“Hi. Are you hungry?”
It’s a simple question, backed up with an immediate offer of pasta and sandwiches slathered with salmon dip.
A little after 10 p.m. on a recent cold early spring night, two cars pulled up past the Glory Hole — Juneau’s homeless shelter and soup kitchen on South Franklin Street — and a group of women hopped out to dish up plates of hot food.
Chloe Abbott and Jackie Bryant show up in the same spot at least once a week when it’s cold out, with a rotating cast of other volunteers, to distribute food to Juneau’s most vulnerable population — homeless folk who, for one reason or another, are not able to take advantage of a shelter bed and are sleeping on the streets.
Abbott and Bryant head downtown after 10 p.m., when they know the doors to the homeless shelter have been closed and anyone still outside is likely going to be finding a doorway or out-of-the-way spot to hunker down for the night. For the next half-hour, a shifting group of “campers” congregate with the volunteers, enjoying a meal and some conversation. The two women keep tabs on the regulars, checking in with a man who recently had dental work done and asking one young woman about a job search.
“Hey, do you need a jacket? I have some great hats, too.”
Since November, Abbott has also been collecting and distributing cold-weather gear she keeps stashed in the back of her car. On this night, she is particularly jazzed over a donation of expensive thermal gear and sleeping bags.
Her volunteer effort was prompted by a Facebook post from a woman who took photographs of homeless people sleeping downtown.
“She was annoyed,” Abbott recalled. “It bothered me so much, someone complaining about human beings who were struggling. I wanted to do something. … Many of us aren’t that far away from being homeless.”
So Abbott started taking donations of clothing through word of mouth and on Facebook, both on her own page and through groups like Juneau Community Collective and Pay It Forward.
She began collaborating with Bryant, whom she met while volunteering at the Glory Hole, adding, “Jackie’s amazing, she’s got such a caring heart.”
When the holidays hit, Abbott said, she wanted to do something nice.
“Jackie and I made goodie bags with gloves and Christmas candy and hand warmers — just small things,” she said.
Abbott has chosen to concentrate on clothing, focusing on “survival gear.”
All week long, she picks up items and often finds herself circling through downtown on a nightly basis, searching for those in need.
“It’s almost a little bit too much too handle,” Abbott admitted, although she remains grateful for the outpouring of goodies. “Every day I think about how to organize to help out. It’s hard. I work full time, I’m a single mom.”
But the idea of easing up hurt her heart, she said, especially when the cold weather kept up through March.
Even with the temperatures climbing, Abbott still sees herself going out to help, maybe cutting it to one night a week or the weekend. She also plans to advocate wherever and whenever possible, even though, she admitted with a laugh, testifying in front of all those people while the Assembly was debating its controversial camping ordinance was “difficult.”
In February, the Assembly voted to allow the Juneau Police Department to evict people sleeping on private property in a narrowly defined area of downtown between midnight and 7 a.m. If they don’t move, they can be fined or even arrested for disorderly conduct. The new rule will take effect April 15, after Thane Campground opens for the summer.
Like other advocates for the homeless, Abbott sees the ordinance as unnecessarily punitive, asking, “How are you going to ticket people who don’t have a place to lay their head?”
One thing that keeps Abbott going is a fervent desire to be a good role model for her children, to show them first-hand how hard life can be for others, and ways to help out.
“Life could be so much worse — it’s definitely a gratitude check,” she mused, before laughing at her unintentional word play. “It’s not an attitude check, it’s a gratitude check.”
‘These people have taken hits to the soul’
On any given Saturday during the winter, Cindy Dau has joined the line at the Southeast Alaska Food Bank by 8 a.m., picking up anything that could help her make a nourishing hot meal for the homeless of Juneau. On one recent morning, Dau grabbed some cans of soup, pumpkin puree and vegetables, as well as sandwiches from Breeze In and packaged cookies.
Afterward, she headed home to cook, ladling a thick stew into a slow cooker before heading back out around 2 p.m. to distribute food to anyone she can find. Typically she heads to the transit center where, she knows, some of the longtime homeless congregate during the day to warm up.
At the bus center, Dau and several friends hand out soup, sandwiches and cookies.
“It’s always a blessing when someone actually cares about us,” said Christy Dugaqua. “I feel like everybody thinks we’re savages.”
Dugaqua’s companion, Derek Totemoff, says he has been punched and has had his belongings stolen while camping downtown, saying, “You have to sleep with one eye open.”
They say they have been homeless, on and off, for about five years, sometimes staying with relatives.
Even though the camping ordinance has not yet been officially enforced, the couple say they frequently get rousted by police officers and security.
“We had to move four times last night,” Dugaqua said. “We woke up cold.”
Dugaqua and Totemoff expressed frustration with the Assembly vote on the camping ordinance, saying they’re afraid to stay at the Thane campground.
They’re not alone.
”What’s going to happen now, with the sidewalks closed?” asked Mary Kidd.
Dau, a second-generation Juneau resident, has been out quietly feeding the homeless of Juneau for the last 10 years or so. More recently, she become an outspoken advocate in part, she said, because she is frustrated with the lack of progress in finding solutions.
“I know there’s a mental health component. I know there’s a lack of housing. I know there’s a financial component,” she said, before expressing disappointment that Juneau — the state’s capital — has not done more. “You would think by now something would have come together. It boggles my mind. I don’t understand why, with all the money we have and the purported focus on the homeless, why does the situation keep getting worse?”
To Dau’s mind, Juneau’s residents have lost the compassion she used to see when she was growing up, with a widening gap between the haves and the have-nots leading to disdain at best.
“These people have taken hits to the soul — they don’t need our anger or fear,” she said. “I know there are some bad apples out there, but there is not a safe place for them to be.”
Dau called the camping ordinance “absurd and inhumane,” adding that the city treats stray dogs better by keeping them in a shelter that is warm and that has food and water.
“I used to be afraid of the homeless,” she admitted, saying that she worked downtown and had gotten in the habit of just stepping over them.” But then I built a relationship with them. They deserve more. They deserve the effort.”
A strong sense of civic duty propels Dau’s reluctant activism.
“I’m not good at speaking out, but this is something I’m passionate about,” she said.” If I sense an injustice, I’m there. I can’t stand back. … This is my city — I’m not going to stand by anymore.”
Dau is exploring some ideas in collaboration with other homeless advocates in the community, even though, she says, they might just be pipe dreams.
“A lot of people are stepping forward to help,” she said. “Do we need another shelter? Can we get some land? We’ll build a grassroots movement, if that’s what it takes.”
Even the smallest of efforts can make a substantial change, she knows.
“Somebody has to do it,” Dau said. “We’re going to (have to) do something different. We can’t keep having this same conversation.”
Want to be an angel? Donate online at the Juneau Pay It Forward Facebook page; Dau said rain gear, boots and socks are desperately needed.
• Contact reporter Liz Kellar at 523-2246 or firstname.lastname@example.org.