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Nome Community Center Requests City Designate Area for Unsheltered Population

General photo of multiple tents crowded together for a public rally in Los Angeles. Photo from the public domain via Creative Commons "#occupyla protest" by Steve Devol is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/)

In big cities across the country, places near the U.S.-Mexico border, and potentially soon in Western Alaska, one can typically find temporary tent cities for the local homeless populations. Sometime in the very near future, the rural hub city of Nome could have a tent city of its own.

One Nome citizen implored the City Council Monday night to designate a central city lot for the unsheltered to set up tents and temporarily sleep there.

“What you all don’t realize is they’re amazing people… Yeah they seem like a nuisance, but they are amazing people.”

– Jodine Mueller

Jodine Mueller is one of about 40 transient individuals who used to frequent the NEST and Norton Sound Health Corporation Day Shelter on a regular basis. She shared some personal details about her “rough” last four years in Nome during Monday night’s City Council meeting, when the meeting was opened up to citizens’ comments.

Now, she is employed with Nome Public Schools and has stable housing out at the high school dorms.

Rhonda Schneider, the director of the Nome Community Center, cited Mueller’s recent positive outcomes as the goal that NCC strives to achieve for each homeless individual living in the Nome area. However, since the NEST shut down its operations at the local Recreation Center for the season on May 31st, they’ve been limited in how they can assist their shelter guests.

“So we provided tents and encouraged people to find a safe place. We didn’t provide a place, we don’t own any property for them to have a place. But some of them wandered to the beach area, some of them wandered out on the tundra, and some of them found other places in between; probably abandoned houses. We aren’t even really sure where all of them are, but we’ve been trying to keep up with about 34 of them.”

Meanwhile, according to Schneider, NCC has committed to pick up all of the used tents at the end of this summer and provide new ones for their shelter guest to use in the future.

Under the current Nome Code of Ordinances, “overnight habitation in tents, vehicles, or other temporary structures … is prohibited on any property owned by the city.”

That also includes beaches, parking areas, and various public places.

As such, the current population living in NCC tents have been relocated from places within city limits to areas further away from town. According to Mueller, and others who have had to camp out at night, they’ve had run-ins with bears, muskox, and other wildlife that are commonly seen during the summer in Nome.

“I have another friend who is living out there and he had a bear go across his tent, he had muskox surrounded his tent. And it’s not safe out there, we all know that, we know where the muskox go. But if we were in one place, even if it’s just for the summer… Say ‘hey, I know Nome City ordinances don’t allow us to camp in town, but it would be so amazing if we allowed this.’”

Nome resident Jodine Mueller advocating for a “tent city” within Nome city limits during Monday’s City Council meeting. Photo from Davis Hovey, KNOM (2020).

In the name of safety, Mueller and Schneider asked that the city designate an area for free camping somewhere in the vicinity of Middle Beach to accommodate the local homeless population.

Schneider also added that another organization in town has offered their financial support for this request.

“Kawerak has committed a pretty significant amount of money to either pay for portable restrooms, or to build outhouses. If it could be in that area around the Mini, or close to the Mini, so that other services that are provided there could be taken advantage of.”

Schneider and Mueller convinced at least one councilmember to support their cause Monday night.

“One of the objections we’ve had in the past for allowing camping at Middle Beach was because there were no restroom facilities and it was going to be relatively expensive for the city to provide something more or less permanent. It sounds like Kawerak is addressing that aspect, so I personally would not have an objection to designating an acre or two that the city owns.”

– Councilmember Jerald Brown

Interim Mayor John Handeland said during Monday night’s City Council meeting that he would look into a possible space to host the tent city near the Mini Convention Center, on a piece of property that the city owns.

Image at top: Stock photo of multiple tents crowded together during a public rally in Los Angeles. Photo from the public domain via Creative Commons.

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