Assembly Okays Sheltering Homeless at 45 Degrees

It’s official – Anchorage Churches and overflow facilities can now house the homeless, even after it starts warming up – at least to 45 degrees.

The Anchorage Assembly approved upping the temperature at which churches and overflow facilities can house homeless people from 32 degrees to 45 degrees. That makes Daryl Hess the Health and Human Service Homelessness Coordinator for the Municipality of Anchorage very happy.

“While it’s not a permanent solution, it keeps people from potentially dying on the  streets, having to sleep in their cars or a public space while they’re looking for a permanent solution,” Hess said.

Hess says the original ordinance introduced in 2010 was huge, and raising the temperature at which people can be housed is another step toward preventing tragedy.

“Previously before the original ordinance was passed in 2010, if a church wanted to shelter somebody temporarily overnight in cold weather they would have had to have gotten a conditional use permit which is a process that can take several months and cost 30,000-40,000 dollars. So the original ordinance actually under title 16, which is the public health code offered exemption from title 21 for overnight sheltering, and this amendment just changed the trigger for that ordinance,” Hess said.

Debbie Ossiander is the Chair of the Anchorage Assembly which passed the amendment to the anchorage municipal code.

“There was a recommendation I think from both the Mayor’s task for and the Mayor’s office saying that we needed to open this up a little more — it was working well, our partnerships with the churches — to change it for the cut off for when their facilities became shelters would occur at a warmer temperature,” Ossiander said.

With seasonal temperatures that can drop into the 40s even in the summer, the new 45 degree threshold means churches and overflow facilities could theoretically be hosting homeless families for much of the year. Ossiander says the change was needed for two main reasons.

“One, we’ve tried to establish a linked network, so that facilities that encounter folks who need help know who has the most beds, who has the most capability for serving, and can direct a person to go to an appropriate place. Number two, there is some strong desire of the city to make sure that its safe for the people that come in. Is their adequate facilities for bathing and using the bathroom and sleeping, are there safety exits?,” Ossiander said.

“Our motto is loving people, loving Jesus and serving the city. So this fits in with serving the city,” City Church Pastor David Johnson said.

City Church is part of the web of churches that house homeless families in Anchorage, along with Central Lutheran, ChangePoint and Shiloh Missionary Baptist Churches. Johnson says the churches just take families and each church has their own set-up and days of the week that they can help. At City Church it’s Fridays and the family sleeps on air mattresses and foam pads. Although it’s not much, Johnson says it fits in with the mission of the church and he’s happy to be able to help people when the temperature hits 45 degrees, because that’s still cold.

“It’s great to be able to shelter people before 32 but there’s problems — 45 is still pretty cold and people can still die of hypothermia at those higher temperatures. So we’re glad to see the opportunity,” Johnson said.

Cold weather experts say it can actually be more dangerous for people once the temperature starts warming up. They can be more susceptible to hypothermia because they’re often not as mindful about bundling up and they can get lackadaisical about the cold, especially if alcohol is involved. Besides churches, the code change also makes 45 degrees the trigger point for Beans Cafe to act as an overflow for the Brother Francis shelter. The change went into affect Feb. 14.

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Daysha Eaton, KMXT - Kodiak
Daysha Eaton is a contributor with the Alaska Public Radio Network. Daysha Eaton holds a B.A. from Evergreen State College, and a M.A. from the University of Southern California. Daysha got her start in radio at Seattle public radio stations, KPLU and KUOW. Before coming to KBBI, she was the News Director at KYUK in Bethel. She has also worked as the Southcentral Reporter for KSKA in Anchorage. Daysha's work has appeared on NPR's "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered", PRI's "The World" and "National Native News". She's happy to take assignments, and to get news tips, which are best sent via email. Daysha became a journalist because she believes in the power of storytelling. Stories connect us and they help us make sense of our world. They shed light on injustice and they comfort us in troubled times. She got into public broadcasting because it seems to fulfill the intention of the 4th Estate and to most effectively apply the freedom of the press granted to us through the Constitution. She feels that public radio has a special way of moving people emotionally through sound, taking them to remote places, introducing them to people they would not otherwise meet and compelling them to think about issues they might ordinarily overlook.