Every Monday morning at 8, Andrew Watson pulls up to a tired, old building in Spenard, a former auto repair shop among its past lives, a rambling, flat-roofed complex painted the color of overcast sky and trimmed in jellybean blue. He turns off the engine and sits a few moments. He takes a few deep breaths. He then steps out of his car and heads for the door, the one with a gigantic white arrow pointing the way, the one painted emergency red.
He unlocks the deadbolt with one key, the knob lock with another, climbs up a flight of well-worn stairs and unlocks another door leading to the offices of Lutheran Social Services of Alaska. He flips on the lights, cranks up the space heaters and sits at his desk without taking off his coat. He glances at the red message light on his phone. On Mondays, it's common to have 40 or more calls piled up from the weekend.
Some mornings, people are waiting for him in the parking lot, hands in their pockets, bouncing on the balls of their feet. Now and then someone will have spent the night blanketed in cardboard. He opens for business early those days. But most mornings, he manages to get in some quiet time for paperwork before the official opening at 9.
That quiet time goes quickly. Soon comes the sound of boots tromping up the stairs. The ding-dong of the door chime as his first client enters the waiting room. He'll spend the rest of his day listening to one rough story after another, as many as 30 delivered in person from across his desk, and at least that many more over the phone. Of sick and hungry children. Of fleeing a violent husband and leaving everything behind. Of a slip on the ice and broken bones and no insurance that started a chain reaction that led to the city's homeless shelters.
As program director for the nonprofit, Watson's duties include handling the walk-ins and their world of troubles. He doesn't put downtrodden people on a scale to weigh their worthiness. He just listens and, when appropriate, hands out vouchers -- $30 for work clothes from the Salvation Army, $15 to cover the cost of replacing a lost state ID, $30 for a copy of a birth certificate. For some Anchorage residents, that kind of money gets left on tables at restaurants for tips. But for those who line up in the cold at LSSA's food pantries or walk all the way from Dimond Boulevard to ask a $15 or $30 favor, these vouchers can help them get to a job interview, which could land them steady work, which could make the difference between sleeping on a floor mat with a couple hundred strangers and sleeping in beds of their own.
Watson gives out vouchers until the week's allotment of $300 to $500 runs dry. That often happens before the end of the day Monday. Sometimes they're gone before lunch. He then has to spend the rest of his week as a referral service and asking people to come back next Monday, the earlier the better. But the 23-year-old who paints, loves to cook and listens to public radio on his way to work because he finds the voices soothing compared to what's coming, still listens to their stories. When there are no vouchers left to give, he can at least give people that.
Nobody expects these vouchers to cure poverty. But they can help with an immediate need, buy people some time to work things out for themselves.
Lutheran Social Services is just one in a network of nonprofits doing what it can to make a difference for low-income Alaskans. On top of its direct-assistance voucher program, with a staff of three, the agency oversees a half-dozen other programs as well, from its small, transitional living program for homeless men to its on-site and mobile food pantries, with funding from church groups, grants, private and corporate donations, fundraisers and food drives. As executive director, it's Alan Budahl's job to keep that funding coming and account for every bus ticket and can of tuna that goes in and out the door.
The agency's food program is its largest, supplementing federal assistance programs with donated and purchased food. Between its on-site and mobile pantries, LSSA has seen a 50 percent rise in demand since the economic downturn of 2008. Other local pantries report similar spikes. Yet government contributions to outlets like the Food Bank of Alaska have dropped significantly, Budahl says. Like 40 percent.
In previous years, LSSA's food pantry was able to reliably add frozen chickens and beef roasts to people's boxes. Now it's more likely to be Spam or canned stew. And when disasters like Hurricane Sandy strike, priorities shift, resources get diverted and the pickings get even slimmer. The federal Commodity Supplemental Food Program, which benefits low-income seniors, pregnant women and children, isn't even taking applications in Anchorage at this point because the demand is greater than the supply.
Such cutbacks are hard on those behind the scenes. Budahl spent 30 years in the hospitality industry at the Hilton, Marriott and Hotel Captain Cook before taking the helm of this nonprofit. The way he sees it, he's still in the hospitality business, only the clientele is different.
That goes for the infrastructure, too. At the far end of the sprawling building is an apartment that produced rental income until the place got so run down it had to be boarded up. And just the other day, the roof of the garage between it and the food pantry caved in -- maybe too many engine blocks hung from the rafters back in its auto repair days. For now the garage is locked up tight, its roof propped up with a sturdy post and beam. That whole end of the building needs to be torn down. Those at LSSA are just hoping to find the $15,000 to $20,000 it's going to take to do it.
The functional office side of the complex has seen better days, too. Its furnace went belly up in November; it'll cost $15,000 to replace it. Thus the space heaters. Watson has gotten used to working in his coat.
"Such is the life of a nonprofit," he says.
'What am I going to do?'
Although it's hard to quantify, it's safe to say that LSSA programs have helped keep people from ending up homeless. Mac Davis considers himself one of them. As he tells it, one regrettable decision snowballed into an avalanche of rotten luck.
It started with his decision to switch jobs. At 58, he was a commercial truck driver who felt he was getting nowhere, so he left that job for a new one, only to be laid off 10 days later. He was having trouble finding another. Then one afternoon in late October he stepped outside to take out the trash. He slipped on the icy driveway and landed hard. He couldn't get up. He crawled back to his basement apartment on hands and knees.
He had no insurance so he didn't see a doctor. He was in too much pain to lie down so he tried to sleep sitting in a chair. After three days he couldn't stand it any longer and went to the Anchorage Neighborhood Health Center. The diagnosis was three broken ribs, a slipped disc and a damaged spleen.
While recovering, his medical card expired, and commercial drivers can't get behind the wheel without one. He fell behind on bills and rent. He sold his 1998 Ford Ranger to help catch up. For the first time since he was 15, he had no transportation. And nothing to eat.
"I was looking at my cupboard, thinking, 'What am I going to do?' "Davis said. "I feel embarrassed I'm in this position."
That's when he called Lutheran Social Services. He got an answering machine.
Grace O'Neal, food program manager, listened to his message. Working in social services, it's not only easy, it's wise to become numb to the barrage of heartbreaking stories. Otherwise they eat you alive. O'Neal has to tell people no all the time. 'No we don't have any financial assistance right now. No, I can't deliver food to your door.' "
She called Davis back to tell him that.
"I'm about to be evicted," she remembers him saying. "I have absolutely no food at all in my house."
She was struck by how scared he sounded. After hearing the details, she did something she never does -- she delivered food to his door. Her plan was to drop off a box and dash, but he saw her coming. As she stood in his doorway, Davis broke down and cried.
He told her he'd always had a job and, until this injury, had always supported himself. He told her he had never felt more alone or desperate, that he had left messages with almost every agency in the phone book but that no one had called him back.
Without naming him, O'Neal posted his story on the agency's Facebook page. Soon after, an anonymous $1,000 donation arrived to help him catch up on his rent. Others kicked in $600 more. Davis was floored and beyond grateful. He caught up enough to keep from being evicted. That gave him time to figure out some things.
He has food stamps now and some unemployment coming in while he heals. He has hope he didn't have before. He's certain God has something to do with that. A few nights before O'Neal showed up to fill his cupboards, he'd gotten down on his knees and prayed.
He still can't quite believe she did what she did that day.
"She didn't know if I was a drunk, needle-head or psychomaniac," Davis said. "It was a beautiful thing. Of all the names, hers is Grace."
The preparation of this story was partially underwritten by the sponsors of the Pick.Click.Give. program, including the United Way of Anchorage, Rasmuson Foundation, State of Alaska and the Foraker Group.
Lutheran Social Services of Alaska
Programs of Lutheran Social Services of Alaska:
- Food assistance: The on-site pantry is at LSSA headquarters, 1303 W. 33rd Ave., from 1 to 4 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, and from 4:30 to 7 p.m. on Wednesdays. Users can go once a month to this pantry, and every week to its mobile pantry, at 5 p .m. Tuesdays at the Lutheran Church of Hope, 1847 W. Northern Lights Blvd. For more information, call 907-243-0316.
- Emergency vouchers: LSSA offers direct-assistance vouchers, once a year per person, for clothing, state ID cards, driver's licenses, birth certificates and life-sustaining medications. Apply in person at 1303 W. 33rd Ave, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.
- Transportation to medical appointments: Round-trip taxi rides to appointments are offered once a month up to six times a year. Rides can be scheduled by phone by calling 272-0643. A week in advance is suggested.
- Transitional living: A sober-living facility can house six homeless men at a time, with a savings-trust account in each resident's name. Thirty percent of a resident's income goes into this account to be used for first month's rent and deposit for private housing.
- Roosevelt House: Long-term housing for women with mental health disabilities.
- Association for Stranded Rural Alaskans: This program helps people from rural Alaska who have come to the city seeking medical treatment and end up stranded due to financial hardship.
- The Listening Post: Run by volunteers, this is a refuge from the chaos of the streets, located on the mezzanine of the downtown transit center. It's a place people can go to talk, read or relax.