Alaska Municipal League panel spotlights statewide housing shortages, homelessness

Municipal officials and nonprofit administrators from around Alaska gathered in Anchorage Thursday to discuss the state’s struggles with homelessness and housing.

While homelessness manifests itself in different ways in different parts of the state, the common denominator is a chronic lack of affordable housing, the panelists said.

Bryan Butcher, CEO of the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation and chairman of the Alaska Council on Homelessness, said his organization is working with the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority and other partners to hire a rural homelessness coordinator to direct resources and better address the issue.

“There needs to be a lot more of specific focus on how we define homelessness in rural Alaska to make sure that we’re not missing an issue that falls through the cracks,” he said. “Because it’s not the traditional homelessness that, say, the US government would define as homelessness.”

The Nov. 15 panel discussion, hosted by the Alaska Municipal League, included representatives from Fairbanks, Juneau, the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation and the Association of Alaska Housing Authorities.

Colleen Dushkin, an administrator with the Association of Alaska Housing Authorities, said the pervasive lack of housing in many rural communities forces multigenerational households and severe overcrowding.

“When you have that many people in a small proximity, it is not ideal,” she said. “Where if there were affordable housing for some of the community members, and some of the family members, then they wouldn’t be in the situation of being overcrowded, or homeless.”

Dushkin said regional housing authorities play a key role in developing more affordable housing. All of the panelists stressed the statewide nature of the problem: homelessness impacts Alaskans of all ages, in urban and rural areas alike, they said. Between July and September 2018, homeless service providers reached more than 4,500 people around the state, according to the Alaska Homeless Management Information System. Some 15 percent of those Alaskans were 17 or younger.

“That really seems to resonates with policymakers, when understand that when you’re dealing with issues of homelessness, it’s not just about the person on the street corner,” Butcher said. “It’s about children. It’s about people that have no choice; that are just having to live in the environment they’re in.”

Butcher said his organization hopes to develop and fill the new rural homelessness coordinator position within the next few months.

Kirsten Swann is a producer and reporter for Alaska Public Media.

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