A night at the Bethel Winter House
Bethel’s homeless shelter, Bethel Winter House, opened earlier this week, providing relief from the cold to Bethel’s many in need. A story published by KYUK Public Media showed what it was like for guests on Wednesday night.
Around dinnertime, Major Lonnie Upshaw checked a large convection oven.
“I’m serving lasagna, and chicken alfredo pasta with rolls tonight,” Upshaw said.
Upshaw, who has been with the Salvation Army for 25 years, lives upstairs at Bethel Winter House. Most evenings she’s making sure bedding and cots are ready and everything is orderly at the shelter, but Wednesday night, she was cooking.
“Usually volunteers sign up, and every night a different person or family will cook a meal and bring it down here,” Upshaw said. “But since we opened up early, nobody was signed up until tomorrow night.”
Bethel Winter House opened early because a cold snap sent thermometers plunging below zero.
“Wind chill 35, minus nine when I checked earlier,” Upshaw said.
When the doors opened at 9 p.m. two men came in from the cold and headed straight for the food. Upshaw greeted them by name, and warned them jokingly to save some pasta for others who might arrive later.
It was a slow night — Upshaw said she usually sees a dozen or so people. A study done by Association of Village Council Presidents, Regional Housing Authority recently found that there are around 100 homeless in Bethel, though only 40 are considered “chronically homeless,” which means that they not only don’t have their own home to go to, they have no roof at all over their heads.
Bethel Winter House is the only place people like James have to come in out of the cold.
“It’s more than everything. It’s not home, but at least it keeps the homeless people warm instead of sleeping in a car, or a ditch, or under somebody’s shed,” James said.
James, 28, was at the shelter Wednesday night. James is not his real name. He did not want his name used.
He spends his days walking through the streets of Bethel, trying to stay warm. While he walks, he thinks about his life and worries about the future.
“I thought to myself, ‘maybe someday, somebody will find me dead,'” James said.
James ended up in Bethel after an assault charge landed him in jail. Once he got out, his village, Kasigluk, decided they didn’t want him back, so they banished him. He said alcoholism made him a selfish person.
“I drank, and drank, and drank,” James said. “I spent most of the money I made on my kids and the rest on me. Drinking.”
James is working on a GED. He’s gotten a part time job, and said he wants to repair the damage he’s done. Having a place to sleep helps.
When Bethel Winter House opened in 2013, it served 88 people. It saw 127 the following year. Last year, 188 slept there. In the three years since it opened, 2,376 meals have been served at the shelter.
Board member Ben Charles said that Bethel Winter House wants to serve more people. One issue is that the shelter isn’t close to the center of town, and can be hard to get to.
“We’re trying to pick up a vehicle so that we can pick up our clients at a certain time and then bring them out here to the shelter,” Charles said.
Charles said he hopes the grant will come this season. He also wants to use traditional knowledge to help.
“We would like to try and hire elders and give advice to our clients so that they can get back in touch with their culture,” Charles said.
He also said that he believes the separation from traditional Yup’ik culture is one factor in addiction. He isn’t sure funding will come through for this project, but he has high hopes.