Nome day shelter is almost ready to open
As temperatures in Nome drop into the minus digits, people living on the streets huddle in corners that shelter them from the wind and visit places that will let them inside to warm up. But mostly they are tolerating the cold, passing the time while waiting for the NEST shelter to open at night.
To offer the homeless a reprieve from the winter cold, Norton Sound Health Corporation is opening a day shelter in the former BIA building on First Avenue in Nome soon. Officials are hoping to open its doors by the first of the New Year, or perhaps a week sooner. “Our open date is still a little fluid,” said Lance Johnson, director of NSHC’s Behavioral Health Services department. “We have hired what we call recovery coaches, four recovery coaches, who will be staffing the day shelter seven days a week,” he said. “We’re still training and we have a few fixes to the building that we’re doing. I’m hoping for the first of the year, maybe next week, it just depends on getting a crew in there and doing what we need to do and finishing up our training regime.”
Johnson estimates there will be about 20 to 25 people using the new shelter. He bases that estimate on the numbers at NEST and how many people have been moving through the hospital’s emergency room. “I want to make sure that our recovery coaches are fully prepared for that, that our staff is fully prepared, and that the building can handle it as well,” said Johnson.
While preparing to open the day shelter, the group has been helping to support NEST. They’ve had staff over at the NEST shelter, primarily the recovery coaches, to meet with the people the day shelter will be dealing with. They’ve been delivering lunches on Front Street, around 30 a day, and coffee, too. “The main idea is to get something warm in their bellies, in case they haven’t had a decent meal in a while. And also we want to develop relationships with those folks that we’ll be working with. We want to build trust and rapport. It seems to be going well,” Johnson said. “We were hoping to be open a little bit sooner but in order to be certain to do everything the right way and we don’t have hiccups once we do open our doors, we figured we need to be deliberate in our timing.”
Some of the recovery coaches may be on their own journeys of recovery. “They’re going to be there not just as a monitor to make sure people are safe, and not just to make sure they get a lunch each day and have coffee,” said Johnson. “They’re going to refer them to resources as well. So they’re going to training this week. They’re meeting with Arctic Access to learn about all the services they provide. The CAMP Department is coming in this afternoon to talk about the services they provide. And the list goes on through this week so that when somebody comes to us and says ‘I wish I could get food stamps. I don’t even know how to go about doing that,’ we’ll be able help them up with Public Assistance. So it’s not about behavioral health services, because we know a lot of people are not going to be ready for that. It’s about getting them resources that may lead to them getting on their feet. If a recovery coach is on their own recovery journey right now, they know a lot of folks. So they’re already building that easy rapport.” Trust is going to be important.
To accomplish monitoring the rooms of the day shelter, security cameras are on order. People will be coming directly from the ER and might need to recover a little more. They’ll be able to rest quietly but need to be monitored.
The shelter has a common area where people can relax, watch TV and play games. Another room will have two public computers for the visitors to use.
“We have a triage form that says ‘Here are the services that are available throughout Nome.’ If we know that five people have been talking about public assistance, then we’ll invite public assistance to come in and present in that group room. Maybe vocational rehabilitation or whatever it might be. It’s not just for people to come and hang out, although that’s part of it. It’s also a place to get resources if you need them.”
Johnson thinks the first couple of weeks will tell whether they need more space. “Perhaps we will expand,” he said. “But we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”
The day shelter, which still doesn’t have an official name, is funded by Norton Sound Health Corporation. According to a NSHC press release, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Health Resources and Services Administration awarded Norton Sound Health Corporation a grant just shy of $285,000 earlier this year. “These funds will enable health centers like NSHC to expand substance use disorder and mental health services,” according to the press release. With the opening of the Day Shelter soon approaching, Johnson says this grant came just in time.
“Because we see a need,” said Johnson. “It’s great we have the NEST for the overnight. But you were just out there. It’s bitter cold, right? And we’re not just talking the winter season. While this is a pilot to see if it’s really needed we want to keep doing it year round.”
NEST is currently open from 9 p.m. until 9 a.m. “We found a way to open at 8:30 in the morning and close at 8:30 p.m. in the evening,” Johnson said. That leaves a half hour gap for transitioning from one shelter to the other. “So we’re going to have 23 hours of shelter here, at least through the winter,” Johnson said.
Meanwhile, Marlene Nakarak and a few friends were staying out of the cold wind in a nook just off Front Street. The Nugget asked the group how they spend the day. “All day outside,” answered Nakarak. How do they keep warm? “Play games, stay warm, have fun, move around,” she answered. “We go inside places and warm up here and there. Sometimes the bars don’t let us go in just to warm up.” The now vanished Polaris Bar used to let them in. “They had a heart,” said Nakarak.