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Homelessness in Ketchikan: Boro hears report from First City Homeless Services

Daily News Staff Writer

A number of individuals spoke during the public comment section of Monday’s Ketchikan Gateway Borough Assembly meeting, but Evelyn Erbele seemed to certainly strike a chord.

Erbele, speaking on behalf of the First City Homeless Services, filled the Assembly in on pertinent data pertaining to Ketchikan’s homeless problem.

She said first and foremost, that the primary focus of First City Homeless Services is keeping people alive.

Erbele spoke a lot about the new overnight warming center, explaining how it operates from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. and offers the homeless a warm floor to sleep on without judgment, regardless what state of inebriation or desperation they might be in.

“(The overnight warming center) is a seasonal, overnight warming center,” Erbele explained. “I want to repeat to you that First City Homeless Services is a ‘wet shelter,’ meaning men and women can be intoxicated and come to the shelter. So during the day there will be intoxicated men and women and at night there will be intoxicated men and women who otherwise would be on the street and have no place to go.”

She explained that since the warming shelter opened in October, Ketchikan Police Department has been sending some individuals to them “other than arresting them, or other than them getting in trouble, or them spending the night on the street.”

Erbele mentioned that her group is in the process of applying for grants, but that the City of Ketchikan financed the overnight shelter this year.

“The City of Ketchikan has granted us the money needed to hire four employees and pay our rent and our utilities,” Erbele explained. “So this year is a gift to us from the City of Ketchikan.”

Erbele explained that, unfortunately, because of fire codes her group cannot allow those seeking refuge at the warming shelter to bring in pillows, blankets or even cardboard to sleep on.

“This is the part of the sheltering that breaks my ethical heart and my moral heart,” Erbele explained, “in that these are men and women who I say ‘yes you can come in here and sleep, but there’s the floor.’ And that’s all we can offer them to sleep — the floor.”

Erbele also handed out sheets to all of the Assembly members detailing numbers of homeless who use their facilities.

The new overnight warming shelter, which just opened in October has seen 47 unique visitors who have stayed for a total of 255 times since it was opened.

In terms of the day shelter, the numbers are much larger. This year the shelter took in almost 300 different individuals providing services 6,502 times over the course of 2017 thus far, and with Veteran’s Day approaching, it is worth noting that a little over 10 percent of those who came to the shelter in 2017 were veterans.

Assembly Member Felix Wong commended Erbele and her group’s efforts during her report to the Assembly.

“Having dropped off food at the day shelter from time to time,” Wong said, “I can’t help but notice the quality of service you are offering to the people in need and I’m exceptionally thankful for your passion and for your attention to detail.”

As a whole, the Assembly seemed to take what Erbele was saying very seriously and listened closely to her assessment of the current homeless situation in Ketchikan and the importance of keeping the lives of these human beings safe.

During the public hearing portion of the meeting, the Assembly members adopted all three ordinances unanimously, including:

• An ordinance declaring tax-foreclosed properties deeded to the borough not required for a public purpose, and authorizing the disposal method for certain tax-foreclosed properties by the real estate broker services agreement.

• An ordinance that would rezone lots 1, 2, and 3 located at 24 Shoup St. from a low-density residential zone to a medium-density residential zone.

• An ordinance appropriating $636,686 in federal and state grants and $52,887 from the commercial passenger vessel fund for one 35-foot Gillig bus, one paratransit vehicle, and fleet consistency equipment.

Also during Monday’s meeting, the Assembly:

• Heard an update from Ketchikan District Attorney Ben Hoffmeister.

• Listened to an individual speak on behalf of the Greater Ketchikan Chamber of Commerce in favor of a resolution supporting congressional action to nullify the 2016 amendment to the Tongass Land Management Plan, which passed.

• Heard a report by Ketchikan School Board President Trevor Shaw. Shaw noted that the special needs count in the district is higher than initially anticipated. He also noted that overall student estimates were incredibly accurate and that there was just a four-student increase over what was projected.

• Advanced an ordinance seeking to foster closer relations with the Canadian port of Prince Rupert. Assembly Member Stephen Bradford noted that he “think(s) that transportation link is vitally important.”

• Excused Assembly Member Alan Bailey from potentially three or more meetings due to previous commitments. Bailey said he intends to be back for the Jan. 2 meeting, and also will be teleconferencing in when feasible.

The next Assembly meeting will be on Nov. 20.