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Emergency shelter finds a home in Nikiski

Sabine Poux/KDLL

A coalition of nonprofits has been working toward creating an emergency shelter on the central peninsula for a while. But until recently, their idea has remained just that.

Now, that idea has a home. The Kenai Peninsula Homelessness Coalition has finalized the purchase of a building in Nikiski, just north of the Nikiski Community Recreation Center.

Leslie Rohr is executive director of Love INC, the nonprofit that will be operating the emergency shelter. She said the building will be open to clients before Christmas.

“It’s a huge relief but it’s also a bit intimidating," she said. "Here we go again. And the fact that we have to wait. I would like to be able to say,‘The doors are open tonight,’ two weeks ago”

Finding a space for a shelter has proved difficult. The ad hoc coalition struck out on several sites and COVID-19 stymied a plan to rotate people through area churches on cold nights. 

This fall, the group became aware of a space in Nikiski. It was previously a bunkhouse for employees doing turnaround work on oil and gas facilities and could fit about 40 people.

In the last two months, the group quickly finalized grant funding from the Rasmuson Foundation and Cook Inlet Region, Inc. to purchase the building. Support from the owners was also a huge help, said Tim Navarre, part of the coalition’s executive team. He said they offered the fully furnished, 5,800-square-foot building for about $360,000.

"And they threw everything in the building in the sale," he said. "And they keep buying little things to upgrade it to help us.”

Credit Sabine Poux/KDLL
The Kenai Peninsula Food Bank will help with meals at the shelter. The effort to get an emergency shelter on the central peninsula has been a joint effort across local nonprofits.

The space has 14 bedrooms — nine doubles and five singles. Rohr said they’re waiting to hear from the fire marshall how many people they can fit in each room, in the cases of families. 

There’s space for more beds in the garage, plus a large common space, kitchen and several bathrooms. The property also comes with an acre, which the group could use for expansion as needed.

The shelter will be an emergency shelter, open year-round. Families and individuals will spend about 30 days living there at a time.

In those 30 days, Navarre said, staff and volunteers with Love INC and other nonprofits will help clients move into more stable situations.

On top of parenting and vocational support, Navarre said staff will connect clients with mental and behavioral health services, as needed. The Kenai Peninsula Food Bank will bring at least one meal a day to the shelter and local churches will pitch in, too. 

Rohr said Love INC will field applications from potential clients for shelter. They’ll prioritize those they consider the most vulnerable.

“So those who have been homeless the longest, those with young children, people with medical issues," she said. "So if you take a list of 32 people, you take the most vulnerable first.”

Before the shelter opens, they need to get approval from the fire marshall. Navarre said they’re aiming for Dec. 10.

Kathy Gensel, executive director of the Central Peninsula Health Foundation, said she knows the new facility isn’t centrally located.

“But we have to start somewhere," she said. "And if we don’t start, we’ll never get anywhere. So this is a start.”

She said they’re working to get transportation, as well, for clients who need to go into town.

Love INC gets funding for its homelessness prevention programming through the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation. But it didn’t include operating costs for the shelter in this year’s budget, since the space only came onto the nonprofit’s radar this fall.

So, until the next fiscal year, Rohr said they’ll be reliant on community support. They’ve already received one big donation to help spot operating costs — estimated to range between $12,000 and $15,000 each month.

Credit Sabine Poux/KDLL
The coalition hopes to get the shelter up and running before Christmas.

One member of the community that’s already on board to help is Ron Tremelling. He’s been the caretaker of the building for two years.

He said he knows at least three people in Nikiski alone who would use the shelter.

“And if I could, I would open my doors to them," he said."But I just couldn’t do it, because of the liabilities and stuff. But I’m real happy to be part of it.”

He said he'd like to help with the shelter as long as possible.

"Because this is my community, too," he said. "So anything I can do, I will do.”

The Kenai Peninsula Homelessness Coalition is also working on a strategic plan. Rohr said that plan will act like an action agenda to keep the group on track in the next five years.

Sabine Poux is a producer and reporter for the Brave Little State podcast of Vermont Public. She was formerly news director and evening news host at KDLL in Kenai.

Originally from New York, Sabine has lived and reported in Argentina and Vermont and Kenai.
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