ANCHORAGE — For Alaska's homeless, the bottom-rung residents of the Last Frontier, the challenge each winter is daunting in its simplicity: Find shelter or die.
"If you are a homeless person in L.A., it's almost guaranteed you are not going to freeze to death if you are on the street," said Natalie Knox, director of community relations for Catholic Social Services. "In Alaska, it's almost guaranteed that you will."
They start lining up at the door of the Brother Francis Shelter around 4 p.m., plastic bags and duffels under their arms, shuffling their feet on the snow and ice.
An hour later, the elderly and disabled among them are the first to enter the barn-like building, pick up a towel, stake out a mat on the floor and begin to warm up. Younger men and women follow.
By dinner time, some 300 or more homeless people will be inside the shelter, which once served as a storage shed for municipal snow-removal equipment. Emergency shelters in Fairbanks and Kodiak house another 100 or so.
"This is the bottom of the barrel, the bottom of the safety net," said shelter director Bob Eaton, known to all as Brother Bob. "There's only one issue--survival."
Alaska's bounty, which draws the down-and-out from afar, means more than hot meals, a bed and a shower. In extreme cases, shelters offer a lifeline; at the least, escape from frostbite or hypothermia from bedding down on a snowbank.
Winter temperatures frequently dip below zero, and extremes of minus 50 degrees are not uncommon.
"I knew it was cold, but I never thought it was this cold," said Leonard Baker, 42, who hitchhiked up the 1,500-mile Alaska Highway last year from Southern California. It took him a month in wintertime to get here, and he slept in temperatures as low as minus 35 degrees.
He now works as a part-time doorman at the shelter, where he stays, and is hunting for an apartment.
James (Flash) McKenzie, 23, arrived in the summer from Fairbanks, 260 miles to the north. He camped out until the cold forced him inside.
He works at the shelter and is studying bookkeeping. "I think it's pretty cool," he said. "I'm doin' something for myself."
Many are not. Some have been in the shelter on and off for a decade.
Dozens of the residents are mentally ill and have no other place to go, the director said. Many are alcoholics who leave for a while on a binge and come back.
"Some people make this their lifestyle--to most it's just temporary," said Marvin McNiel, 52, an alcoholic who has lived on the streets of Alaska and California since 1977. He has broken his nose eight times; ruptured veins in his face make him look 10 years older.
"It might sound crazy, but it sounded kind of adventurous," he said. "I wanted to find out what it was like. I found out. Once you get on the streets, it's kind of hard to get off."
Those streets are getting crowded. The city's social services manager, Jewel Jones, estimates that as many as 1,000 people are homeless in Anchorage, and perhaps an equal number are spread about in other cities.
The Brother Francis Shelter's "safe limit" is 230 occupants, but most nights there's an overflow that is sent to a nearby soup kitchen. Another church-funded shelter in Kodiak, 250 miles southwest of Anchorage, houses 40. The sole shelter in Fairbanks has 56 beds.
"We have people sleeping on the floor right now," says Bob Sawyer, president of the Fairbanks chapter of the Alaska Coalition for the Homeless.
Most emergency shelters are designed for single people. Just two shelters in Anchorage cater to homeless families: One holds 35 women and children, the other six families.
In a city where low-cost rentals are a rarity, an influx of new residents during the last year has put a squeeze on free spaces and prompted intervention.
Today, state, city and independent social service agencies plan to open a renovated National Guard Armory to 15 to 20 families.
"When they open the door they're gonna be astounded at the real need," Eaton said. "Man, there's a lot of people out there."
When the temperature plummets to zero, police declare "cold alerts." Officers search for people passed out in alleys or asleep on benches, hustling them into shelters before they freeze.
Tragedy stalks. In September, Vina Poulty, 24, a Brother Francis regular, died of hypothermia after passing out drunk in a homemade tent in a homeless camp.