NEST shelter closed for the season
Nome’s NEST shelter closed Wednesday morning, May 1. The temperature is climbing above freezing but plenty of snow remains and the wind can be bitterly cold. What will the forty-odd regular clients do for a safe and warm place to spend the night?
“We’re not quite sure yet,” said NEST Director Diane Sturges. “We have an exit interview that we’ll be working on over the next few days and that will give us a better idea.”
The number of overnighters has grown this year. “We found the last couple months it’s been almost 200 percent increase,” said Sturges. “Right now we’ve been averaging 260 people a week.” The week before closing brought the number of beds used this season up to 5,000. The regulars are somewhat younger than in past years, with more in their thirties. They’ve had some as young as 18-years-old, which is the minimum age.
“We get some tough customers,” said Sturges. “You have to remember we’re a wet shelter so they come in extremely intoxicated.”
The shelter opened its doors in 2009 in response to people dying on the streets of Nome from exposure. A small group of volunteers organized to provide meals and a safe, warm place for homeless people to sleep when the temperatures dropped. Now there’s a staff of ten, some of them formerly homeless themselves. NEST is housed at the Karmun Center at the Nazarene Church and is regularly open at nights from November until May.
The NEST guests get supper in the evening and breakfast in the morning. “Coffee is made by the time they wake up,” said Sturges. “Some mornings there are some of them that are pretty grumpy.”
Talking to some of those who stay at the shelter finds that most are from St. Lawrence Island. Many of them say they’ll go home when the shelter closes, that they came to Nome for medical treatment and decided to stay for a while. During daylight hours, when the shelter is closed, they can utilize the recently opened Day Shelter on First Avenue.
Acting Nome City Manager John Handeland arrived at the shelter with an ambulance responding to a man who had fallen and injured himself. He was bleeding from the mouth and nose. Handeland donned his latex gloves and helped deal with the man’s injuries. Later in his office he spoke about the role of the shelter in looking after those who live mostly on the street. “Obviously there is a need,” he said. One time he asked some of the regulars “Why are you here in Nome and why do you stay at NEST?” He found some were using it as a hotel while partying in Nome, but others explained that housing options in their own communities are limited. “Several have no heat, no warm place to stay in the village,” he said. “They’ve come to use the NEST shelter out of necessity. The NEST is actually an improvement in their living conditions.” Others have either mental or substance abuse issues.
“It’s not just a sleep off center,” continued Handeland. “There are those in that condition but there are others who just have no other place to go. It’s a safe and warm place. Norton Sound is working on a treatment facility and hopefully when that is up and running some of that population can be taken care of and their lives will be improved.”
Handeland sees those who are sober but down on their luck with no other option. “And there are some who have some behavioral health issues that need to be addressed,” he said. “We still are having issues with taxing of our emergency services and police services as a result of alcohol consumption.”
As the 8 p.m. opening time approached Sunday evening a small group of men waited on the shelter’s deck, soaking up the sun. Asked what he was going to do with the shelter closed one man shrugged and said “Freeze!”