A 2020 photo of the building that houses First City Haven, the shelter run by First City Homeless Services. (Photo by KRBD)

The Ketchikan City Council has voted to cut hours at the town’s only 24-7 emergency shelter due to safety concerns from neighbors.

The city’s annual lease for the shelter, First City Haven, expired in May and has since been month-to-month. The new lease allows 22 hours of operation per day for the first six months. For the second six months, the shelter would be opened only at night.

The decision came during a special meeting on September 5th, after the council heard from nearby business owners speaking about inappropriate activity outside the 54-bed shelter. It’s a concern they’ve voiced since the shelter moved to its current downtown location two years ago.

Sean Heismann owns Bawden Street Brewing nearby. He said the problem is getting worse.

“I call the cops a lot more, at least once a week, sometimes twice a day,” said Heismann. “It has a negative impact on my business and has a negative impact on my customers. I now have to walk my female employees to their cars at night.”

Others spoke against limiting services.

Steve Hayburn is the vice president of First City Homeless Services, the local nonprofit that runs the shelter. He’s also a probation officer with the State of Alaska. He said there are over 800 unhoused people in Ketchikan 165 of whom used the emergency shelter through August of this year. Over the same period, the shelter served over 18,000 meals.

He said First City’s programs help prevent people from sleeping in doorways, parking lots, and playgrounds. He said the shelter not only keeps people alive, it also helps them live better through a work program. He urged the city council against cutting services.

“How are you planning to replace 20,000 meals or are people to be expected to steal from the business to survive?” Hayburn said. “Are you prepared for more camps and an increase in prostitution, sex trafficking, and survival behaviors?”

Hayburn said they’ve heard concerns from local businesses and have begun looking for an alternative location away from the downtown area. They hope to have that figured out within a year.

Some council members voiced concern that more people would be out and about if the shelter were closed. They also discussed the possibility of losing grant funding if services were cut back.

Council members, like Riley Gass, called it a conundrum.

“The question I think we have to ask ourselves — I’m not sure I know the answer right now — is if those people then have to totally leave the premises, is the community as a whole during those day hours, will this problem get worse or better?” he said.

In the end, council members voted 4-3 to cut the operating hours of the shelter within the 12-month lease.

Besides shortening the hours of operation, the council also voted to move the shelter’s entrance to a side door of the building, pending the Fire Marshall’s approval.