Unalaska attracts thousands of transient workers every year, lured by the promise of a steady paycheck. But marine industry jobs can fall through — leaving people stuck with no shelter and no money to fly home.
Community groups have stepped up to help. And now, one nonprofit is ready to expand its safety net for stranded workers.
The apartment next door to the Unalaska Christian Fellowship is simple – just a couple of couches, some sleeping bags, and a whiteboard inscribed with Bible verse.
“This is home sweet home, with the bathroom and the laundry and the little kitchen area in this area here. The most people that I put in here is four,” John Honan says.
John Honan is the pastor at the church, and the head of Alexandria House. For the last 20 years, this nonprofit’s been finding spare beds — and even buying plane tickets home — for folks in need.
“You get to meet some amazing people that have been through horrific things,” Honan says. “So we’ll do what we can to help them on their way.”
Honan sees it happen every day – people fly in expecting to find work in the fishing industry. But it’s not always there — or, it doesn’t last.
When people get stuck, two local groups can offer help: USAFV, or Unalaskans Against Sexual Assault and Family Violence, serves mostly women and children. Alexandria House is geared more toward single men.
The women’s shelter gets grants from the city, among other sources. But Alexandria House is a ministry, and they’ve never had a steady source of funding – until now.
They’re planning to open an apartment and storefront in Unalaska’s historic downtown. The space used to be filled by the Elbow Room Bar. It was an infamous dive in its day.
“Yeah, you can see that it was pretty bad, so it’s got to be repaired all the way around,” Honan says.
Alexandria House got this building as a donation five years ago. When they’re done renovating it, Honan says the space will be rented out. The money will go toward hotel reservations or airfare for stranded people.
It’s a big deal for Honan’s organization – but it wasn’t his original plan. He wanted to turn the building into a homeless shelter.
Neighbors like Suzi Golodoff weren’t happy. Her family’s lived next door to the old bar for decades – and she’s had her fill of strangers wandering her streets.
“So I’ve no objection to being, you know, a kind-hearted community. We should help each other, and we’re known for that in Unalaska. However, I think that we also need to respect the older people that have lived here all these generations – and this part of town is the old historic part of town,” Golodoff says.
That’s the argument she and her neighbors made in a petition to Unalaska’s planning commission back in 2009. The board ruled in their favor: Honan couldn’t use the building as a shelter.
So he changed tacks. When he came back with his current plan for a rental property, some neighbors were still opposed. But the zoning board couldn’t say no.
Planning director Erin Reinders says the neighborhood is zoned to fit an apartment. And given the housing shortage in Unalaska, it made sense to approve the ministry’s plan.
“A side benefit of that is that then it supports an organization that’s already identified … under emergency housing, to actually do that mission as well,” Reinders says.
Reinders says the best spot for a shelter would be way across town – on the Dutch Harbor side, home to the airport, stores and most of the industry jobs.
That’s where Jerrick Reyes lives, in a bunkhouse provided by his employer. Reyes moved to Unalaska almost a year ago, thinking he could find a high-paying job.
But there was no work — and nowhere for him to stay.
“When I came here, you know, I was, like, kind of scared,” Reyes says. “I just kept thinking about it, like, ‘What are we going to do?’ and stuff like that.”
He heard about Alexandria House, and reached out to John Honan. Soon, Reyes was living in the apartment next to the church. He had to follow some ground rules: No drinking. No drugs. And mandatory prayer meetings twice a day.
“I’m Catholic myself, but I still read the Bible [with Honan]. I know there’s, like, similarities between the two. So, I mean, I got along with it, and that was fine,” Reyes says.
Reyes stuck it out, and after a few weeks, he landed the job he’d hoped for.
And that’s how emergency housing should always work, says John Honan. He hopes the money from his new apartment will make it easier to get more people to that point.
Honan’s building should open this winter, but he’s not sure who the first tenants will be. He wants a couple or family to sign a long-term lease – which would mean long-term income for Alexandria House.
“We have no salaries, we’re not paying anyone – so 100 percent of the money, apart from, obviously, building maintenance or whatever, can go to making sure people are cared for every night,” Honan says.
Whoever moves in will have the right to invite guests to stay with them. And if they want to take in stranded folks for Alexandria House, Honan says that’ll be their decision.
And that means neighbors will be watching closely – and so will the rest of a town where getting stranded’s always going to be a possibility. John Honan’s project is a small step – but it’s still progress, as workers keep coming here in search of better chances.