blue building, located off the Kenai Spur Highway in Nikiski, became available last September and opened its doors less than 90 days later.
The people who made the shelter possible gathered for the ceremony to cut the ribbon across the shelter’s threshold.
Love INC Executive Director Leslie Rohr, who helped get the shelter up and running and now oversees its operations, thanked Love INC’s board of directors and local law enforcement for their support throughout the process.
“This is a culmination of many years of planning and a lot of conversations,” Rohr said. “To see it come to fruition is pretty amazing.”
The building was purchased last September for about $360,000, half of which was covered by grants from the Rasmuson Foundation and Cook Inlet Region Inc., or CIRI. The building is officially owned by Bridges Community Resource Network, Inc. but is operated and staffed by Love INC.
Bridges President Kathy Gensel said Friday that the shelter is “just the start” of the Kenai Peninsula Homelessness Coalition’s plans to tackle homelessness. The Kenai Peninsula Homelessness Coalition is a subset of the Kenai Peninsula Continuum of Care, which acts as the coalition’s funding arm.
“We’re excited to be a part of the solution for homelessness,” Gensel told attendees. “This is just the start. The Homeless Coalition — we have grand plans. We are the Kenai Peninsula homelessness coalition, so we’re talking all over the peninsula, not just on the central peninsula.”
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.
Cook Inlet Region, Inc. President and CEO Sophie Minich, who flew in for the ceremony, said CIRI partnered with the Cook Inlet Tribal Council to help administer the corporation’s federal CARES Act COVID-19 relief funds. Minich took time to thank the original Alaska Native people who took care of the land on which the shelter rests and said she was excited to learn they could contribute funds to the project.
“It’s truly our honor to be here today and to help celebrate this wonderful new asset in the community and to help our fellow members of the community when they’re needing our help the most,” Minich said.
Also present at Friday’s ceremony was Greg Meyer, the executive director of the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank. Meyer delivers food to the shelter every Thursday and said he’s witnessed firsthand residents who, upon leaving the shelter, set themselves up with the food bank as they began living independently.
“It was such an awesome thing because we’re providing these wraparound services here,” Meyer said. “They’re not just here for a while, they’re learning how to navigate and move towards independence.”
Mike Navarre, who serves on the board of the Rasmuson Foundation, said the shelter is exactly the type of project the foundation likes to support and that he and other board members have long pushed for the foundation to support homelessness initiatives beyond the Anchorage area.
“This was a great project,” Mike Navarre said. “We’re happy to be part of this and we’ll be there in the next steps also. It is incredibly important. It’s an asset to the community, as are all of you who put so much time and effort into this great achievement.”
More information about the Kenai Peninsula Homelessness Coalition’s efforts to end homelessness on the Kenai Peninsula can be found at kenaipeninsulahomeless.org.