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Bethel Homeless Shelter Update: COVID-19 Adds To Stress

The Bethel Winter House, located in the Bethel Evangelical Covenant Church, provides a warm place for people to sleep during the coldest months of the year.
Anna Rose MacArthur

Bethel’s Winter House is hard pressed now, but the city’s homeless shelter is looking forward to opening its new facility the day after Christmas.

The shelter’s biggest challenge is dealing with the pandemic. Board member Adam London reported that about a quarter of their guests have recovered from COVID-19, but one frequent resident has died from the disease.

London said that the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation conducts rapid tests at the shelter weekly, and takes care of the homeless who test positive at the Qavartarvik Hostel near the Bethel hospital.

“It’s actually a pretty nice deal because they house them, feed them, and take care of them,” said London.

The people identified as close contacts are also quarantined by YKHC. London said that some of the homeless are also getting tested at the regular testing station in Bethel, and that can create a problem when they test positive.

“When that happens, there’s a breakdown of communication,” says London. “It’s really up to the individual to say whether or not they‘ve been in the shelter, and we’ve found that not all of them are self-reporting.”

On Nov. 29, tests at the shelter revealed three more people with COVID-19. Winter House doesn’t have good numbers on the total number of homeless who have tested positive, but London said that he and the shelter manager think that about 20 of their regular guests have gotten COVID-19. That’s compared with a nightly count at the shelter that fluctuates between 20 and 50 for meals, and a lower number spending the night.

Even when people test positive at Bethel’s homeless shelter, London said that the information provided on who they have been in close contact with is often incomplete.

“The self-reporting in not working super well. So unfortunately, some of our guests kind of can’t really wrap their minds around that, and they don’t give as comprehensive of a list as probably should be given. That’s why we keep having, I think, COVID cases popping up every week, and I anticipate that will continue happening, unfortunately," London said.

COVID-19 has not decreased the number of people coming for free meals and a night’s sleep at Winter House. London said that the numbers have climbed, with as many as 50 people coming in for the free meal, and an average of 25 spending the night there. That’s compared to the 15 people the shelter would expect to have sleeping over before the pandemic. London said that they recently had 33 people spend the night, a record high at Winter House.

Where these people are coming from has also changed. In the past, Winter House would see people from surrounding villages, but London says that’s not happening as much now.

“We’ve actually had guests move from Anchorage back to Bethel because they don’t want to be in some of those bigger shelters in Anchorage, which is interesting. But also, definitely some folks who, just in hard times, have become homeless within Bethel,” said London.

Winter House has received enough funding to complete the first two stages of its plan to relocate to Bethel’s former senior center and open a year-round facility for Bethel’s homeless. On Dec. 2, the organization announced that they had received a grant for $1 million from the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation.

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that YKHC was housing homeless COVID-19 positive individuals at the sobering center. They are being housed at the Qavartarvik Hostel.

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