Brother Francis Shelter builds new facility

News Source: Anchorage Daily News
Publish Date: May 11, 2005

Brother Francis shelter builds new facility

Old mural ties modern building to stories of past

Two homeless men at Brother Francis Shelter painted an enormous, engaging and stylized mural right on the dining room wall 17 years ago. It showed Jesus standing with Alaskans in a breadline.

Construction workers recently cut out that hunk of wall. They built a thick frame for the “Christ of the Breadline” mural out of golden birch. Now it hangs in a brand new Brother Francis, an artifact of the past welcomed by the future.

The city’s refuge for people with nowhere else to go is scheduled to open later this week. The new shelter will replace a drafty, converted equipment barn that opened as a “temporary” shelter in 1983.

The new shelter is 18,500 square feet, about 7,000 square feet bigger than the old building. Still, it’s not designed to sleep more people. The cap remains at 240, and most nights far fewer check in, 130 on average last fiscal year and even fewer during warm weather.

Instead, the extra room will allow more privacy for social services and health care, more office space, room for showers and storage.

As volunteers and shelter staff members scurried to unpack boxes and check essentials like phone lines, a few regulars sat one day last week on benches outside Bean’s Cafe, the soup kitchen across the parking lot from both shelters. From their open air seats they could see only the outside of the new place: stark gray concrete blocks framing a covered porch, where clients will be able to wait while checking in instead of lining up in the elements.

The porch, with its bay-like openings, “looks like a car wash!” said Dale Bradley, who has settled into his own room at the Mush Inn but periodically needs the shelter. Not that looks matter. “If it wasn’t for this place,” he said, “I wouldn’t be alive.”

John Maillelle, 40, said he’s living in his car but is glad to see the new building because “it’s helping out the homeless.” He uses crutches to get around. He said he was hit by a car a couple of years ago and needs a new hip.

To Travis Barnes, 25, a visitor, the shelter looks like “a high school mixed with a prison.” Barnes, a 1998 West High graduate, checked it out when he did his laundry. He makes $8 an hour setting up tables at the Egan Center and hopes to get his own place before too long. But it’s tough to come up with rent. He decided to spend some of his wages recently on a hotel room and a video game system.

Shiny blue lockers that line the wide hallways inside give the appearance of a school, Barnes said. So do all the bathrooms and the windows. “Nice,” he said.

But Barnes thinks “prison” when he sees the gray concrete blocks and dark metal gates that loom about 10 feet tall at one end of the covered porch. “That part kind of freaked me out,” he said.

The shelter’s managers wanted a durable, easy to clean building, and it is intended to blend in with the industrial neighborhood, said Tom Livingston of the architectural firm that designed it.

“It is an institution,” said Livingston, who spent a night there during the design phase. “The shelter management is devoted to getting these folks homes. While this has all the amenities of home, they don’t want it to be so welcoming that people don’t want to leave.” Landscaping to come will soften it some.

The center of each metal gate is a tall, terra-cotta-colored cross. Maybe that suggests church doors to some, but Livingston said that’s not the intent.

When the old shelter is torn down, the gates will be visible from the street and can be latched shut during the day, when homeless people are not allowed in. Though people can enter another way, “the gates are there as a symbol of being open for business or not being open for business,” Livingston said.

The shelter staff is reusing what it can from the old building, such as mattresses, computers, phones and supplies. A long, wooden park bench will make the move too. People too drunk to stay in the old shelter would sit there waiting for the Community Service Patrol to take them to the city sleep-off center.

Gregory Jack, 50, spent time on the old bench over the past 20 years. A little rest there often gave Jack time to reflect on his options and figure out he’d rather go back outside than be taken to sleep-off.

The bench won’t be a hot seat in the new building. It has a small room where clients can wait.

But “it’s a good, sturdy bench,” said Dewayne Harris of Catholic Social Services, which runs the shelter. It can provide a spot for people to wait to talk to their case managers, who help them plan for independence, he said.

The old shelter is cold, with its 30-foot ceilings and plywood floors covered with rubber that has rotted after so long. The sleeping area in the new place has radiant in-floor heat and, for easy cleaning, a drain.

Once people check in, they are supposed to stay. A covered smoking area was incorporated into the new design, surrounded by durable glass block walls, so people can’t pass booze in.

Then there’s the mural, moved over by a crew from Neeser Construction, which built the shelter. Harris in particular wanted to keep this piece of shelter history.

The artists painted real people. A woman who looks like a Yuppie backpacker is, Harris said, a former social services director at Bean’s. Others in the bread line are real homeless from the 1980s.

None of the people from the mural was sitting outside Bean’s on a cloudy morning last week. So many years have passed that most presumably have moved on. One of the artists lives on the Kenai now. It’s easy to imagine them all scattered to the four winds, settled somewhere else in a new life