Yes, we all can do something about homelessness in Anchorage. We can help to prevent it.
Keeping people housed is the purpose of the Walk 4 Warmth on Friday, February 7, when United Way of Anchorage will lead a half-mile walk along the Delaney Park Strip and C Street from First Presbyterian Church to the Anchorage Museum. We’ll be raising awareness and money for rent and utility assistance for struggling Anchorage families and individuals facing eviction or having their heat, lights or water cut off.
“The whole goal here is to prevent homelessness,” said Alan Budahl, executive director of Lutheran Social Services. Budahl and his outfit have long experience in effectively getting rent and utility help to people who need it, and Lutheran Social Services is where the money from the Walk will go.
The Walk 4 Warmth renews an event last held in 2017, when the Walk raised $31,781. Budahl is glad to see it back. And we’re glad to restore it. Both Lutheran Social Services and Alaska 2-1-1, United Way’s statewide helpline, have logged numerous calls for rent and utility emergencies over the last year. Too often, we had little or no help to offer. Lutheran Social Services had no money for rent and utility assistance throughout 2019; during the December holidays, 47 calls came in with no assistance available.
Here’s where an ounce of prevention is worth many pounds of cure. With the funds replenished, Lutheran Social Services can restart its program to keep people housed. As Budahl says, it’s not a simple handout. People must apply in person with an eviction notice, utility cutoff notices and/or lease agreements in hand. Then case management happens. Sometimes all it takes is buying time for a family to get squared away. But often solutions may involve more than rent and utilities.
“You’ve got to listen to every story,” he said, to understand a family or person’s situation and need. Lutheran Social Services doesn’t just hand over a check and say good luck. They work with people on plans to sustain their households. For example, Budahl said, one struggling parent complained that “it just costs too much to feed a family of four.” So rent money was going for groceries. Budahl said they showed the parent how to use the Lutheran Social Services food pantry to keep the family fed – and make sure rent was covered. Common advice: don’t spend the rent check on groceries. Don’t risk an eviction, because that will make it harder to rent or buy in the future.
“We can more easily feed people in this town than we can house them,” Budahl said. Rental assistance helped this family on the brink, but a better plan for groceries pre-empts arrears on rent in the future.
In the same way, getting to know a family’s situation allows more effective counseling on managing utilities. Budahl said some who come to Lutheran Social Services with sticker-shock bills don’t understand that budget billing comes with a true-up date. If they’ve had additional family staying with them – or in the case of one unfortunate woman, a relative with an RV pirating electric power with an extension cord under the snow – the difference can count in the hundreds, and suddenly they can’t pay the bill. Budahl’s advice – if you’re going to be host to extended family and friends, don’t do budget billing. Get reality on a monthly basis.
Another a woman had a surgery that kept her out of work for months, and she was desperate to catch up with rent. Her employer held her job open for her, and Lutheran Social Services was able to bridge the gap of recuperation. Budahl pointed out that her story is common. Working families are often one medical emergency away from the debt spiral. Timely help keeps families standing.
Lutheran Social Services coordinates its work with the Anchorage School District’s Child-in-Transition program for the children of families experiencing homelessness and with employment services like Nine Star.
But none of this can happen without a pool of money that pulls families and individuals back from the brink of homelessness, that meets immediate needs to create time for long-term solutions. In short, we can more easily keep people housed in this town than recover housing for them.
That makes the Walk 4 Warmth an exercise in both prevention and diversion. And that’s United Way’s piece of Anchored Home, the city’s three-year plan to make homelessness rare, brief and once-only in Anchorage. If the Walk succeeds, “we can put more emphasis on the prevention and diversion,” Budahl says. “This is a start.” He hopes that the Walk will provide seed money to tap more resources and more emphasis on prevention and diversion. We share that hope.
Anchorage excels at coming through when the need is clear and the means are at hand. The Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness counted 386 families, with more than 1,100 people, who experienced homelessness in our city in 2019. We estimate close to 17,000 families struggle to make ends meet and juggle paying bills, the fear of eviction or that door hanger for a utility bill a persistent specter.
So, the need is clear. You can make a difference at any time with a donation at liveunitedanc.org/w4w. Come February 7, we’ll do a half-mile that will turn into miles of help for months to come. Let’s walk there together.