Bethel's homeless shelter Bethel Winter House opened earlier this week, providing relief from the cold to Bethel’s many in need. This is what it was like on Wednesday night:
Around dinner time, Major Lonnie Upshaw checks a large convection oven.
“I’m serving lasagna, and chicken alfredo pasta with rolls tonight," Upshaw said.
Upshaw, who has been with the Salvation Army for 25 years, lives upstairs at Bethel Winter House. Most evenings she's making sure bedding and cots are ready and everything is orderly at the shelter, but this night she's cooking.
"Usually volunteers sign up, and every night a different person or family will cook a meal and bring it down here. But since we opened up early, nobody was signed up until tomorrow night," Upshaw said.
Bethel Winter House opened early because a cold snap sent thermometers plunging below zero.
“Wind chill thirty-five, minus nine when I checked earlier," Upshaw said.
When the doors open at 9:00 p.m. two men come in from the cold and head straight for the food. Upshaw greets them by name, and warns them jokingly to save some pasta for others who might arrive later.
It’s a slow night; she usually sees a dozen or so people. A study done by Association of Village Council Presidents, Regional Housing Authority recently found that there are around 100 homeless in Bethel, though only 40 are considered “chronically homeless,” which means that they not only don't have their own home to go to, they have no roof at all over their heads.
Bethel Winter House is the only place people like James have to come in out of the cold.
“It’s more than everything. It’s not home, but at least it keeps the homeless people warm instead of sleeping in a car, or a ditch, or under somebody’s shed," James said.
James, 28, is at the shelter tonight. James is not his real name. He did not want his name used.
He spends his days walking through the streets of Bethel, trying to stay warm. While he walks, he thinks about his life and worries about the future.
“I thought to myself, maybe someday, somebody will find me dead," James said.
James ended up in Bethel after an assault charge landed him in jail. Once he got out, his village, Kasigluk, decided they didn’t want him back so they banished him. He says alcoholism made him a selfish person.
“I drank, and drank, and drank. I spent most of the money I made on my kids and the rest on me. Drinking," James said.
James is working on a GED. He's gotten a part time job, and says he wants to repair the damage he’s done. Having a place to sleep helps.
When Bethel Winter House opened in 2013, it served 88 people. It saw 127 the following year. Last year, 188 slept here. In the three years since it opened, 2,376 meals have been served at the shelter.
Board member Ben Charles says that Bethel Winter House wants to serve more people. One issue is that the shelter isn’t close to the center of town, and can be hard to get to.
“We’re trying to pick up a vehicle so that we can pick up our clients at a certain time and then bring them out here to the shelter," Charles said.
Charles hopes the grant will come this season. He also wants to use traditional knowledge to help:
“We would like to try and hire elders and give advice to our clients so that they can get back in touch with their culture," Charles said. He also said that he believes the separation from traditional Yup’ik culture is one factor in addiction. He isn’t sure funding will come through for this project, but he has high hopes.