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Anchorage residents close to homeless issue split over 'Raspberry Court'

Jerzy Shedlock
Loren Holmes photo

A 66-acre “homeless campus” proposed in Alaska’s largest city caused an uproar when city officials announced the plan in late September. Some homeowners near the campus’s future site argue it could have a profound negative impact on parts of West Anchorage and Kincaid Park, one of the city’s most popular outdoor recreation spots, and they decry the “utter lack of public input” so far. 

Those who have worked with Anchorage's homeless, a persistent demographic despite decades of effort, are split over the viability and location of the project.

The issue may dominate a Monday community council meeting in Sand Lake, a neighborhood near the proposed development. Municipal officials plan to attend.

Unlike other homeless shelters, such as the Brother Francis Shelter on Fourth Avenue Downtown, the proposed campus of "Raspberry Court" would provide a safe place for the homeless to permanently transition off the streets. It's intended for “individuals looking to escape or avoid homelessness,” said Britteny Matero, the project point person and a health initiatives manager for the municipality.

The campus will be a booze-free environment, according to the plan. There will also be 24-hour security and a ban on camping near the site.

Nearly 65 percent of the homeless people in Alaska reside here in Anchorage, relying on shelters in winter and camps across the city's parks and public spaces during summer months. Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan has offered several proposals for dealing with the city's estimated 6,700 homeless.

‘Get them out of the woods’

Ed O’Neill, program director of the Anchorage Responsible Beverage Retailers Association, or ARBRA, said he thinks the potential, future campus is far removed from the epicenter of Anchorage homelessness -- downtown and its surrounding neighborhoods. ARBRA and its volunteers -- sometimes young people sentenced to community service -- spend weekends cleaning the homeless camps around Downtown, which is about a 20-minute drive from Kincaid Park, adjacent to the proposed campus.

“(Raspberry Court) has potential as long as it doesn’t cause a lot of movement in transients,” O’Neill said.

He likes the idea of housing these individuals in a dry environment. O’Neill said more than a third of Anchorage’s homeless are looking for work, or they have jobs and simply cannot afford to pay rent. If transportation between the homeless campus and a workplace were provided, the project would work, he said. “Anything we can do to get them out of the woods is good.”

Those who need intensive services

The Municipality of Anchorage no longer employs a homeless coordinator, though it does have multiple groups addressing the issue for the city.

Anchorage’s former homeless coordinator, Darrel Hess, said that housing and homelessness will continue to be a priority for residents. Hess worked as the coordinator from September 2009 to August 2012. He thought the position would be refilled, but it wasn’t.

He still receives calls from social service workers, public safety officers and other residents about how to help Anchorage’s destitute residents. They wonder who their point person is for homeless issues.

Hess estimated that 80 percent of the people who become homeless eventually lift themselves out of their situation. A smaller percentage of homeless individuals struggle with substance abuse, he said. It’s a social stigma that needs to change, he added.

Raspberry Court is a good idea, Hess said, offering housing with community services for the sober. The location will not deter most people, he said. For some, it may actually be better.

“People who just want an emergency shelter, the ones who drink, need more intensive services, but I suspect the people who will use this new site don’t need as intensive of services,” Hess said.

A long-term homeless plan for Anchorage

A housing shortage in Anchorage left the mayor few options besides a new development, a spokesperson said in a previous interview. The proposal offers Sullivan hopes of solving a complicated issue that's eluded him, his predecessors and countless big city mayors across the nation.

In 2004, then-Mayor Mark Begich formed a 24-member group that he dubbed the Mayor’s Taskforce on Homelessness. The group was asked to develop a long-term plan for people living on the streets in one of the nation’s coldest states. According to task force documents written at the time, the group envisioned that “in 10 years, the homeless of Anchorage will be connected with a way to secure safe and affordable housing within three months of being identified by any provider of homeless services.”

The plan was formed around a housing-first model. Begich’s administration stood behind the idea that individuals and families are more responsive to support once they’re in permanent housing.

Changes came slowly. But they came. Hess said he and the entire community worked to bring existing organizations together.

“We got everybody on the same page, and we brought some new players to the table,” Hess said. “(Veteran’s Affairs) stepped up, and the faith community really helped out.”

Catholic Social Services offers multiple supports for the city’s homeless. Two emergency shelters. A food pantry. An adoption and pregnancy support program. The social service agency’s most visible community fixture is the Brother Francis Shelter. In 2004 under the Begich administration, the agency signed the land lease for the newly renovated Brother Francis.

Long-term versus short-term goals

Begich won against Alaska icon Ted Stevens in the state’s 2008 U.S. Senate race, taking office in January 2009, about six months before Sullivan filled his previous office. Sullivan ran on the platform of reducing city spending and crime, but over the years has become more outspoken about Anchorage’s “chronic public inebriates” and the city’s homeless in general. The task force continued on its path for some time before the mayor stepped in, offering a new approach.

The Anchorage Assembly adopted a cold weather plan in September 2010. When temperatures drop to 45 degrees or below, the plan goes into effect. Churches open their doors to people without shelter from the harsh Alaska winter, something that would’ve required a permit before the plan was passed. The shelter seekers can’t be drunk.

Karluk Manor, a former Downtown hotel turned into efficiency apartments for homeless alcoholics, opened in December 2011. There was substantial community opposition, much as has followed Raspberry Court proposal.

Since 2009, the mayor has assembled two different groups, the Mayor’s Homeless Leadership Team and the Mayor’s Kitchen Cabinet. Both groups set out to do much of the same work established by the taskforce -- to reduce homelessness through various supports. Sullivan has also said increasing community safety, for the homeless and people who live near them, was a priority.

Two months after the cold weather plan was passed, however, Sullivan said he didn’t agree with every strategy his leadership team was cooking up. The mayor never got on board with Karluk Manor, which was pushed by the team. The team also said people should not be removed from the homeless camps hidden in the city’s green beltways. The mayor did the opposite. In summer 2011, campers were removed.

“When we post that a camp is going to be cleared out, we work with the people in the camps and try to guide them to appropriate services,” the mayor said.

Sullivan said he wanted more immediate solutions for the city. The 10-year plan remains in place, he said. Karluk Manor has proven successful, the mayor said, even though he disagrees with the idea of housing where drinking is allowed. “It’s enabling, but there is that segment who doesn’t respond to any other supports.” Drinking does decline among its occupants, he added.

But the city is looking to move Karluk’s current location, at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Karluk Street. Nearby homeowners have expressed concerns that Fairview, the nearest neighborhood, is becoming the focal point for homeless services and, in turn, bringing more crime to the neighborhood.

‘Not the right place’

Sand Lake community members fear the same, said Jim McDonough, a homeowner in the area who is working with a large group in opposition to the potential campus.

They’re getting in touch with the city and social services providers, asking what they think about the project. McDonough said the community is not against helping these individuals. However, locating near Kincaid Park is not right, he said.

One of the major concerns the group is the “utter lack of public input” so far. Homeowners along Raspberry Road have been under the impression for years that the airport would possibly use the land for expansion. That’s still possible. The city is bidding against others.

The Sand Lake Community Council is holding a public meeting on Monday, Oct. 7 at 6:30 p.m. The topic of the Raspberry Court development will be front and center, McDonough said. Municipal officials have told the council they will attend meeting to provide additional information about the project.

Contact Jerzy Shedlock at jerzy(at)alaskadispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter @jerzyms