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Repurposed Shelter Houses Nome’s Homeless Seven Days a Week

Entrance to shelter
The entrance to the Nome “day shelter” on West First Avenue. Photo: Davis Hovey, KNOM.

Just before the New Year, a new facility opened in Nome to serve those who have no other place to go. This shelter complements the existing seasonal operation in town called Nome Emergency Shelter Team (NEST), and together, the two offer more comprehensive coverage than was ever available before in Nome.

What is now known as Nome’s “day shelter” officially opened at 8:30am on December 29.

“We want to make sure that they didn’t have to find and scrounge for shelter where it didn’t exist for them, out in the elements.”

According to Lance Johnson, director of Norton Sound Health Corporation’s Behavioral Health Services (BHS), this unique group includes people who are genuinely homeless — some were previously sleeping in snow banks — and it includes those who cannot return to their homes, for various reasons.

“I would also say some of that homeless population is here by circumstance and is transient, so they may have come in from the village, but they can’t go back for whatever reason. And so, they are here trying to figure out where to go, so this availability gives them that option at least now. I would say our population that utilizes this is about sixty percent Nome-based, and the rest is from elsewhere.”

Johnson says in its first two weeks of being open, the day shelter has accepted an average of 30 unique individuals a day, seven days a week. Jeffery Rose interacts with all 30 of those individuals on a daily basis.

“We were coming into this thinking, ‘nobody is going to accept us, right away… we’re going to have to work for it, build their trust.’ But four or five of them, right away, said, ‘dude, this is awesome, I want to stay sober because of this.’ And they are able to do a lot more because of that. They aren’t out there; they are able to eat and stay warm. This coming weekend (January 12–13) is going to be -20°, and they’re going to be huddled up in this place. I’m excited for what we are going to be able to do with the place.”

Rose is one of four full-time recovery coaches at the day shelter. His job involves playing cribbage with the guests, sharing meals with them, and most importantly, he listens to their stories about things like substance abuse and misuse.

“I have gone through, probably, my own journey, not too long ago, ‘cause I’m only 25. But I’ve also had friends and classmates go through these things. A really close friend of mine got in a lot of trouble, and he didn’t know what to do. He’s still battling alcohol to this day, but he got in trouble with other things. Seeing him and his family go through that was just… it really hits me, because all it takes, sometimes, is just a simple talk.”

The day shelter also features behavioral health service providers, who rotate through the facility about four hours a day. Despite the BHS staff, Johnson notes that this is a community endeavor that helps connect guests to services from several organizations in town, not just BHS.

“If we (BHS) came in here and said, ‘listen, I think we need to talk deeper, we need to do an assessment, let’s get you enrolled in services,’ we’re going to lose them. We’ve seen that time and time again, no matter where we are. We’ve got folks in here that may never ever come through the behavioral health services door, but if we can build those relationships, build that trust, build that rapport without any strings attached, then the opportunity will present itself at some point when they are ready.”

Located on West First Avenue, the old Bureau of Indian Affairs building (BIA) has been repurposed and renovated to become the new day shelter. Although Johnson did not have exact figures regarding the cost of this project and how much it takes to operate the shelter, he did say it exists without grant money.

“This is completely funded through Norton Sound Health Corporation (NSHC). In seeing that there was this need, or truly believing there was this need, we have found out as soon as we opened the door, there truly is a need for this (day shelter). There is no outside funding for this. There is great outside support, but we are the sole funder of this project.”

The day shelter is open from 8:30am to 7:30pm, Monday through Sunday, while NEST takes guests from 8pm to 8am.

As Johnson sees it, the 30-minute gap of time allows for transition between the facilities, and 23 total hours of shelter coverage is something that has never been offered in the City of Nome before.

Image at top: The entrance to the Nome “day shelter” on West First Avenue. Photo: Davis Hovey, KNOM.

Exterior of off-white building in Nome at dawn.
The Nome “day shelter” operates out of the first floor of this building on West First Avenue. Photo: Davis Hovey, KNOM.

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