A man’s death while sleeping outside in Fairbanks a few days before Christmas, when the windchill was around 50 below, has highlighted a disturbing fact about Alaska’s second-largest city.
Fairbanks has no low-barrier shelter for people experiencing homelessness. Advocates say that leaves a gaping hole in the already-thin safety net Fairbanks has to help the unhoused survive winter in the coldest city of its size in the country.
That’s what a reporting team from the Anchorage Daily News documented in a recent story.
ADN reporter Michelle Theriault Boots says 55-year-old Charles Ahkiviana’s death, in a snowbank not far from a grocery store, brought into focus a difficult truth, that living unhoused in Fairbanks can be deadly.
Casey Grove: What does that mean to not have a low-barrier shelter? And, I mean, we’re sitting here in Anchorage, it’s not like Anchorage has done a great job of helping folks that are unhoused either, but there is a difference between those types of shelters, right?
MTB: Yeah. Fairbanks has something called the Fairbanks Rescue Mission, which is a very established organization. But there are some pretty stringent rules and guidelines you have to meet to get in the door. And that includes taking a breathalyzer and being sober — 0.0 sober — and taking a drug test to see if you’re on drugs. So they don’t allow people who are on any kind of substance, and that, you know, advocates would say, that’s a lot of the people who are seeking shelter. That’s a lot of the people who are, kind of, remain chronically unhoused or homeless in Fairbanks. And so while everybody agrees, or seems to agree, that the Fairbanks Rescue Mission does a lot of good and important work, advocates say there’s a huge hole in that safety net. And that would be a low-barrier shelter that accepts anybody. You can walk in anytime of night and day and just take refuge from the cold.
CG: And you were partnered up with photojournalist Marc Lester with the Anchorage Daily News. You and Marc went with folks to see how they were surviving in Fairbanks as unhoused folks, and Marc took some amazing photos that are a huge contribution to telling that story, I think. But describe it for me, you know, for the radio listeners, what did you see? What kind of things were people doing to survive?
MTB: Yeah, I mean, first we saw some tent encampments, where people had set up camps in, you know, greenbelts, little patches of forest. We were also taken to an abandoned house where people were squatting. It was just filled with stuff, filled with belongings probably. Who knows how many people had gone through there. It was dark, but it was somehow being heated, or an attempt was made to heat it, with just leaving the oven door open. And that looked like a pretty rough way to live. And then we talked to a guy named Scott who just described walking around all night. You know, people try to have bunny boots or as warm of shoes and coat as they can, and then they just keep moving, just constant motion. And then also, the strange logic is that to get into the sobering center, which is a warm, safe overnight place, you have to be drunk. And to get into the mission, you have to be sober. So a few people pointed that out to us, that those are the two options. And we really saw a lot of different attempts being made to provide safe shelter for people, but the system just isn’t developed enough to have, I guess, fully what’s needed.
CG: And speaking of the services like that, that people are able to provide in Fairbanks, you talked to the folks at the soup kitchen there. And there was a part in that story about how someone there told you, in terms of how these people are suffering, they just said look around, right? Tell me about that.
MTB: Yeah, I mean, the chef, Matt said, “Look around. A lot of the people who are here for breakfast are missing fingers due to frostbite.” It’s hard to imagine a more rugged, difficult place to be homeless, honestly, than Fairbanks. And the people we met, especially the unhoused people we met, who were very generous in talking with us and showing us how they live. Really, that’s true. It takes constant, kind of ingenious, hard work to be homeless in Fairbanks and to survive, and the climate is just so unforgiving. That margin between living a night and dying is, it’s really small, and I think that’s always on people’s minds.
CG: Yeah. And like you said before, what a lot of folks are saying is needed is a low-barrier shelter. So what’s going to happen with that? Are they on the path to getting something like that? Or no? What do you think?
MTB: You know, it sounded like there was some reason to think that things were moving in that direction. The City of Fairbanks has a housing coordinator who would really like to see a low-barrier shelter of some kind, but it’s not something that I think the city is going to take on itself, as has happened in Anchorage. And we have to remember in Anchorage, that’s a relatively recent development that only really happened during the beginning of the COVID pandemic. But I think that there’s an increasing understanding that what’s available is not sufficient.
CG: Gotcha. Yeah. You describe talking to these folks out in the street, you know, the guy that you mentioned that, to stay warm, would walk all night long. And they’re in a real risky situation, of course, and I wondered, as a reporter, we’re not supposed to get like, emotionally involved or invested or whatever. But did you wonder if that guy was gonna make it through the winter?
MTB: Oh, absolutely. I mean, I think every person that we talked to, people who were, again, generous with their time and kind to talk to us, you know, there’s always that thought and worry in the back of your mind. None of them really knew where they were going to spend that night. And so it’s impossible to know what the future holds. But I hope for the best for all of them. And I also know that some of the toughest people on the planet are people who are unsheltered in Fairbanks, Alaska, and finding a way to live and make it work.