‘Who are the 100?’ If budget vetoes stand, Anchorage shelter says it must choose who stays and who leaves

Brother Francis Shelter near downtown Anchorage. (Photo By Anne Hillman/Alaska Public Media)

On Wednesday, a few hours before the Alaska legislature’s vote to override Governor Mike Dunleavy’s budget vetoes would fail, Catholic Social Services executive director Lisa Aquino was all smiles as she greeted volunteers at the St. Francis House Food Pantry in Anchorage.

But alone in a conference room upstairs, it is clear that this was not a good day.

“I don’t have a lot of hope,” Aquino said. “There’s just a real impasse, and I don’t know what our chances are.”

As prospects for a veto override look increasingly slim, organizations that provide aid to low-income, homeless and other needy Alaskans say they have already had to make tough choices. But some of the choices ahead, they say, will be even more difficult.

Catholic Social Services runs Brother Francis Shelter, the biggest homeless shelter for adults in the state, and Clare House, a shelter for women and children. Both face significant funding reductions under the governor’s budget vetoes.

For example, Clare House could lose close to $200,000 in grants. Aquino said that probably means the shelter will only be able to open its doors at night.

“Instead of letting our moms and their children stay in the shelter all day and night, they would need to leave every day,” Aquino said.

Lisa Aquino, executive director of Catholic Social Services
Catholic Social Services Executive Director Lisa Aquino in the storage area of the St. Francis House Food Pantry. (Photo by Elizabeth Harball, Alaska Public Media)

“So there will be new moms, and moms with little toddlers, out in front of the library waiting for it to open at 10 because there’s nowhere else they can go,” she said. “To me that’s just.. it’s monstrous. These are children and they shouldn’t be outside.”

Governor Mike Dunleavy’s budget vetoed millions in funding that goes to serve Alaska’s needy, including $1.4 million from Human Services Community Matching Grants and $7.2 million from the Alaska Housing Finance Corp.’s homeless assistance program. 

Catholic Social Services projects that without state funding for their services alone, homelessness in Anchorage could increase by 48 percent. In total, the Anchorage Coalition on Homeless predicts close to 800 more homeless individuals in Alaska’s biggest city will go without shelter.

In addition to the impact on shelters, Aquino said she is concerned about the reduction in funding for case management services, which help people transition from homelessness to permanent housing.

For many, she said, “that ladder up, that foothold to take that next step, that’s gone with these cuts.”

Other organizations that aid Anchorage’s homeless population are also looking at making drastic changes. Rural Alaska Community Action Program CEO Patrick Anderson said that if the legislature fails to override the budget vetoes, two supportive housing facilities in Anchorage — Safe Harbor Muldoon and Sitka Place — “absolutely” will have to entirely close their doors.

Anderson said he doesn’t know where the people living there now will go.

“We don’t have the resources to be able to find them alternate housing. In fact, they’re with us because there was no alternate housing for them,” he said.

Anderson said this will impact about 350 people, including families and individuals with mental illnesses.

“We have hundreds of people who have made it off of the street despite their circumstances,” Anderson said. “It is distressing that instead of moving forward, all of a sudden, we are dealing with this huge step backwards.”

Matt Shuckerow, Governor Dunleavy’s press secretary, said he recognizes that some of the programs facing cuts have had “meaningful impacts.”

“A lot of times, this isn’t solely an evaluation of whether a program has been successful,” Shuckerow said.

But he maintained the vetoes are vital to addressing the state’s deficit.

“Part of that is evaluating what falls under a core service of the government,” Shuckerow said. “The governor in his office had to make tough decisions based on the fiscal reality that we have today.”

So at Catholic Social Services, Aquino said they, too, are making tough decisions. She said the organization has known for a while what the changes could be, like reducing the number of beds available at Brother Francis, the homeless shelter for adults.

“But now we’re in the point where we are trying to make those real. So having these discussions of, how do you go from 240 to 100 at Brother Francis Shelter?”

“Who are the 100? I don’t know,” Aquino said.

Aquino said she has reached out to the governor’s office multiple times and hasn’t heard back. But she said she’s happy to take a call any time.

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