Temporary homeless shelter needs permanent fixes

Time at the Kenai Merit Inn can be measured in many ways.

Sometimes it’s long — the number of months it takes a homeless family to find permanent shelter again.

And sometimes it’s shorter — like the constant drip, drip, drip of melting snow finding its way from the roof through the ceiling and into scores of coffee cans stacked in various locations around the old hotel.

“It’s our indoor water feature,” said Leslie Rohr, Executive Director of Love INC of the Kenai Peninsula, which operates the Family Hope Center housed at the Merit Inn.

On Friday afternoon, all was quiet at the Merit Inn for a moment. Then Tammy Miles’ 9-year-old and 7-year-old autistic sons scrambled through the front door and ran past the front desk’s dripping water features.

Miles, who has been living at the inn with her boys and 18-year-old son for five months, was previously kicked out of her apartment after her marriage fell apart and before needing serious medical care, she said.

She said the Merit Inn and Love INC’s program that allow them to live there at low or no cost has helped her tremendously and has brought her two shy sons out of their shells.

“They were really introverted and here it is such a communal, family living,” she said. “Everyone kind of helps each other out with their kids and that part has been really good for my children.”

But Miles worries about the Merit Inn’s water features and their drip, drip, drip.

“It kind of scares you after a while with the electrical,” she said. “That’s my thing — just start off with the roof. Go down the list and that’s the most important thing because it causes mold and mildew and we don’t want that. ... I know there is a longer list of things that need to be done, but things are starting to come down, pop and bubble.

“They need to do that so it doesn’t shut down or anything like that because without this place it would be bad.”

Rohr and Love INC have asked for $1.75 million from the Alaska Legislature in the form of a capital budget request through Rep. Kurt Olson, R-Soldotna, in order to fix up the Merit Inn, and the nearby Way Café where church volunteers serve free meals to youth and reduced-cost meals to adults.

With less than two weeks remaining in the regular legislative session, Rohr explained Thursday why the group needs the funding from the Legislature. Although she is unsure if the group will receive the money, she said it is needed to fix up both buildings that have seen few upgrades since they were built in 1964.

The money would help fix the roof and solve other problems with the plumbing and electrical wiring, weatherize the windows and doors and help spruce up the cosmetics of the rooms. The money would also allow Love INC to demolish the adjacent bunk house currently in poor condition and purchase the facility and land, which they have been leasing since April 2010. The group’s plan is to eventually rebuild the bunk house with 16 rooms, but that is not part of the current request.

“Owning it opens up more funding sources for us,” Rohr said. “It is difficult to raise capital funds to do improvements on a building that you don’t own.”

When added up, all the problems throughout the buildings keep the Family Hope Center from being fully effective, Rohr said.

“With the age of the building, and the repairs that need to be made, rooms go down,” she said. “If a roof leak develops in one of our client rooms then we obviously can’t put anybody in it.”

Last year, the Merit Inn sheltered 207 homeless people representing 73 families. Priority goes first to families, then to the elderly and finally to single occupants.

If a family or person meets the program’s income requirements there is a $250 a month charge — or 30 percent or their income — to stay in a room, but no one is removed from the program for lack of payment. Those staying at the Merit Inn are required to do chores as part of communal living, be drug and alcohol free, and actively seek a job. The group tries to maintain 25 program rooms and 10 rooms for regular rental as revenue generators, Rohr said.

The Merit Inn’s location is perfect, despite the building’s condition, Rohr said.

“Is this the ideal building? Who knows? But it is what was available and was what kept coming to us,” she said. “It was like this is where we were supposed to be. When you look at that we have the job center and public assistance right behind us, Boys and Girls Club right across the street, youth center, the movie theater, the library, public health, grocery store, fire, police — everything is within winter walking distance.”

The capital project, Rohr said, would mean the difference between Merit Inn residents simply getting by, surviving day-to-day and thriving in their search for permanent housing.

“If we are able to provide them with a place that is aesthetically more pleasing, all the better,” she said. “Our mission is to provide them hope and while you don’t want them to be so comfortable that they don’t want to leave, you want them to feel like they are home while they are here.”

Merit Inn resident Danny Alexan said he feels at home — those he lives with are supportive and helpful and he feels the program is a good community safety net that lawmakers should see the value in.

“I’d ask them to put yourself in our shoes,” said the 34-year-old Athabascan and Aleut man who has lived there off and on for several years with his wife and children. “If you yourself have never been homeless and had to resort to this type of life, then wouldn’t you be grateful that there is something like this to help people that are homeless?”

Even though Love INC has other grants it can apply for to help with their building problems, those just won’t go far enough, Rohr said.

What happens if the group doesn’t receive state help?

“Lots of prayer,” Rohr said.

 

Brian Smith can be reached at brian.smith@peninsulaclarion.com.

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