Community members want action from muni to get more detox facilities

Community members lined up to speak about detox facilities at the First Covenant Church in Anchorage. Hillman/KSKA
Community members lined up to speak about detox facilities at the First Covenant Church in Anchorage. Hillman/KSKA

People packed the pews at the First Covenant Church in Anchorage on Monday evening to discuss the municipality’s lack of detox facilities. The city of 300,000 people has only 14 detox beds. Before 2000, there were 34. Community members presented their concerns to Assembly members and hoped for solutions.

Detox facilities provide medical interventions for people withdrawing from large amounts of alcohol or drugs and help them manage the symptoms. The only detox facility serving Anchorage and the Valley is the Ernie Turner Center, which turns away 15 to 20 people every day. Waiting lists run an average of 10 days.

Heidi and Tomas Jensen researched the issue for Anchorage Faith and Action Congregations Together, or AFACT, then presented the data to the community.

“One thing we heard — if you can’t get people into treatment in that narrow window when they ask for help, then you’ve lost them,” Heidi Jensen told the crowd.

The Jensens said the problem isn’t new; the municipality and other organizations have issued 20 major reports on homelessness and alcoholism in the city since 1978. Most of them call for more detox beds.

Residents, like Ada Shavings, lined up to ask Assembly Members Bill Evans and Dick Traini for action.

“A lot of our friends, about 15 to 20 of them, have passed away just from waiting to get into treatment. A lot of them have died on the streets.”

Laura Eben said she wanted the Assembly Members to see the face of someone who needed detox, received it, and has now been sober for years.

“And I just ask for you to think about us who really need help when you think about getting more detox beds.”

Heather Smith was a pastor on the North Slope for nine years. She said people in her congregation wanted help finding detox facilities anywhere in the northwest, but she could only find spots for two of them.

“Those two people went through detox and rehab and are now leaders in their communities. Someone asked me as I was telling them this story, ‘What happened to the others?’ And I’ll tell you, many took their lives. Some died of alcohol poisoning, and I did their funerals.”

Assembly Member Evans said he’s heard all of these comments before, and he knows there is a problem. “There’s really nothing new under the sun as far as what is needed. The biggest problem as I see it is, as the presenters said, you need to transform the study into action, and basically action is not as easy as it seems.”

Evans said the assembly needs to take a nuanced approach to help people heal from addictions. Funding needs to go towards detox, treatment, housing, and support systems, but it’s unclear where the money will come from.

Assembly Member Traini said the action starts with more people speaking out, especially at assembly meetings and during the budget process.

Item 17 at the end of every assembly agenda allows people to speak about any topic they want, he told the audience. “I know I’m asking you to do a lot — I want you to stay ’til the end of the meeting… Come and talk to the entire Assembly until we’re tired of seeing you or get progress on this.”

“It’s time for action, not just talk,” Jensen said. “Untreated substance abuse in Anchorage results in unnecessary costs to the community, compromised public safety, and suffering for our families.”

Anne Hillman is the healthy communities editor at Alaska Public Media and a host of Hometown, Alaska. Reach her at Read more about Anne here.

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