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Concerned over winter deaths, new group plans to open Bethel emergency shelter

Suzanna Caldwell
Walking along the Kuskokwim River near Bethel. After three people perished last year, a new effort emerged in Bethel to find shelter for the homeless during winter. Later this month, the first of several churches that will house homeless will open its doors. Eventually, supporters hope to have a dedicated structure. Loren Holmes photo

In response to a handful of exposure deaths last winter, Bethel is getting what is considered its first emergency homeless shelter -- one that for now will rotate between several locations.

A group of concerned residents came together in October to start the Bethel Winter House Project. Beginning Christmas Eve, the group will pull together a series of cots, mats and blankets to house some of Bethel's neediest through the coldest part of winter. 

It's the beginning of what is envisioned as a full-fledged regional homeless shelter. The project hopes to one day have its own facility, but for now the group will cycle through various local churches offering beds for up to 20 people over the next three months.

Eva Malvich spearheaded the project after at least three people died of exposure last winter. Some were found dead in unheated buildings in the community of 6,000, the regional hub for Western Alaska. Malvich was particularly struck by the death of Norbert Kashatok, 48, who was found dead in an abandoned, unheated building last December. All of the deaths involved chronic inebriates.

Malvich said she could relate to Kashatok's plight. She's been sober for five years and is about the same age.

“When I heard that he died, I thought, that could have been me,” Malvich said. “I could have continued drinking, I could have lost our home. That could have been any of us.”

While the idea for another shelter has been percolating in Bethel for at least a year, the group formally began organizing in October. It came together quickly, with the shelter set to open in a few weeks at the Bethel Covenant Church.

Bethel a 'microcosm' of homelessness

According to a point-in-time survey conducted by the Bethel Homeless Coalition in January, 100 people -- including 36 children -- were homeless in Bethel. 

Malvich said homelessness looks different in Bethel. Odds are you won't find people sleeping on benches, but you will find them hanging out in front of the AC store or coming into the cultural center, where Malvich works, to use the bathroom or get water from the fountain. Many bounce between the couches of friends and relatives or live in buildings unfit for habitation.

Richard Tews, director of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation's Sobering Center, said the reasons people end up homeless in Bethel are not different from the reasons people end up homeless in larger cities like Anchorage. They can be plagued with issues, including drugs, alcohol and mental health problems. Some visit Bethel from one of the 56 smaller villages in the region and can't afford a plane ticket back. The cost of living is exceptionally high -- a gallon of gas runs $6.50 and two-bedroom Bethel apartment can cost upwards of $1,500 a month. That's if there's even anything available, since housing is notoriously difficult to find in town.

“We're just a microcosm (of larger cities) in a lot of ways,” Tews said.

Tews said the sobering center, which has room for 20 people, won't turn anyone away when the temperatures drop, but that the center is not designed to serve as an emergency shelter. Often the Tundra Women's Coalition, which offers an emergency shelter geared toward families and individuals dealing with domestic violence, will take in far more people than its 30 beds are designed to accommodate, but there are no guarantees. Tews said occasionally churches will open up, but with no formal organization, those can be few and far between.

That's where the Winter House Project hopes to step in. Malvich said there's a clear need for men ages 20 to 40 and women ages 50 to 60. The first winter will be a test in many ways, Tews said. The project will be run by volunteers and funded by donations as the group works on gaining nonprofit status.

There's also some concern over what the rules might be and whether to allow those who have been drinking into shelter. Zachariah Bryan, a member of the Winter House Project, said the group is looking at the project in a “harm reduction” model that might allow people who have been drinking, but are not causing trouble, to use the shelter. Those details are still being worked out.

“It's a tricky subject," Bryan said.  "We are working with churches, and they worried about that. It's worth talking about.”

The trial period this year will also gauge the need in Bethel. Tews said at the sobering center it can be “feast or famine” -- packed during some periods of the year and empty other times. 

“For us (at the shelter) it's a learning process,” Tews said. “We're going to learn how to do this so next fall we can start with a little more solid plan.”

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com. Follow her on Twitter @suzannacaldwell