It’s become a truism that what we’re doing about homelessness in Anchorage isn’t working.
Mayor Ethan Berkowitz, committed to ending homelessness here, has said as much.
When hundreds of homeless people in Anchorage continue to cycle through emergency room visits, jail and the hazards of street life, what we’re doing isn’t working.
When people recoil from squalid scenes of homeless camp trash along our trails or fear to travel along Chester and Campbell creeks, what we’re doing isn’t working.
Several new initiatives are underway, including housing for homeless youth, rapid rehousing for families that need temporary help to get and keep a roof over their heads, housing and employment support for homeless adults, and the 2-1-1 helpline to keep families in their homes.
These private-public partnerships show progress and promise. So maybe we should refine the line to say, “We’re not doing enough of what works – but we’re about to do much more.”
In the works now is an ambitious project by United Way and many partners to expand permanent supportive housing: The aim is to find homes for the hardest to house, the 300 or so people in Anchorage who qualify for the grim trifecta – In and out of jail, in and out of emergency rooms, and chronically homeless. Often they suffer from mental illness, addiction, and other disability. Their average age is 37, more men than women. They can be belligerent and obnoxious, even menacing. Thus they don’t easily touch our hearts. Most of us cross the street to avoid them.
But they are not all willful predators and petty thieves. Many are far more likely to be victims than perpetrators. Many have been victims in the past and suffer the ongoing cruelty of old trauma. Even some of those who have done time in jail suffer more from mental illness than criminal intent. These are the people who need permanent supportive housing.
We spend a small fortune now maintaining the current cycle – street, prison, emergency room, with a dash of social services, but not nearly enough of the help they need. The idea is to invest that money in housing and support services for people, to get them out of a chaotic street life and into a stable situation, with sustained help, landlord liaison and the right treatment. The idea is to invest that money to pay off in fewer panhandlers, fewer people living at risk of overdose, rape and freezing to death. The idea is to invest that money in cleaner parks because we’ll have fewer camps to clean up, and safer trails, because there will be less criminal activity for the woods to cover.
In a better Anchorage, we’ll cut trailside brush as landscape maintenance, not a counter to crime.
We need to make a distinction here between those among the homeless who are afflicted, and those who seem to have chosen to be homeless and staked a bogus claim to our land and trails, afflicting the rest of us. Permanent supportive housing, with its recruitment, vetting and sustained help, aims to find those willing to accept help and live a stable life.
All of our homeless neighbors need a roof. Many need long-term counseling, treatment and someone to look out for them. A few first need to be read their rights, speedy trial to follow. These are not mutually exclusive goals.
Those who cherish our greenbelts rightly bristle at what they see there, and the city has responded with a homeless camp cleanup proposal that’s due for Assembly debate, and likely legal challenges.
We hope those same frustrated citizens will take heart that hundreds of capable people are doing their homework to make permanent supportive housing work. This isn’t a hand-wringing task force whose work will be done with a report. Work on funding, recruiting, vetting and available housing is happening now. In July, the Corporation for Supportive Housing, a national organization with a record of success, will assess the Anchorage program to date and offer recommendations. The goal is to begin housing people in December.
Sustainable work takes time. Permanent supportive housing doesn’t have the visceral, visual impact of a bulldozer razing a trashed-out camp. But that housing does what’s right for people who need help and promises safer, greener, cleaner public places for keeps.