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Bethel’s new supportive housing will help stabilize the lives of dozens who’ve been chronically homeless

Sunlight streamed in through the second-story window of a bright little studio apartment in the new Atsaq Place building.

“I will say I think this is now the best view in all of Bethel. I think we are one of the highest buildings,” said Jaela Milford, executive director of Bethel Winter House, the city’s emergency overnight housing shelter. She’s also now the executive director of the community’s permanent supportive housing project, Atsaq Place, which is connected by a breezeway to the shelter. From the vantage point, we could see small planes landing at the airport, 2.5 miles away.

“We're essentially at horizon level. And so you can see for miles right now, which makes this a pretty cool, pretty neat view. And you do get a lot of sunlight in these rooms because of that, which will be great for individuals that live here,” Milford said.

Each of the 24 studio apartments has a kitchen with full-size appliances, basic furniture, and a private bathroom. The bathrooms are stocked with products; there are laundry supplies in the closet and a cup full of cooking utensils on the counters. Cupboards and drawers hold other kitchenware.

“The people moving into these apartments haven't lived somewhere stable in most likely years,” Milford said. “So we're trying to start them off with a baseline of everything you possibly need. And then we're going to work with them there to get any resources they might be missing.”

Susan Murphy was one of the first volunteers and supporters of Bethel Winter House. After she retired from the Lower Kuskokwim School District, she began volunteering at the Catholic Church.

The doors of the Atsaq Place Permanent Supportive Housing building opened to the community of Bethel for the first time on March 11, 2024.
MaryCait Dolan / KYUK
The doors of the Atsaq Place Permanent Supportive Housing building opened to the community of Bethel for the first time on March 11, 2024.

“Until that time I, like most of the people in Bethel, did not realize that there were homeless people in Bethel,” Murphy said at a ribbon-cutting event for the new Atsaq Place Permanent Supportive Housing building on March 11. “I saw them on the street, but I really didn't see them.”

The idea behind permanent supportive housing projects is that people need stable housing to be able to stabilize other parts of their lives.

“If you don't have a place to stay, it's difficult to find work. It's difficult to find a place to go home and just relax. So this has been a dream of mine for a long time,” Murphy said.

With a reliable and safe place to live, calls to police, emergency medical services, and community crisis resources drop. People are healthier when they have a permanent place to live.

The “supportive” aspect of permanent supportive housing is important as well. Individuals who have been living day-to-day on streets, in shelters, or in other unstable housing situations often need extra help setting up appointments and accessing services or support groups. That’s been a frustration of the Bethel Winter House’s board, said board president Sharon Chakuchin.

“By the end of the season, sometimes a person is as close to supportive housing that we've been able to give them,” Chakuchin said. “So by March, sometimes they look like they know which end is up, you know, they've been having a place to stay. And then the Winter House closes because winter is over. And it's so impossible to keep it up.”

The new permanent supportive housing was constructed to be able to share resources with Bethel Winter House. The buildings share an entrance and an elevator, and supportive housing residents will be able to do laundry in the Winter House facilities.

Bethel’s new permanent supportive housing is one of the first of its kind in rural Alaska, along with a 15-unit project in Nome that’s in its final stages as well.

Andy Petroni, with the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation, told attendees at the ribbon-cutting that’s not the only way the building is unique.

“Through Alaska Housing’s work with [The United States Department of Housing and Urban Developent] to get our plan over the line a lot faster than they probably wanted us to and then getting these projects funded, this is the first HOME-ARP – American Rescue Plan – project completed in the country,” Patrone said.

Michelle DeWitt, the executive director for Bethel Community Services Foundation and a project lead, pointed out that the work has been ongoing and collaborative.

DeWitt explained that the project pulled together resources from across the nation, including federal funding funneled through state housing authorities and a major in-kind donation from the City of Bethel: land, valued at over $700,000, as well as donated water and sewer services for the facility.

Bethel Vice-Mayor Sophie Swope said that it’s a priority for Bethel’s government to support.

“Housing is such an important fundamental right for everybody to have,” Swope said. “And it's only onward and upward from when they have that housing.”

Including in-kind donations, DeWitt said that the project cost around $7.8 million. That’s incredibly cheap for a quick-turn, bush Alaska building project that broke ground less than a year ago.

DeWitt attributed much of the speed to the local contractors – Brian Glasheen and Alex Wasierski.

Glasheen said that he feels fortunate to have worked on a project that will give back to Bethel, and that he couldn’t be more pleased with the outcome. “We are incredibly proud to be a part of the project that will improve the lives of so many in the Yukon-Kuskokwim region,” he said.

Community members and project stakeholders smile at the Grand Opening ceremony for Bethel's new Permanent Supportive Housing building, Atsaq Place. March 11, 2024.
MaryCait Dolan / KYUK
Community members and project stakeholders smile at the grand opening ceremony for Bethel's new Permanent Supportive Housing building, Atsaq Place. March 11, 2024.

Dozens of project partners and community members crammed into the common area and breezeway of the new permanent supportive housing building for the ribbon-cutting. Winter House board vice-president Eva Malvich sliced through the royal purple ribbon.

“Here’s to Bethel and everything that we did together,” Malvich said, bearing down on the oversized scissors.

Bethel’s point-in-time count from this year, a nationwide survey of homelessness on a specific day, surveyed 80 people experiencing housing instability on Jan. 30, as the temperatures dropped to below -20F. Almost all of them were looking for a permanent place to live, and the majority were looking for somewhere in Bethel.

“Twenty-four individuals will be able to have a home for the first time in most likely years,” Milford said, looking out over the sunny tundra.

“Most of them will come directly from the shelter. So our daily shelter numbers will decrease because they are in an actual apartment. And these individuals will finally have a place to live that they don't have to be asked to leave,” Milford said.

Over the coming weeks, the rooms in Atsaq Place will slowly fill with residents. Some may spend the rest of their lives in their apartments – and that’s the point. It’ll be their home for as long as they need.

Corrected: April 4, 2024 at 8:56 AM AKDT
This article has been updated to correct two spellings of names and titles.
Sage Smiley is KYUK's news director.
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