Temperatures dipped below freezing in Kenai this weekend. Each year, that first frost is a reminder that the Central Kenai Peninsula still doesn’t have an emergency cold-weather shelter for its homeless residents.
“In the short term, it is worrisome," said Leslie Rohr, executive director of Love INC. "And we go through this every winter, ‘What are we going to do?’”
Love INC is one of the Kenai Peninsula groups that’s been working on getting a cold weather shelter up and running.
A cold weather shelter is triggered by low temperatures — in this case, 20 degrees or lower. While exact estimates on how many people would use a shelter are rough, 90 percent of the 147 participants interviewed at the 2020 Project Homeless Connect said they would use a cold-weather shelter if one was available.
An obstacle for advocates has been finding and securing a space for a shelter.
Before COVID-19 hit, the plan was to alternate people through churches on cold nights. But the pandemic put those plans on hold.
That alternating church model is not guaranteed this year, either. Rohr said it will depend on whether churches are open amid high COVID-19 rates.
“I think some of our churches are open and operating freely, others are not," she said. "So it’s just a matter of whose facility is available and will pass the inspection of the fire marshall.”
Groups struck out on several different potential sites this year, including the Challenger Learning Center and the Soldotna Prep building. And they have been ineligible for large grants due to the lack of a brick and mortar space.
Advocates say what’s missing, in part, is buy-in from residents and local governments.
To bring the public up to speed on the needs of the community, representatives from Love INC, the cities of Kenai and Soldotna and other groups are working on a five-year plan to address homelessness.
“If people don’t understand the need, it’s hard to support the project," Rohr said. "And so being able to provide concrete data — and keeping in mind that that data represents individual, vulnerable lives.”
In the meantime, there are few other options for temporary housing on the Kenai Peninsula as winter approaches. Rohr is hopeful that at least one or two churches will be open to people this winter.
“But what we really need to remember is that the crisis doesn’t go away when the temperature goes up," she said. "And we need to look at a longer-range plan more than just having that emergency shelter piece.”
Rohr said they’re aiming to have a draft of the plan available to the public by the holidays.