Bethel’s Winter House, the place where the town’s homeless can come in out of the cold, will be a lot more than that in the future. Organizers are using CARES Act funding to open a year-round facility to provide the homeless more than a place to sleep and a hot meal.
Jon Cochrane, one of the Winter House board members, says that they are raising money to renovate the old senior center into a permanent center to help homeless people get back on their feet.
Cochrane said that the studies they have done on the old, abandoned senior center say that it will take anywhere from $800,000 to $1.5 million to get the old building back up to code and transformed into permanent homeless housing. It would also be a center to provide a variety of services, including meals for the seniors, and behavioral health services.
“The CARES Act money that we’re using for the renovation at this point is mostly money coming from out of town,” said Cochrane. “Right now, we have a $725,000 grant from the Alaska Community Foundation, which is the bulk of the renovation money that we’ve collected so far. We have a little bit of money from ONC, our local tribe, as well as from Bethel Community Services Foundation. But the bulk of money would be coming from outside of Bethel.”
The old senior center is owned by the city. Cochrane said that the project will have to go through the planning process, but city administrators seem to be supportive of the idea, which will also go before the Bethel City Council for final approval.
“An ordinance has been submitted, which is to be introduced, I believe, at the next council meeting, transferring the building to us. A key part of that ordinance is that if for some reason this program doesn’t work or fails, ownership of the property would revert to the city of Bethel,” said Cochrane.
Meanwhile, Winter House has received a local CARES Act grant to keep operating a shelter through the end of the year. Cochrane said that he expects to use the additional funds to get the new homeless project started, and have a functioning structure by the end of the CARES Act December deadline.
“That may not mean fully renovated, where we would want to see it as a final product, but it would be usable for the remainder of the winter season as a functional homeless shelter while we continue to seek funds to further renovate,” Cochrane said.
The need for a year-round facility for Bethel’s homeless has been discussed by many, and underscored by the COVID-19 pandemic. Winter House board member Anny Cochrane says that the data indicates that there are less calls for local law enforcement when the shelter is operating. She added that a homeless shelter and services can change a person’s life, and that is a year-round job.
“Being able to meet individuals where they are,” said Anny Cochrane, “and get them the treatment that they need so they can go on to be productive members of our community. I think it’s so important, and it just doesn’t end four months out of the year.”
The recent death of a local resident, someone who had been a frequent guest of Winter House, seems to underscore the year-round need for a shelter. His body was found last week, right across the street from the Covenant Church, the place where Winter House was temporarily housed.
“I’m not sure if he was in a vehicle or under a vehicle,” said Jon Cochrane, “but [he] had some sort of a medical issue while he was sleeping, or attempting to get rest, that he passed away. If we had him sheltered at that time, we would have been able to see in time to call for the appropriate medical help, and might have saved that life.”
The Winter House board is raising money to build a year-round shelter for Bethel’s homeless.