Ketchikan’s city hall on June 11, 2020. (Maria Dudzak/KRBD)

First City Haven is a 24/7 city-owned shelter in Ketchikan. It’s a low barrier shelter, which means there are few restrictions on who can use its services. Complaints have been rising this summer from some area residents and business owners who say there’s unsafe or threatening behavior around the shelter. The Ketchikan City Council has started discussing its lease, which is up for renewal – and potential changes – with First City Homeless Services. 

There’s been a surge of public comment and discussion about the First City Haven shelter in recent Ketchikan City Council meetings. Some residents and downtown business owners said they see illegal or alarming behavior around the facility. Many said they want to see a solution that helps the vulnerable population while better protecting residents, visitors and businesses in the area, which is popular with tourists.

In a memo to the council on June 8, Ketchikan’s city manager, Delilah Walsh, listed a few potential changes she’d like to see from a lease with First City Homeless Services. They included commercial kitchen upgrades, identifying a smoking zone, and building a barrier around the patio facing the street. The list also asked for the building’s pest control schedule and for incident reports to be defined.

At its last meeting, the council had been directed to discuss the lease and the “scope of the building.”

Council Member Abby Bradberry pushed for the city’s lease with the shelter to stay as it is – month-to-month – for the next six months while the council mulls changes. She said changing the operating hours or capacity could help. 

“Everyone — not just, you know, certain groups or certain people or certain cliques or anything like that — everyone needs to be okay with the path moving forward, and I just don’t think we’re, we’re necessarily at that,” Bradberry said.

Bradberry said the council needs to be talking about other things related to the shelter, too, like transportation services.

“There’s a long list of items that we really need to talk about before we go for lease. I mean, it’s an unlimited list,” she said.

City Council Member Riley Gass wasn’t concerned with the services offered by the shelter. Services offered by First City Homeless Services and their connected partners include help with paperwork and job applications, access to showers and laundry, the ability to work to gain experience and a small stipend, and two to three meals a day. There are also mental health resources, wellbeing classes, independent living help, and prayer. It’s what goes on outside that concerns him. 

“As was kind of said earlier, I’m happy with what’s going on inside,” he said. “But as far as what changes do we want to see, my emphasis would be on the property outside, because we’ve kind of gone over this — yes, they cannot go down the street, they cannot enforce across the street, etc. But what can we do to help all parties, members of the shelter staff,  residents, children in the area?”

Many people spoke in support of the shelter, including Jamie Cope, who uses the shelter. A handful of staff members and volunteers, some who have experienced being unhoused themselves, talked about what the shelter means to them.

“I’m there during the day and I’m there during the night,” Cope said. “And I observe how the shelter’s run, it is (a) very organized shelter with extremely kind, patient and organized staff — professional. I can assure you, there’s no drug or alcohol use by any staff member there. And if any participant has any drugs or alcohol, they are escorted out. And I see this firsthand.”

Mike Weston is the first vice commander at the American Legion Joseph T. Craig Post 3, across the street from the shelter. He also works at nearby Bawden Street Brewing, and shared an anecdote of alarming behavior around that business. 

“What I’m saying is that something needs to happen and happen soon,” Weston said. “Because right now, we’re playing in a room of dynamite, and everybody has a torch. We can’t control what’s happening around us.”

Deborah Asper is the chief executive officer of First City Homeless Services. Speaking to KRBD, she addressed the claims about inappropriate or illegal behavior and said staff can’t make anyone use what the shelter offers.

“We work with a demographic of people who, you know, who have, poor mental health — who are addicted to substances, who are constantly in fight or flight. And so, the ability for the brain to function regularly is not there,” she explained. “And I’m gonna I mean, yes, like, I think we all know that the bad behavior does happen. Bad behavior happens everywhere — bad behavior, that behavior happens in grocery stores, and in regular businesses and in other nonprofit businesses. We are not exempt for bad behavior.”

Asper said that shelter staff receive training on de-escalating situations from the police department, and they have regular staff meetings and training. She said shelter staff call the police if the situation is outside their training. 

Asper told KRBD that the shelter has complied with everything the city has asked. She said there are challenges that could make some upgrades difficult. She said there’s been discussion about a wall around the patio, although the available space is limited. 

“It’s doable, everything that they’ve asked us to do up to this point we’ve done,” Asper said. “And like at this point, it’s it’s looking at a services looking at the size of the building, looking at where we want to go.”

Asper also said she appreciates the Council discussion.

“I totally understand where they’re coming from,” she said. “And I like, I have the same concerns as the city council and as the general public as far as the growth of our homeless population.”

Asper wrote to the council last week to ask for a year-long lease renewal, but said her organization would still have to discuss accepting a new lease.

For now, a work session will be planned for the council to discuss what they want from the shelter, and ways to help alleviate concern for public safety in the area. The shelter remains on a month-to-month lease. 

Editor’s note: this story was updated to make more clear that the lease is up for renewal.