Anchorage efforts to reduce homelessness see success, challenges

Housing advocates and local lawmakers say reducing homelessness in Alaska’s largest city is work in progress.

Members of the Anchorage Assembly’s Committee on Homelessness met Wednesday to hear updates on housing and social service programs and projects around the city. Among the highlights: a new community resource coordinator stationed at the Anchorage Public Library has so far assisted more than 200 people with information about housing, jobs, food and health care. The number of adults 24-and-older experiencing homelessness in Anchorage declined gradually between 2016-2018, according to community homeless counts published by the municipality.

But problems persist. Anchorage resident Stephanie Rhoades came to Wednesday’s meeting wearing a green sticker reading “Budget for Abatement.” She carried a stack of photos to show Assembly members. Homeless camps in her neighborhood park are just as sprawling as they’ve ever been, she said. The fix the problem, she said, the municipality needed the capacity to house the people living there.

“You have to have capacity for shelter,” Rhoades said. “You have to be ready, willing and able to shepherd people who are living in our parks, in filth, into shelters.”

Assembly member Felix Rivera, chairman of the committee, says funding is one of its top concerns. While Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s state budget proposal includes steep cuts to housing and social service support programs, Rivera says local lawmakers are looking for ways to pay for more.

“Because right now, all the data shows for the last few years, that we’ve been able to stay at status quo. But the community is telling us, ‘We want to move beyond status quo — we actually want to see a big reduction in the numbers,’” Rivera said. “To do that, we need an infusion of money so that we can have more housing, and have more support services and treatment.”

Rivera said a proposed alcohol tax currently on the ballot in Anchorage could also provide an important stream of revenue for fighting homelessness around the city. The measure, which would authorize a 5 percent tax on a retail sales of alcoholic beverages, could raise millions of dollars to fund programs ranging from substance use treatment to supportive housing.

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

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