Successes and shortcomings in Anchorage’s homelessness strategy

As the year comes to a close, Anchorage officials are taking stock of the city’s problems with homelessness. Several assertive measures to connect people with housing and social services are succeeding, but the coordinated effort is showcasing just how much work is left to do.

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Members of the Assembly's committee on homelessness listen to reports from different non-profit partners on Wednesday, December 14th, 2016. (Photo: Zachariah Hughes, Alaska Public Media - Anchorage)
Members of the Assembly’s committee on homelessness listen to reports from different non-profit partners on Wednesday, December 14th, 2016. (Photo: Zachariah Hughes, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage)

A Wednesday meeting of the Assembly’s committee on homelessness put on display the measurable gains being made by city programs, and also where critical gaps remain.

Assembly members were briefed on a number of programs implemented over the last year, which included a lot of good news. Dozens of people have been moved into housing since this summer. Coordination among city services and non-profits has created a list of 250 vulnerable adults, including their names and needs based on comprehensive assessments. And a number of experimental programs are showing positive results.

One is work-van program run by a company called Alaska WorkSource. This fall, staff picked up individuals living or panhandling on the street and brought them to work sites. Reporting by the Alaska Dispatch News recently uncovered questionable practices handling a no-bid contract from the city worth $75,000. WorkSource’s Executive Director Darryl Waters took issue with the claims during remarks at Wednesday’s meeting, and stressing that what matters more is the half-dozen people who have gotten sober and found employment in the four months since the program launched.

“That’s how we roll, we don’t do a lot of technical stuff, we get right to the matter: ‘how do we help you?'” Waters said.

Waters was joined in the audience by five of the people who have gone through the program.

The committee’s chair, South Anchorage Assembly member Bill Evans, is pleased with AlaskaSource’s results, which he held up as a compassionate and cost-effective way of getting people off the streets.

“But that doesn’t give us a pass,” Evans cautioned. “Even (though) we’re working for a good end we’re still subject to public scrutiny because we’re using tax-payer dollars, so we have to be willing to take that level of scrutiny or criticism.”

Addressing Waters’s objections to the reporting about his venture, Evans offered his own diplomatic interpretation: “If anything the criticism seems to be directed mostly towards the city, the Assembly, whoever granted the contract on a no-bid basis, and whether we rushed into that or not.”

Much of what the committee heard was that some of the city’s efforts to gather data on the extent of Anchorage’s homeless problem and deal with it comprehensively are working too well, in that they’re giving stretched employees and services more work than they can handle.

One example are homeless camps: a systematic approach to locate, log, and clean up camps has nearly tripled the amount of material hauled to the city’s dump over last year. So far, 138 tons of debris have been removed, according to the city’s Parks and Recreation director John Rodda. The demands placed on staff from the aggressive new approach were, Rodda said, not physically possible.

The increased focus has exposed other over-burdened services as well. Alison Kear, the executive director of Covenant House, told Assembly members that not only are overnight shelters unable to house everyone in need amid an ongoing cold snap, but it’s often non-profit employees who are picking up the slack.

“We’re asking organizations to function over-capacity, and we’re calling it a ‘municipal cold weather plan,'” Kear said. “The organizations are funding the back-bone of this, and it needs to change.”

Kear also spoke of critical missing gaps in the city’s social safety net and ability to get people stable on the way into housing. Chief among them is a shortage of detox beds and substance abuse resources.

To make the point, Kear put a tan grocery bag on the conference table. Inside, she explained, were the cremated ashes of a 23-year-old who died of a heroin overdose on December 3rd. The young man was Tucker Sauder, son of Lisa Sauder, the executive director of Bean’s Cafe, a local soup kitchen.

“That young man had myself and Lisa, who I feel like is a pretty relentless person. I could not get that kid treatment,” Kear said. “I think there’s something wrong when we continue to fund the pickup of people and we don’t fund what we do after we pick them up.”

The homelessness committee’s next meeting will be in January of 2017.

Zachariah Hughes reports on city & state politics, arts & culture, drugs, and military affairs in Anchorage and South Central Alaska.

@ZachHughesAK About Zachariah

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