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Bethel’s cold weather shelter is serving more people than ever before

Bethel Winter House (Uksumi Uqisvik) and the supportive housing project on the left.
Gabby Hiestand Salgado
Bethel Winter House (Uksumi Uqisvik) and the supportive housing project on the left.

Ten years ago on Dec. 24, 2013, Bethel Winter House first opened its doors to individuals who needed overnight shelter during the cold months. Since then, Bethel Winter House, also known by its Yugtun name, Uksumi Uqisvik, has served hundreds and hundreds of people throughout the coldest times of year.

Last winter season, the shelter served over 250 people in Bethel. In the first two months of Winter House being open this year it’s already close to that mark, with 227 unique individuals served between Oct. 1 and Nov. 30.

“Bethel Winter House is open, alive, thriving,” said Bethel Winter House Executive Director Jaela Milford. “But we are very full. We're not at capacity, we have space for more, but our resources are being stretched thin. We are experiencing more guests nightly than we have in the past ever, in the history of the 10 years that the Winter House has been open.”

Milford said that in the past, an average of 26 people have used Bethel Winter House’s services per night: eating dinner, sleeping at the shelter, or both.

“We were getting that number right away at the beginning in October, where normally we kind of creep up to that number,” Milford said. “And that number just has continued to climb.”

The number of guests rose to 56 in November.

“Bethel Winter House has never seen that number before,” Milford said.

Bethel Winter House collects data on guests through mandatory, self-reported surveys, which show a mix of reasons why people are finding themselves without a place to stay the night. The top-reported reason for guests staying at the Bethel Winter House is that they were staying somewhere else and were asked to leave.

"And that's in town. Seventeen percent of them are living elsewhere, and they're like, ‘there's no room’ in their house. Someone else comes in, they gotta leave. [Or] they're drinking. They're asked to leave,” Milford said.

Second-most common is an extended period of unemployment. And the third-most common reason for needing to stay at Bethel Winter House is the weather — likely someone from a village in the broader Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region who can’t get back home.

At a City Council meeting in late November, Mayor Mark Springer publicly wondered whether the higher Winter House population this year might be because the municipality of Anchorage was buying unhoused people plane tickets to Bethel. Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson floated a plan over the summer to buy homeless individuals one-way tickets out of the city as a way to address Anchorage's homelessness crisis.

But that idea is not supported by the survey data collected by Winter House so far this year. The majority of guests hosted at the shelter so far have spent the last 12 months in Bethel or another village in the Y-K Delta region.

The number of people utilizing the shelter and other homelessness services in Bethel has slowly been ticking up since the mid-2010s, according to the shelter's published data. Throughout that time, Bethel Winter House has struggled to find a permanent location and adequate funding to remain open.

The location issue has been resolved, after Bethel Winter House worked out a deal with the City of Bethel to purchase the former community Senior Center building. But funding remains a major struggle, especially as more people are showing up to Bethel Winter House than ever before.

Milford said that Bethel Winter House has leaned heavily on local funding through the city’s Community Action Grant program to fill the gaps.

“I just learned that that [funding] is on hold until June, so Bethel Winter House will not have the ability to request those funds or ask for availabilities for those funds,” Milford said. “In the past, we needed those. Those have been something that the Winter House has asked for and relied on. Where other community, state, and federal partners have helped us, the city has been a big part of why Bethel Winter House has been able to remain open.”

Milford said that she doesn’t have specific monetary requests for Bethel’s municipal government at the moment, but is concerned about ongoing issues with its Community Action Grant program.

The program is usually funded through local alcohol taxes, but council members recently voted to zero out the account until the end of the fiscal year after years of mediocre bookkeeping drained the available funds.

Despite funding concerns, though, Milford said Bethel Winter House is open from 8 p.m. to 7 a.m. every day during the winter months. And the shelter is getting creative with raising money, recently holding a trivia night at a local pizza place that raised over $5,000 to support shelter operations.

Elsewhere in the community, a number of Bethel-based and regional organizations are working to bridge the gap between the emergency shelter and long-term, stable housing for the local population experiencing chronic homelessness.

This spring, Bethel Community Services Foundation and Bethel Winter House broke ground on a $6.7 million, 24-unit supportive housing project aimed at providing rental rooms to the chronically homeless local population. It’s under construction, and will be physically connected to Bethel Winter House through a breezeway.

A couple of months later, the Tundra Youth Home opened its doors. It’s a seven-room, single-occupancy rental space for young people ages 17 to 25.

This article includes reporting from Francisco Martínezcuello.

Sage Smiley is KYUK's news director.