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

Ketchikan’s only 24/7 homeless shelter is in the center of downtown, surrounded by popular tourist spots, homes and businesses. During recent City Council meetings, several people who live and work in the area have turned up to speak about how they feel affected by the shelter’s users — who they say participate in dangerous or illegal behavior on a main walkway.

This is the second of two stories KRBD produced on the First City Haven shelter issue. Listen to KRBD’s past evening newscasts wherever you get your podcasts, or find the first story here

Mike Weston works at Bawden Street Brewing, just down the block from   First City Haven. He spoke at a recent council meeting. He also is involved with the American Legion, which is right across the street from the shelter. 

“I can count on one hand how many times I don’t have somebody coming into the window staring at me, trying to talk to me, obviously high as a kite,” Weston said.

The shelter’s lease with the city expired in May, but it’s complaints like Weston’s that are driving the discussion around what renewing the agreement should look like. There are a lot of allegations and concerns: people being chased on streets, or yelling and making passerby feel unsafe. There’s been public testimony on the topic at both council meetings this month.

Ketchikan’s council members all had different ideas for how to tackle the topic. Some, like Abby Bradberry, wanted to see operational changes inside the shelter. 

At an earlier meeting, she shared allegations of drug use inside the shelter by staff, and said she’s in favor of closing it immediately to do an audit.

She suggested reducing the facility’s hours — and potentially, its capacity. 

“Capacity for me is a big one,” she explained. “I understand we have a lot of people who are needing services right now. But there is a limit to what, you know, a shelter that square footage should be housing in there. There is a limit, there is an appropriate humanitarian number or you know, square foot,  for people.”

Deborah Asper, the chief executive officer of First City Homeless Services, which runs First City Haven, says the shelter is cleared for 54 beds overnight. She said that having to reduce capacity would be a major issue for the shelter, and would likely lead to more aggressive behavior.

Council member Lalette Kistler said allowing fewer people in would only fuel what others are complaining about: unwanted behavior on the streets. 

“And it’s the same thing that’s happening with the people that are being pushed out of shelter, because they’re causing problems, is that they’re going and they’re sleeping on people’s doorways,” Kistler said. “I mean, where are these people going to sleep?”

Other ideas that were tossed around dealt with making changes outside of the building: putting up a barricade around the sidewalk, or organizing a neighborhood watch in the area. The shelter does have a security officer, but his authority extends only to the shelter itself, and not up and down the street.

Councilmember Riley Gass said he was happy with the services provided inside the shelter. But outside is different.

“I think one small solid step in the right direction would be to really put an emphasis on that small area between the building and the sidewalk,” he said.

Gass also acknowledged people on both sides of the issue.

“It was very humbling during this meeting, and the last one, to hear such passion,” he said. “I guess as people say, from both sides, or last meeting, from folks who don’t feel safe at their homes and businesses. And then to hear the other side of it to hear the the real passion of the folks working in this environment in the shelter. So it’s it’s good to hear that.”

Jai Mahtani emphasized that he didn’t fault anyone in particular, and homelessness isn’t something that just exists in Ketchikan. It’s everywhere, and it will take everyone to come up with a solution.

“I’m sure reaching out to people in different communities, within our community,  who have experiences and who have the expertise,” he said. “And at the work session, bring something to the table, that we can discuss it and start arresting this problem.”

But it will take time before any changes in or outside of the shelter will happen. A Ketchikan city clerk said a work session could be set in August for more discussions. 

Until then, the shelter is on a month-to-month lease, and would need 30 days notice if that changed. 

Disclosure: Jai Mahtani is a member of KRBD’s volunteer board of directors. He is not involved in the newsroom.