Nancy Burke has worked on housing and mental health issues in Alaska since 2002. She’s a mental health clinician by training, but ended up working the policy side through the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, former Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz’s administration, and most recently with the United Way of Anchorage, where she oversaw housing programs.
Now, Burke is leaving Alaska to lead the St. Francis Center, a large nonprofit that operates housing, shelter and supportive programs in downtown Denver.
Before she goes, Burke shared her long view of Anchorage’s homelessness response.
The interview and following transcript were edited for length and clarity.
Jeremy Hsieh: How has the way Anchorage talks about homelessness changed in the last 20 years?
Nancy Burke: Anchorage is talking about homelessness – that’s the big headline.
JH: It was just not talked about?
NB: We ignored it, oh, yeah. Everyone was. There were people in the woods, there were people on the street, and it was sort of relegated to nonprofits. “Oh, well, the nonprofits will take care of that.”
And in fact, the municipality didn’t have any investments in homelessness before the 2015 administration, the Berkowitz administration,
JH: Huh, really.
NB: I mean, there were some, there was maybe a couple $100,000 of federal passthrough funds. But there wasn’t an investment in like, “Let’s figure out how we get people to housing.” And then the people who took the brunt of the public challenges were the businesses where people were in front of the businesses, the police, the fire department, those emergency response agencies, you know, felt it.
We had these, these sites where lots of people were overcrowded in, our main shelter was overcrowded and the police were responding, like 100 times a month to those sites, and there was just no, no way to move out of that. Everyone was stuck.
So you had a set of people that were really sort of relegated to homelessness and living in shelters. And that was, that was their life. There was no option for people who had behavioral health issues, mental health or substance use issues, there was no way for them to make it through a program.
The Mental Health Trust Authority prioritized that because there was nothing for them. Now, what I see happening is those elements are being generalized out. So you’ll hear the homeless coalition talk about taking a housing first approach. And what they mean is all of those elements that people who had the hardest time engaging in housing are being used now for the whole system. And that’s a tremendous advancement, that’s really exciting to hear that language.
JH: Do you think the population experiencing homelessness has changed over the last 20 years as well, and the obstacles they face?
NB: The population of people that are in our homeless service system experience, I think, disproportionate amounts of disabling conditions that other states have resources to address – so people who have mental health issues, substance use issues – because our state system is not robust. Our state system has been underfunded for decades, really.
But what’s happened in the last few years is the price of an apartment, the economics – and homelessness really is more driven by economics than some of the other things that people like to point at. But you know, if a person has a disability, and they receive Social Security or, you know, some of the programs that can help them financially, they might receive $1,100 or $1,200 a month, and that’s what rent costs. So 100% of your check would go to rent, where would you get your food? Where would you get, you know, the things you need? So economics really drives more of homelessness than other contributing factors.
JH: Some people think that creating a more robust safety net for people experiencing homelessness itself perpetuates homelessness. What do you think about that idea?
NB: You know, if you talk with anyone who’s had to sleep in a location that had 100 other people on mats on the floor, they’re going to tell you that it’s harder to engage and, and be present and not just constantly be closed up trying to just survive, that it’s harder to do the work to do to get out.
I do believe that your system needs to be very carefully crafted, and that you don’t over build that emergency part of the system. How much time do you want people to spend in that shelter? You know, historically, there’s been like a 30 to 90 days sort of number.
You want zero people stuck in that homeless service system. You want them to be able to get the opportunity they need and get them out. What that takes on the other end is you have to build out the opportunities for veterans, for families, for adults, you know, with certain other kinds of conditions. You need to make sure you’re building out this array of resources. And Anchorage just needs more time working on that array so that they can see what that throughput is, and how much of a shelter system, a safety net do we need, is the question.
No question we need it, and we need it to be a place where people want to come. Because when it’s overcrowded, when it feels unsafe, people will not come. They’ll go out to the woods, or they’ll, you know, make due in other ways.