A string of four homeless deaths in 10 days this month. Dramatically rising numbers of Anchorage families doubling up in cramped apartments. More people in shelters. More children with no home to call their own.
Officials say the homeless problem in Anchorage is big and growing and they are directing $775,000 in federal stimulus money to do something about it. The city is hiring a full-time coordinator to address homelessness, and four private agencies are getting funding to hire a worker each, acting Mayor Matt Claman announced on Wednesday.
In January 2008, 2,199 Anchorage residents were homeless, according to city and state calculations. This January, the number had jumped to 2,962.
"I recognize the number of deaths in the camps and basically finding bodies in the parks is unusual," Claman said. But as evidenced by the growing numbers, "homelessness is not unusual," he said. In Anchorage, it's "a very, very serious problem."
Much of the increase shows up in one subgroup: people staying with families or friends. Last year, 998 Anchorage adults and children were doubling up. This year, it's 1,612. Many are children and parents packed into someone else's apartment or cramped home.
"It is absolutely overwhelming," said Janet Levin, homeless education specialist for the Anchorage School District. In the past, the district served about 2,800 homeless or nearly homeless children over the course of a year. This school year the number jumped by 500 to 3,300, she said. Among other things, the district provides tutoring and helps these children stay in their original school, sending a cab if necessary.
"From last spring to last fall, food prices went up incredibly. Fuel prices went up incredibly. If you have huge increases in a short period of time, folks who don't have that much money are going to fall over the edge that much more quickly," Levin said.
Though many of those counted as homeless aren't literally on the streets, their situation is unstable and their living conditions potentially unhealthy, said Kris Duncan, the state's homeless coordinator and a planner with Alaska Housing Finance Corp. People crowded in on someone else's lease often can't stay long.
Duncan helps oversee the twice-yearly statewide count of the homeless and said comparable methods were used in 2008 and 2009, including reaching out to people who were attending Project Homeless Connect, a kind of indoors street fair of services.
A funding crunch for subsidized housing helps explain the big increase, she said. Congress didn't put new money into a housing voucher program even as the national economy tanked. Those who used the vouchers to subsidize their housing couldn't contribute as much, which meant the government had to pay more, which meant new people couldn't get into the program for months on end, Duncan said.
"That created sort of a backlog," she said.
Still, not many in Anchorage are ending up homeless as a result of losing their homes to foreclosure, officials said.
In the last two years, just five families came to the Salvation Army's McKinnell House, a nearly new family shelter in Midtown, because of foreclosure, said Jessyca Elgart, the organization's homeless services director. For three of them, it was their landlord who was foreclosed upon, she said.
Of the 27 adults staying in the shelter as of Wednesday, 18 were working, and four couldn't work because of disabilities. The others were looking for jobs, Elgart said.
All sorts end up there, she said: cooks and janitors and delivery workers, and sometimes nurses and mechanics and construction workers.
"It's not the alcoholics. It's not the people who can't get a job," she said.
Few of those counted as Anchorage homeless actually sleep in the streets or the woods. Just 157 people, as of the January count, were "unsheltered." About 1,025 were in shelters or transitional programs like Homeward Bound, for chronic homeless alcoholics. Another 168 were in motels, including many waiting to get into a shelter.
In the summer, the number in camps is sure to go up, Claman said. Some homeless people moved from shelters into camps early this year because of the beautiful spring weather. Nights have remained chilly, though, and police wonder whether hypothermia played a role in the recent deaths. The cause of the deaths is still under investigation.
Since Homeward Bound opened in 1997, about 130 of Anchorage's hard-core homeless have gotten stable housing, said Melinda Freemon, its director.
Still, the problems that lead people to that life are deep-rooted.
At least two of the four homeless men who died this month had been in the Homeward Bound program at one point or another, she said.
Despite the deaths, there's no plan to start cleaning out homeless camps, Claman said.
Police would have to shift priorities to do that work, and the homeless from the camps would need a place to stay, he said.
Social service agencies have been adding apartments for the recently homeless. Officials say more are needed.
The new positions at nonprofits include a life skills trainer, traveling case managers, and a central intake specialist to connect the homeless with services.
Find Lisa Demer online at adn.com/contact/ldemer or call 257-4390.
More people ending up homeless in Anchorage
January 2008 2,199
January 2009 2,962