It is important when discussing the problem of “homelessness” in Anchorage to recognize that it is not a singular problem. It is, in fact, a cluster of both social and economic problems loosely linked by their impact on the ability of individuals to maintain safe, reliable, and appropriate shelter. This cluster of problems includes but is not limited to: mental and behavioral health issues, substance abuse and addiction, physical health care issues, unemployment, insufficient wages, lack of affordable housing, domestic violence, and dislocation from a home community.
It is also important to understand that the individuals who are experiencing homelessness at any given time are not monolithic. They arrive in a situation of homelessness from various avenues and experience homelessness in a wide variety of ways and for significantly different durations. For many, homelessness is transitory and of mercifully short duration. For others, it is episodic and involves a life lived on the razor’s edge of falling into and rising out of homelessness. For still others, homelessness is persistent and long-term.
Because of the myriad causes of homelessness and the diversity of those experiencing homelessness, it is essential that we recognize that improving the homelessness situation requires a panoply of responses and efforts. For instance, adding greater substance abuse treatment capacity will not solve the problem of homelessness – it will help – but only to a certain degree. Similarly, adding affordable housing will help, but will not, in and of itself, end homelessness. Tackling homelessness requires a diligent and sustained effort on several fronts.
It is also important to recognize that the issue of “homelessness” encompasses two different, yet related, aspects. I refer to them as the “private” and “public” aspects of homelessness. The private aspect is the “individual” human toll and suffering resulting from issues such as addiction, substance abuse, mental illness, medical crises, abuse, income disruption or simply bad luck and/or poor choices. This private aspect refers to the actual individuals who are experiencing homelessness. Addressing the private aspect of homelessness requires various treatments, a wide range of social and medical services, and importantly, an actual desire on the part of the person involved to receive and accept available treatment and services. Not surprising, most discussions of “homelessness” focus on these issues.
There is, however, a public aspect of the homelessness problem that should be a significant focus of any government responsible for the overall well-being of the community. This public aspect of homelessness includes: the omnipresent spectacle of panhandlers on many major street corners; unsafe, unhealthy and deleterious behaviors taking place in broad daylight throughout the municipality; the dangerous and unseemly presence of multiple homeless camps on, or adjacent to, trails and public spaces; the growing threat of wildfires sparked by woods-dwelling encampments; the burden placed on both police and fire services in responding to a disproportionate number of calls for service, and finally, the not-insignificant economic, emotional and resource cost borne by the citizens and businesses of the Municipality.
Focusing on the public aspect of the homeless problem does not mean turning the Municipality’s back on the individuals who are suffering. In fact, addressing the public aspects of the homeless problem is necessary in order to improve the economic health of the Municipality and thereby increasing the ability of the Municipality to provide more resources and services. Declining cities are unable to tackle complicated and expensive social problems. Accordingly, a threshold step in addressing the problem of homelessness must be to guard and increase the economic well-being of the community at large.
The following steps do not purport to provide a silver-bullet “fix” to the homelessness problems facing Anchorage. They are, however, sensible steps that should be undertaken as part of any strategy to improve the problem of homelessness in our community.
- Storage Facility for Property – For many years the city has been engaged in an ongoing struggle with homeless camps. A chief problem we face in dealing with these makeshift camps is the prohibition on destroying the “property” of the persons in the homeless camp without due process. Because of this the Municipality is required to provide notice to the residents of the camps before it dismantles and eliminates their property. This has the sadly comic effect of “tagging” homeless camps for removal, watching them stay in place for several more days, and then moving to another location not far away where they are essentially a new camp and the process must begin again. Because of this we have fallen into a pattern of not cleaning up homeless camps, but instead of cleaning up “after” homeless camps.
This ineffectual dance can be eliminated or at least significantly reduced if the Municipality had an adequate storage facility where it could store, safeguard and protect the property taken from camps until such time that the property could be legally disposed of, or retrieved by its owners. This would allow for immediate dismantling of camps – a step that would make a dramatic difference in the number of camps around town and would further incentivize the camp-dwellers to seek approved shelter where other needed services can be offered.
- Prioritizing Temporary Shelter Over Housing First – Another legal requirement facing the Municipality is that in order to prevent persons from sleeping on sidewalks and public places, the Municipality must be able to demonstrate it has sufficient capacity in shelters for each homeless person.
While “housing first” has proven to show good results in some locations, it is also a costly model on a per-person basis (as compared to temporary shelter space). At present, and with limited resources, Anchorage should first ensure that its resources are devoted to ensuring that it increases its capacity for temporary shelter. The primary benefits of this approach are that: (1) it ensures that all who need “shelter” have a place to go where services can be accessed; and (2) it opens the door, legally, for the Municipality to take other measures to protect public property and prevent the deterioration of the community health and standards.
- Vigorously Enforce Restrictions on Streetside giving to Panhandlers – One of the more visible problems associated with homelessness is the ubiquitous presence of panhandlers on many intersections throughout Anchorage. While the act of non-aggressive panhandling is protected by law, there are certain lawful restrictions on motorists giving to panhandlers. The Municipality must robustly enforce these existing laws and thereby alter the economic model that makes panhandling a desirable option.
- Vigorously Enforce Existing Laws Regarding Public Drunkenness and other Nuisance Laws – Many of the panhandlers working throughout town are often engaged in other behaviors that are unlawful. The Municipality must robustly enforce these existing laws to reduce anti-social activities too often associated with panhandling. This is not criminalizing homelessness or poverty. It is simply ending the practice of homelessness equating to a free pass to engage in activities which are illegal and harmful to the public. Arresting persons for violating enforceable laws will not solve the homelessness problem, but it will tend to keep the problems associated with homelessness within a framework of acceptable behaviors.
- Increase Detox Beds and Substance Abuse Treatment Facilities – There is no escaping the fact that a substantial majority of homeless people suffer from substance abuse addictions and/or mental illness. You cannot effectively impact the problem of homelessness without increasing detox and treatment facilities. The Municipality has limited ability to unilaterally fund sufficient treatment facilities. It must, however, do as much as it can on its own and then work diligently and cooperatively with both State and Federal agencies to obtain added resources. It is imperative that we reach a situation in which any homeless person seeking assistance for substance addiction can receive it. Many will not seek such assistance, but we must be able to respond promptly and sufficiently to those who do.
- Increase Mental Health Facilities – It is no secret that the deinstitutionalization of state-run mental health facilities and the movement toward community-based mental health treatment has left many gaps in the mental health safety net. Community mental health centers are chronically underfunded and are too small to fully meet the needs of the communities they serve. It is important that Anchorage work with the State, the Mental Health Trust Authority and the Federal government to create a more comprehensive, more accessible, and usable mental health system. This benefits not only the homelessness problem, but myriad other social problems that vex our community.