Solving homelessness in Anchorage is one of the most complex social issues facing our city. People experiencing homelessness face a myriad of struggles ranging from, at best, short-term money woes to, at worst, lifelong incapacities.
There are many outstanding services available to help: a meal, shelter, job training, counseling. What’s been missing — and what’s been changing recently — is the way for the helpers to systematically find, know, tailor assistance, and keep an eye on people to keep them on the path to stable housing and self-sufficiency.
While there’s no silver bullet, and no single person, organization or funder that can solve homelessness alone, the good news is that we can make headway on complex problems like homelessness through the deliberate, structured collaboration of organizations, volunteers, and community investors who agree to work toward a common agenda.
An example is Anchorage’s Mobile Intervention Team (MIT).
The Mobile Intervention Team (MIT) was born of mutual needs because, at the Brother Francis Shelter and Beans Café on Third Avenue, a proliferation of nearby homeless camps and the presence of people who were not being served by food or shelter strapped the ability of staff and security to deal with increasing crime and chaos. Anchorage police and fire emergency responders wanted to answer fewer calls to the area. Staff working at those organizations wanted to end fights, trespassing, and drug dealing on the property. People using the services wanted to be safe from those preying upon their vulnerabilities. Residents of our city wanted assurance that our resources were being used to move people toward help and that emergency services remained available for all crises.
With funding first from the Muni and United Way, a social worker and mental health worker joined the Community Action policing team and emergency responders. The team’s new configuration eased turbulence and moved people toward help. The MIT has now expanded their range to the city’s homeless camps.
This outreach the MIT provides is intensive – they must reach not just through tent walls but also through addictions, mental illness, physical disabilities, incomprehension, mistrust, and alienation. Some of the people the team meets are not just the hardest to house but the hardest to help.
MIT members know how to read people – when to press and when to back off. They’re fearless without aggression. They show respect. Sometimes it’s no more than leaving a card with a phone number. It there’s no call, they’ll leave it a second time, and a third. It can take a lot of visits before someone conditioned to street life finally responds to an outstretched hand. Only then can the network of providers move individuals toward their own definition of a better life.
Such patience, savvy, and trust are necessary for a “warmer handoff” from the MIT to agencies that can help with housing, treatment, counseling and other assistance. “Warmer” means names, not cases. You’re somebody, not just a problem that fits a definition. When the MIT refers you to help, they refer you to a person, and that person knows your name.
Trust is hard-won; consistent collaboration takes resources and work. Success is not 100 percent every day.
This interconnected web of resources – funding, people, time and facilities – is how we make progress on our community’s most complex problems.