Public Media for Alaska's Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Listen: Bethel’s emergency housing shelter closes for the summer

Bethel Winter House is located in the old Senior Center building on Atsaq Street.
Gabby Hiestand Salgado
Bethel Winter House is located in the old Senior Center building on Atsaq Street.

Bethel Winter House, the local emergency winter housing shelter, closed on April 30. It was open for seven months, beginning October 1. But while Winter House is shuttered, the new Atsaq Place Permanent Supportive Housing project is just getting started.

Winter House Executive Director Jaela Milford sat down with KYUK’s Sage Smiley on morning show Coffee @ KYUK to discuss the end of the Winter House season, Permanent Supportive Housing, and what’s next.

Find a rough transcript of the conversation below. The transcript has been lightly edited for reading clarity and flow, but may contain errors.

KYUK (Sage Smiley): Thanks so much for being here with us today. We're really excited to hear about the Winter House season.

Jaela Milford: Of course, thank you for having me.

KYUK: And we've both got our coffee. Hope everyone listening has yours. So to start out, in case anyone doesn't know, what is Winter House, what does it do?

Milford: Yeah of course. Bethel Winter House is the nonprofit, the emergency homeless shelter. We operate from October 1 to April 30. And that is a full seven months where we are open 11 hours nightly. So we opened our doors at 8 p.m. And then we offer a meal, a place to sleep, shower, laundry services, and then a limited breakfast in the morning before everyone leaves at 7 a.m. So our season has come to an official end. We had our last overnight last night. And then we asked everyone to leave this morning at 7:00 for the last time until next October.

KYUK: How is that transition? I know it happens every year. But that seems like kind of an abrupt end to just, you know, you have this seven-month period where you're seeing potentially some similar people on many nights. And then what does that transition feel like as the executive director?

Milford: It is an abrupt one, I will say that. I do say – I do give them plenty of warning, about a month out, I'll let them know we're closing as always on April 30. Everyone must be out by May 1 – all their items, all their storage, anything they stored in the shelter, any clothes, anything. We do have some lockers and some cubby spaces, but anything you've stored, it must leave the shelter. So that's a reminder for anybody out there. If anybody has stored anything at the shelter recently, you need to come grab it, because it will disappear in about a week. The whole shelter will be cleaned out for the next season. And we'll do a whole restart. So if anybody has anything come by.

KYUK: If we're to talk about a season summary, you know, at the beginning of this season, we talked a bit about the fact that the numbers were trending higher, and we weren't really sure why that was happening. How, now that we're at the end, did this season of Winter House compare to other years?

Milford: Yeah, as we discussed earlier in the year, the numbers had increased and continue to increase. We have shown almost double of what we received last year. So last year, we had around 258 individuals, we have now surpassed 475. So we are almost doubling on what we served our last season, just in these last seven months. Which was a huge difference. We weren't expecting that coming into it. And we didn't expect the nightly average to be so high. Where before we were having maybe 32, 33 at the most we got up to 50, 55 regularly. And then our highest number – our highest evening was in January and we had 61 individuals in the shelter, which is crazy. Yeah.

KYUK: So how do you – are there programs, I mean, to kind of maintain contact with these people? Where are they going when Winter House isn’t open? Obviously the need for an emergency warming shelter is lessened in the summer, but people still need a place to sleep. So what happens, where are these people going?

Milford: Combination of places. There is no set, safe place for them. Unfortunately, there is none. And there's not another shelter, there's not another place they can spend overnight each night. You'll see a lot of them in cars, you'll see a lot of them in tents around the river. You'll see them a lot with friends and family, they’ll be spending time couch hopping, and sometimes you'll see them walking around all through the night because there's nothing else to do. Those 475 people aren’t gonna disappear just because Winter House isn't open, they're still gonna be around. They'll still be in the community. So just be aware of that and offer help, if you can, to anybody that needs shelter.

KYUK: So what resources do exist? Are there programs through Winter House or other organizations that help support people even though Winter House isn't around for overnight shelter?

Milford: We – Winter House emergency shelter operates very limitedly during the summer. We try to offer meal, shower and laundry times just to help people maintain good hygiene and good health in the summer. Because of limited funding, we're not able to do that regularly. So it will be on a day-by-day, week-by-week basis. And we will be announcing probably through Facebook or even the Tundra Drums [on KYUK]. And so yes, we will offer some very limited services during the summer at the shelter.

While the emergency shelter is closed, the apartments next door to the shelter are currently almost operational, and we hope to have occupancy in the next couple of weeks, we just got to figure out some bureaucratic stuff. And so that will still be functioning as a normal apartment complex that is year-round. And so while the emergency shelter is closed, I will be focusing on the apartments, to hopefully house 24 chronic homeless people that were maybe just in the shelter that we can get them a permanent home.

KYUK: So that was going to be another one of my questions. Obviously, the cessation of operation of an overnight shelter every night changes your workflow a lot. But unlike other years, Permanent Supportive Housing just opened up. So what are you looking forward to? Like? What are you kind of shifting your focus to now that Winter House is closing?

Milford: Yeah, so for the first time ever, I'm not just focusing on the emergency, emergent need of housing, I'm actually focusing on the long-term stability of housing. And so it is a very awesome transition to be working with these 24 individuals to try to get them set up into a place where they are sustainable and thriving, instead of homeless on the streets.

KYUK: So where is that in process? Atsaq Place had its ribbon cutting pretty recently. And so where is that in terms of people being in the apartments, or people getting their paperwork done to get into those apartments?

Milford: All the paperwork – paperwork is being processed. As we speak, we already have a couple half, almost a dozen, if not more individuals through the process, we are finding out that there's a lot of background stuff that we just aren't really aware of that's taking more time. Like, example: a lot of these individuals no longer have access to their social security cards, so they no longer can prove, technically, that they are an American citizen. So in order to receive a federal voucher, you need to have your social security card. And so we are going through that process with many individuals to try to receive their cards. But sometimes the federal government takes up to 10 weeks to return it. So that is unfortunately 10 weeks they have to wait, because they can't continue the application process until they've been confirmed as a U.S. citizen.

So we're working on it. So it's a very, unfortunately, slower process than we wanted, a bit more convoluted. And so we have more than a dozen people already through the process and like going and like slowly making their way through. And so as soon as we get that, go ahead and that go ahead from our inspection people, we will occupy as soon as possible. So hopefully, end of next week. That’s my goal. Yeah.

KYUK: That's very exciting. And is the plan still to kind of have waves of people – so like a first group, and then get them settled, and next group, get them settled?

Milford: Yeah. Especially because of how long the application process is taking to actually be accepted. There will definitely be set waves of individuals. Probably for the first two weeks, I'll take an individual a day at a time and try to get them settled and work around their schedules and stuff like that. Yeah.

KYUK: In addition to the Permanent Supportive Housing, and that workflow, I'm sure there's a lot of prep, even starting now, the day that Winter House is closed into grant reporting or preparing for next year. So how does that work? How does the offseason help you prepare for Winter House next year?

Milford: Yeah, I need an offseason right now in order to gather and scramble for all that funding that I need for the next season. Grants start coming out usually around February of the next year. And so like I've already gotten grants, already processing grants for the next year. So by Winter House closing, it really allows me to put my focus on getting all that needed funding and more community partnership so I can continue to operate or possibly even expand operations in the next season.

KYUK: What would it take for Winter House to expand operations?

Milford: Cliche, but funding. Money. Right now we are tightly operating at seven months for 11 hours nightly. The ultimate goal of the Bethel Winter House is to become a 24-hour shelter. That of course, is a long ways away because we are only at 11 hours. But a good start would be to extend the existing 11 hours during those seven months. So I wouldn't have to ask you to leave at 7 a.m. when it's still very cold out. And so, first step would be to extend the hours, the existing hours in order to cover those, like safety concerns. And then we'll just build from there.

KYUK: And that would involve, paying for staff, paying for –?

Milford: Yeah, it all comes down to unfortunately, it all just comes down to salaries and employees, like you need the funding to hire the people. And it's really hard to find that operational money from grants, they're always very interested in direct service and programs. But it's hard to run programs when you don't have any operational funds. And so we're still working, we're still trying.

We did get a wonderful surprise of the [Sen. Lisa] Murkowski appropriation of $300,000. That was amazing. And that is directly meant for casework in the region. And so hopefully this summer, I believe the grant starts at the end of the summer. Hopefully, we'll start building something in order to start either that prevention or that stabilization. So we're not just focusing on the emergency need. Which is always important, but it would be awesome if we had some solutions or some, like a plan on how to help these people.

KYUK: As you're looking at the end of the Winter House season this year, were there any surprises, big things that made it stand out in terms of the way that it compares to other seasons?

Milford: The sheer number of individuals we had nightly. It was not occasionally we would hit 55. It was: for a whole week we had at least 55 or more. It was the amount of individuals, and the amount of new people I would get. I usually get over five – right now it's about five because the season is ending. So I usually get around five people a week that are new that I've never seen before. In peak season, in you know, December, January, it was 10 to 15 a week that I had never seen before. So it was the sheer number that we were and not our usual population. It's something there, as we know, it's very expensive out here and things are changing. And we are seeing a direct result of that in the emergency shelter. We are seeing a greater number just because of how expensive and how lack such lack of housing there is.

KYUK: So if I'm understanding correctly, there are people that are using Winter House’s services – there were more, and they were coming from places that they don't normally come from or populations that aren't using Winter House as much.

Milford: Yeah. So part of Winter House, what we do, is what we do and the reason we know that number is because we do intakes and daily attendance. So the intakes, we ask them, ‘Where are you from and where have you lived in the last year?’ A lot of people are from the Y-K region, not just Bethel. But a lot – more than 60% of individuals have lived in Bethel the last year they tried to make it work here, they tried to find that job. They've tried to find that house. And there's just such a lack here that they unfortunately ended up at the shelter. So I'm finding in a lot of the a lot of the reasons that people gave was overcrowding, there just was not enough room in their place of residency or where they are currently staying or where they're currently couch hopping. There just wasn't enough room for them that night. And that's why they came to Winter House. And that comes in with like medical appointments — just wasn't enough room. Had to visit family for a funeral, wasn't enough room. So they came to Winter House. So like what I think the increase in Winter House numbers is a combination of need. And we are established and people know that we are a safe place for people to go. And then they can use our resources as they need it. So which is awesome.

KYUK: Is there anything we haven't touched on about as we're wrapping up the Winter House season and for the first time looking forward to this first push of Permanent Supportive Housing, is there anything we haven't touched on that you want to make sure that we talk about?

Milford: I just want to remind everyone that while Bethel Winter House’s mission is to serve the homeless population in the Bethel and the Y-K region, we are also open for other community members. So when, this summer, we open our doors just for limited hours for laundry and showers – if you are in need, if you are in need and you don't consider yourself homeless, still come by. We'd love to see you. We'd love to serve you. We want the whole community to be involved in this. These are your friends and family that are currently suffering from homelessness and we want to work together with the community in order to stabilize them. So any help or any ideas in that regard would be awesome. And just a little side note on the Atsaq Place. If anybody has any life skills they want to teach anybody, I would love to set up some classes for the individuals in the apartments just to get them those skills that might have been lost or forgotten after they've been living without a home for so long. So let me know.

KYUK: Awesome, thank you so much. The closure of Winter House often coincides with breakup. So my final question is, what is your breakup guess for this year?

Milford: I'm not good at this. I do not usually put money down because I'm so bad at it. If I had to put a guess I would say May 11.

KYUK: All right.

Milford: Yeah. Total guess.

KYUK: Well, thank you so much for sharing your time and congratulations on another Winter House season. It's a big community effort that brings Winter House into existence and keeps it going all season.

Milford: Absolutely.

KYUK: Thank you.

Milford: Yep. Thank you for having me. And if you have anything at the Winter House, please pick it up in the next seven days, thank you!

Sage Smiley is KYUK's news director.