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Nikiski residents respond to emergency shelter plan

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Sabine Poux/KDLL
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A coalition of peninsula nonprofits purchased a 22-bed building in Nikiski to turn it into a homeless shelter and hope to get it up and running before the end of the month.

Last night, they brought that plan to the community during a town hall at the Nikiski Recreation Center. While some were supportive, many of the residents who attended said they worry about safety. And they said they wished they had heard about the plan sooner.

Leslie Rohr is executive director of Love INC, the nonprofit taking point on the shelter. She asked participants to think about the good the facility could do for the community.

“I would hope that each and every one of you would at least give an opportunity to come and see what it is that we plan to do, what we want to do and what we want to accomplish," Rohr said. "And we want to include the community of Nikiski.”

The shelter is just north of the recreation center, on the Kenai Spur Highway. Rohr said it will emergency housing to a slice of the nearly 900 houseless people on the peninsula Love INC serviced in 2019.

The 5,800-square-foot building was previously a dormitory, so it already comes with many of the amenities needed to house two dozen clients — from 14 bedrooms to a kitchen and dining space.

Clients will come in for 30 days at a time, Rohr said, with the possibility of extending for another 30. Volunteers and staff will help them find work and support and the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank will supply the majority of food for the shelter. 

But many at the town hall, like Wenda Kennedy, said they were upset they weren’t consulted before the nonprofits bought the space. Kennedy runs Nikiski Village Mobile Home Park, an affordable housing complex a mile up the road from the shelter site.

“No one was notified in the community so that we weren't part of the planning situation," she said.

Rohr said that’s because the nonprofits had to act fast. They heard about the space in September and, after quickly securing grant funding, bought the building in November. They didn’t have to worry about changing the zoning of the property, since the land belongs to the borough, not the city. 

“It wasn’t undercover that we came about this," she said. "Things move very quickly, but until we knew that we had the building, we couldn’t say, ‘This is what we’re going to be doing,’ or ‘This is what we want to do.’”

Nikiski resident Len Niesen said she worries about the long commute troopers would have to make to get out to the property.

“How many staff will you have on hand? How are they qualified to prevent or handle emergencies?" she asked.

Rohr said there will be staff on hand at all hours — including two every night and up to four during the day — who are trained in trauma-informed care.

Incoming clients, she said, will go through a screening process and fill out intake forms before they’re allowed to stay at the shelter. People with histories of violent crimes or crimes against children will not be admitted, and drugs and alcohol are not allowed in the shelter. Visitors are also not allowed.

While drug tests aren’t mandatory for admission to the shelter, residents can be tested at any time. Rohr said they won’t deny admission to the shelter when there’s a positive test.

Several attendees also asked what residents would do during the day. Rohr said Alaska Cab and the local public transportation option, the Central Area Rural Transport System (CARTS), will take clients into town during the day for trainings and appointments. On the weekends, clients can stay at the shelter.

Shelter organizers said they know Nikiski isn’t the ideal spot for a shelter. It’s just under 20 minutes to get to downtown Kenai and 30 minutes to Soldotna.

But they said they struck out on several other sites closer to cities. Another plan to rotate homeless families through churches fell through because it wasn’t up to fire code.

Plus, Rohr said 42 percent of the homeless population Love INC served in the last 12 months live in North Kenai and Nikiski.

Kennedy, who runs the mobile home park and used to run a shelter in California, said she’s scared the shelter will impact her business. Specifically, she said she’s worried about people using drugs or stealing. 

“We still have problems here in the community and we don’t want to import more problems here into our community,” she said.

Kennedy and many others at the meeting said they worried about the shelter becoming a second Merit Inn.

Love INC partnered with the Merit Inn in Kenai for years to house homeless families. The nonprofit closed the facility in 2013, citing a loss of funding.

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The coalition hopes to get the shelter up and running before the end of the year.

Rohr said she knows there were issues with drugs at that facility, as well as an uptick in emergency calls. That facility was larger than the one coming in now — with over 100 beds.

“Unless you volunteered or unless you participated financially with the shelter, you really don’t know what went on there," she said. Her comment was followed by a flurry of objections from the audience.

She also said there were many clients whose lives were changed for the better at that shelter. Allison Bushnell said that her two years in that shelter as a kid were transformative.

“It was when we were living at the shelter when I had a defining moment in my life where I decided that I wanted to do and be better than the life that we were living," she said.

She said it was there she started getting better grades in school, paving the way for her to go to college for a degree in human services. Now, she’s a housing case manager for Love INC.

“Not only did Love INC provide a safe, stable shelter and change the course of my life, but it also helped my dad obtain sobriety," Bushnell said.

The Kenai Peninsula is not the only region of Alaska that has been working on placing a homeless shelter.

Rohr said residents of Juneau were hesitant about plans to put in a shelter. But the nonprofit that was coordinating, Glory Hall, conducted extensive public outreach to get members of the community on board, according to the city's chief housing officer. Juneau also has a cold-weather shelter, which has also changed homes multiple times in the last several years.

Not everyone at the Nikiski town hall was dubious.

Nikiski resident Robin Bogard thanked Rohr for fielding dozens of questions at the meeting.

“You’ve convinced me, I will say — and I was skeptical to begin with — that you've got a good, solid plan," he said.

April Hall is the pastor for North Star Methodist Church, less than a mile up the road from the shelter. She said she’s worked with a lot of homeless people in the community. And she said she’s excited, not worried, about her new neighbors. 

“And Leslie I know you’ve got it covered, I know that if you need help you will ask. And I just say ‘Amen.’ It’s about time, let’s get this show on the road," she said. "’Cause it’s so overdue.”

Rohr said the team hopes to open the shelter before year’s end. She estimates monthly operations will average $15,000.

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