Bethel’s local homeless shelter is now homeless itself. The Winter House is trying to find the right place to house its residents, according to board president Jon Cochrane.
The shelter used to rent space from the Salvation Army, which closed its Bethel outpost earlier this year. Cochrane and other Winter House board members are appealing to the local government, non-profits, and any businesses that own properties in town for help. The program is looking for a property downtown so that people in need don’t have to travel as far to get help. For Bethel’s homeless residents, the Arctic’s brutal winters can be life threatening.
"The first year that I was here," Cochrane said, "we had temperatures with wind chill that were approaching 60 below. And there were five or six fatalities that year."
When they don’t have a safe place to go, Cochrane said, homeless men and women "couch surf" when they can.
"Otherwise it’s in cars and under buildings," he said. "Sometimes places that are abandoned, sometimes places that are very dangerous.
"We’ve had a lot of fires in town where people have crawled under a building to get warm and light a little fire. And next thing you know, we have a building burning down."
The Winter House has already found an emergency location for the shelter, but it’s less than ideal and a fallback at best. One way or another, says Cochrane, the Winter House will open its doors as scheduled on December 1, or a little earlier if we suffer a cold snap.
In addition to helping the Winter House find a new home, Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta community members can help the program by giving money, volunteering to cook meals, and donating goods like dry socks and winter boots.
According to Cochrane, Bethel’s homeless community could easily include many of us. Some of the men who stay at the Winter House have substance abuse issues, he said, "but we also have people who are homeless because they've lost a job. And we have people who aren't necessarily homeless, but they flew in for medical care and got weathered in. A hotel room's $250 a night here," added Cochrane. "Your average person from a village doesn't have that. And if YK doesn't have room in their hostel, and they don't happen to have family in town, they're stuck."
In addition to the homeless shelter, Cochrane also discussed Bethel’s burgeoning food bank, which he and other community members are trying to get off the ground. Food insecurity can be a serious problem in the YK Delta. According to Cochrane, the entire Lower Kuskokwim School District qualifies for the free lunch program. Cochrane and his team hope to start a monthly food distribution program, and their goal is to found a Bethel regional food bank in the next few years.