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By JOHN LEE McLAUGHLIN
Daily News Staff Writer
Despite concerns centered on finding funding partners, the Ketchikan City Council has approved a full $80,000 request to reopen a wintertime warming center for the local homeless and inebriates.
First City Homeless Services requested the funding to host the warming center from Oct. 1 through March 31 at a to-be-determined downtown location within walking distance of the group’s 400 Main St. day shelter and local Salvation Army facilities at 342 Stedman St., according to the nonprofit’s Chairperson Evelyn Erbele.
The organization worked last winter with the Salvation Army to open a warming center for the first time in Ketchikan at 342 Stedman St. and plans to continue the partnership this winter.
The Salvation Army, however, now lacks funding to continue the effort, and its Ketchikan facility fails to comply with local building codes to reopen the overnight shelter, according to Salvation Army Lt. Sam Fowler.
“It was a pilot program,” Fowler told the council during its meeting this past Thursday night, when the $80,000 was approved. “We didn’t know it would work or what its effect would be, and so we just kind of went on a one-year ‘let’s-just-see-what-happens,’ ‘see-if-this-is-worthwhile,’ and what we discovered is that it was very much so worthwhile.”
“Just alone, it preserved human life,” he said. “There was no loss of life last year as a result of people sleeping outside, inebriated. Additionally, it allowed the medical center to not be overwhelmed with inebriated homeless who had nowhere else to go. Prior to the warming shelter, there was nowhere else for the police department or fire department to take people.”
All told, relying on a volunteer staff, an average nine to 16 people used the pilot warming center on a daily basis per month from November to March last year, according to the FCHS.
The Thursday discussion lacked exact financials on what the warming shelter saved the city in terms of emergency response and services.
But citing a supportive letter from the Ketchikan Medical Center, Erbele said it was common — before the warming center opened last winter — for up to five homeless or inebriates to visit the emergency department on a nightly basis to sober up, dry off or warm themselves.
A former emergency room supervisor at Idaho, Erbele estimated that, considering emergency room visits alone, it might cost more than $500,000 to care for three homeless or inebriated persons per night during a six-month period.
Erbele based that assumption on those emergency visits each costing $1,000 per person per night.
City Manager Karl Amylon, Ketchikan Police Chief Joe White, and Ketchikan Correctional Center Superintendent Jessica Mathews also provided letters in support of the warming center.
Erbele said that the $80,000 is hopefully the last funding request the nonprofit will make from the city for the warming center.
She said the FCHS has applied or is in the process of applying for Rasmuson Foundation, Alaska Mental Health Trust, and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development grant funding for the center.
Meanwhile, the bulk of the approved city funding — $70,250 — will be used for “employee expenses” to run the facility, according to a proposed budget from the FCHS.
Another $1,250 has been set aside for equipment and supplies, with $9,420 needed for rent — estimated at $1,000 per month — utilities and phone services, according to the proposed warming center budget that totals $80,920.
During the nearly hour-long discussion Thursday night, members of the City Council voiced a need to secure funding partners on the service, including the Ketchikan Medical Center, Ketchikan Gateway Borough and State of Alaska.
Members of the dais also raised concerns on the undetermined location of the warming center and whether it could open by Oct. 1.
The council, however, appeared generally to support the cause and voted unanimously to approve the full $80,000.
Vice-mayor Bob Sivertsen said, “as a council member, I’m dealing with other people’s money,” and that resident families of up to five strong duly are paying their taxes and utility bills “probably to make ends meet.”
“And then we’re turning around and taking those funds,” Sivertsen said, “and putting (the money) into a program that I would hope to have more benefit, because if you just enable, if you just bring (the homeless and inebriates) in without any program to help turn them around, to give them hope, I don’t know if we’re curing the situation or making it worse.”
Erbele said that sort of added self-help programming is available via the FCHS day shelter and Gateway Center for Human Services.
She said the warming center is a sort of “segway” to those services for “all of the 12 to 15 people” who she expects will use the warming center.
Erbele said it was the city that called for action toward such a facility and that the FCHS and Salvation Army simply answered.
Council Member Judy Zenge and others on the council noted that the situation essentially comes with two alternatives: pay now or pay later.
“I know ($80,000) looks like a big number,” Zenge said, “but I think that, when you look at what we’re paying for (emergency medical services) and the police department ... we’re going to pay now and know that people are safe and know that the folks that are handling them are trained, or pay later.”
Asked from where the funding would come, Amylon reminded the council that it approved some $85,000 in community grant funding for such programs within the city’s 2017 budget.