The executive director of Catholic Social Services, Susan Bomalaski, is planning to leave her position at the end of 2014. She first became the director in 2006. Alaska Dispatch/Anchorage Daily News sat down with Bomalaski recently and asked her to reflect on the changes she's seen over the years and the challenges of heading an organization that tackles a wide range of issues, from homelessness to hunger to refugee resettlement. Answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Q. If you had a blank check and could do anything, what would you do to address the problem of homelessness in Anchorage?
A. I would start by building housing. I'd like to get the most bang I could out of that check, so I would hope that the municipality and other regulators would work with me around that. ... but there's a lot of people that are in homelessness because there's no housing. Certainly there's a segment that there's other challenges, so after I built enough housing for everybody, I'd make sure we had enough treatment. So that would be both mental health and substance abuse, from detox through inpatient, outpatient for different kinds of substances, but certainly alcohol treatment.
Then I would want to make sure we had enough what I would call case managers ... people to work with individuals that are homeless (and) really, intensively figure out what their needs are, and what their desires are, what their goals are, and work with them around that. Because, contrary to popular belief, people don't really want to be homeless. They may have adjusted to that lifestyle. It may be what they could afford because they use funds for other things or they just don't have funds. But it's been proven that if you have housing that meets people's needs financially but also programmatically, and it doesn't require more than they're able to give, (then) people will go to that housing. Karluk Manor is a great example of that.
Q. Talk about how you've seen the ethnic makeup of the community change.
A. We started our refugee resettlement program 10 years ago. Before that we did some immigration work. And the first wave of refugees that came in were Hmong, coming in from Laos after the Vietnam War. It was finally realized that, hey, because this group of people supported the U.S., they're no longer wanted there; they're being kicked out of their country. So they came over (and) started that wave. Added to that, then you have people coming from Somalia, from Sudan, then Bhutan. That was a new thing that we've seen the past five or six years ... Myanmar, (formerly) Burma, is coming now, and also we're getting a big influx of people from Iraq. So that's very interesting. The languages, I think, have only expanded.
In my view -- our view -- that diversity, that complexity, that richness just makes Anchorage a wonderful place. ... I think there's people that see that as a threat, as a danger, are afraid of that kind of change. But (we) have a school district where over 50 percent of the youth are not Caucasian ... and that's happening all over the country. It's the wave of the future. We're all immigrants, refugees from someplace, right? ... Accepting it, embracing it and celebrating it is so important.
Q. How has this job changed the way you see the world?
A. It's kind of funny ... We had lived (in San Antonio, Texas) for 18 years, and the last eight years I was the executive director of a children's home, a residential facility for kids that had been abused and neglected, placed there by the state ... It was really fun, but when we moved here I said, "I don't want to be an executive director." Because that's crazy; it was way too much responsibility ... But I do think God watches out for you, so I saw this job opportunity and said, "Well, the place I worked (in San Antonio) was associated with the Catholic Church, I've got this skill set, so I'll apply."
This job has been completely different, though, because it's completely broadened. We have eight different programs that do so many different things, so I've had the privilege of learning a lot about different things. I never would have learned about refugee issues -- resettlement, all these different cultures -- without having had this job. As much as I'm interested in culture, I wouldn't have ... I'm a veteran, (and) the veterans issues we've gotten involved in -- we've got a big grant with Veterans Services. The knowledge (that goes) along with that. The impact you can have on a community like Anchorage in Alaska.
Q. What's next for you?
A. I always think that you take where you are and you take all those experiences and move forward. And I enrolled in a program (online) called "Conflict Transformation" at St. Mary's University in San Antonio, Texas, where I got my Ph.D. ... (it deals with) the idea about how to get people to talk across differences ... That, and I have a counseling license, so I may try to weave those together somehow.
But you know, the involvement in the community -- I don't want to lose that. So I'm looking at different possibilities of how to stay involved.
Reach Devin Kelly at firstname.lastname@example.org or (907) 257-4314.
By DEVIN KELLY