After concerns that it wouldn’t have enough volunteers to open this year, Bethel Winter House broke out the sleeping mats and opened its doors for the first time this week to welcome the homeless into the seasonal shelter.
A chilling rain is falling on the snow and ice covered roads of Bethel. It’s a dangerous time of year to be without shelter, but that’s exactly the situation many have found themselves in after arriving in Bethel. Originally from Mekoryuk, an island in Southwest Alaska, Bobby John said he misses his home.
“Being in Bethel is like an alien world to me,” John says. “No place to go, you gotta sleep outside or something ’cause you don’t have no place to go. You get up in the morning and it’s really cold, and you gotta get up and start moving around so you could get warm again, then go hang out in the hospital or the library.”
John said he has been in Bethel for about a month after he was banned from his hometown.
Most of the dozen or so clients that stayed at the shelter on its opening night aren’t originally from Bethel, but landed here as a last resort.
Rose Rastopsoff came to Bethel from the village of Sleetmute, up the Kuskokwim River. She said she choose to stay at the Tundra Women’s Coalition’s shelter after an incident. Since that stay has ended she’s had a tough time, sometimes sleeping in abandoned cars on cold nights.
“Before this opened tonight its pretty hard cause you don’t get much sleep cause it’s cold, and you hear a lot of traffic, have to worry about police coming to see if you’re in a vehicle, so it’s pretty tough,” Rastopsoff says. “I slept in the sobering center a couple of times even though I wasn’t drinking. I just didn’t know where to go.”
Some clients said they had slept in snow machine sleds, and in makeshift tents in the bushes. As the weather cooled, they had to find warmer spots in abandoned buildings, underneath structures, and even in other people’s porches and arctic entries.
Others, like Jeremy Lee, have come to Bethel in hopes of starting a better life. Lee said he couldn’t find work in Nunapitchuk, a village 30 miles west of Bethel. So he made a hard decision and walked to Bethel over the frozen tundra.
“My goal was to come here and to go back to work for my baby. I got a 8 months (old) son and I can’t support him in any way, so I wanted to come here and get back to work,” says Lee. “I need a warm place to stay while I go work, you know, ’til I can get back on my feet and get my own place. So that’s my goal, that’s why I’m here.”
Lee said the shelter has saved lives since it began, giving the homeless a safe place to stay, some fellowship, donated clothing to wear, and warm food to sustain them. He said some of his friends and family members weren’t so lucky.
“I just know that a lot more people would suffer and freeze, you know, ’cause of the conditions,” Lee says. “I had a couple of family members who froze to death too in their own house ’cause they didn’t have any heat. One of my friends, too. He froze to death. He didn’t have a place to go.”
Following four deaths by exposure during the 2012-2013 winter, a small group of people decided to start a project and founded Bethel Winter House, or Uksumi Uqisvik in Yup’ik, with the goal of eliminating death by exposure.
Winter House officials said over 40 volunteers have been trained so far, and the organization hired a full-time volunteer coordinator. Plans for the future include getting a few freezers after more space is found, and applying for grants.
Bethel Winter House will be located at Covenant Church until the end of January. After that, the shelter will move to the Catholic church in Bethel for the remaining two months until spring. Hours for he shelter run from 9 p.m. to 8 a.m. nightly.
To find out more about the Bethel Winter House check out their Facebook page.