Bethel Winter House, the city’s only homeless shelter, has shut its doors. Despite the city council voting to give the organization $60,000 of the city’s $8.4 million of federal CARES Act funding to keep it open throughout the summer, the shelter closed on May 30 because it no longer has a space to operate in.
Winter House usually leases space from the Bethel Evangelical Covenant Church. The church extended the lease an extra three months because of the pandemic, but decided not to continue past May.
Pastor Adam London said that the reason the church decided to temporarily walk away from Bethel Winter House is partly because of the amount of work it takes.
“We bit off more than we could chew,” London said.
London and the church were offering three meals a day, counseling services, and showers on top of overnight lodging. Because of this, London says that he was employing around 15 staff for the shelter. The church also experienced some vandalism. London said that the front door lock was broken, skirting was torn off the side of the building, and wires were ripped out of the boiler system.
“We’re not punishing the homeless population because of this,” London said. “It’s just, we were not prepared for the cost.”
He said that the church still plans to house the shelter this winter, and if an outbreak occurs in Bethel, he says that Winter House would reopen at the church before the cold season. But the shelter's President, Jon Cochrane, says that even now, there’s an urgent need for a homeless shelter in Bethel.
“Not just for sleeping, but for food security and for basic hygiene. For being able to wash hands; for being able to get them sanitized masks,” Cochrane said.
Cochrane says that a scaled down Winter House could require only three or four staff. The city is still prepared to give Winter House funds to stay open through the summer, but only if they have a facility to operate in. Cochrane said that not many properties in Bethel could house as many as 40 people a night with 6-foot spacing.
Looking beyond the pandemic, Anny Cochrane, another board member, wants to create a permanent full-time homeless shelter. She says that a full-time shelter would help its guests escape homelessness.
“I know that sometimes people look at homelessness as being chronic, but we found that that's not always the case,” Anny said.
At her job with the Alaska Department of Labor, Anny says that she's seen at least 25 shelter guests go on to find a job over the past year alone.
Jeremy Lee is a former Bethel Winter House guest. After arriving in Bethel from Nunapitchuk a few years ago, Lee found himself sleeping in abandoned cars.
“I didn’t know where to go. I struggled for a long time living outside in abandoned places,” Lee said. “You know, it’s the most embarrassing feeling in the world.”
Then he heard about Bethel Winter House, a warm, dry place to sleep. He says that thanks to having his basic needs met, he was able to find a job at Swanson’s bagging groceries. He stayed at Winter House while he worked, saving up, and now he’s renting his own place, and still has his job as a clerk at Swanson’s.
“There is hope. There is hope. There is positive hope,” Lee said.
Lee knows that not every guest of Winter House has the same success story he does. He says that alcohol plays a factor in most of the town's homelessness, and for him as well. He’s heard some people argue that a homeless shelter enables alcoholism, and he acknowledges that can be true for some people. But on the other hand, he’s seen Bethel Winter House literally save lives, including his own.
“That's what I think outweighs everything,” Lee said. “Someone stayed alive. Someone still has the chance to live.”
London wants to thank the community for its donations and help while the Winter House was extended this spring. Jon and Anny Cochrane say that if anyone wants to help, the Bethel Winter House can always use extra hands.