Anchorage Assembly forms committee on substance abuse, homelessness

Devin Kelly

The Anchorage Assembly has formed a new committee aimed at tackling the deep-rooted community issues of alcohol, drug abuse and chronic homelessness in Alaska’s largest city.

The committee, created at the direction of Assembly Chair Patrick Flynn, met for the first time Thursday afternoon. The goal, its members said, is to combine existing groups that are already working on the issue and find public policy solutions.

“The committee works with municipal agencies, nonprofits and private sector entities to identify cause and effect of alcohol and drug abuse amongst chronically homeless citizens and their disruptive behaviors,” the mission statement reads.

“Analyses will include mental health issues, overall impact on municipal resources and the private sector, educational programs and funding sources to seek solutions that will make Anchorage the model city for dealing with the problems associated with the chronically homeless.”

Led by chairman Bill Evans, who represents South Anchorage, the committee includes Amy Demboski, Elvi Gray-Jackson and Pete Petersen. A work plan drawn up by Evans lays out a series of phases for the committee, including identifying and understanding the problem, reporting findings, and identifying solutions and money sources to put the solutions in place.

Evans said the goal is to avoid politicizing the city’s most high-profile problems. He said the committee also plans to look at how other cities and communities have addressed issues related to substance abuse and homelessness.

Municipal ombudsman Darrel Hess, who was appointed in 2009 by Mayor Dan Sullivan as Anchorage’s first homeless coordinator, said that while the Assembly has control over the city spending plan, members of the body have never been “truly engaged” by those seeking to address alcohol and homelessness issues.

Assembly members have served individually on groups or other committees on substance abuse and homelessness, like the mayor’s Task Force on Homelessness, but have not formed a separate committee, Hess said. Gray-Jackson, for example, helped start the Take Back Our Parks group in the Campbell Creek Park community. 

Hess added that he’s heard concerns that the Assembly effort constitutes simply “another group, another report.”

“I said, you know, give 'em a chance,” Hess said. “The Assembly has never, as far as I know, had a similar committee, has never been engaged by the providers at a higher level.”

At Thursday’s meeting, the committee members tentatively agreed to hold two-hour meetings once a month. Evans said the next step will be to reach out to organizations that work on substance abuse and homelessness issues.

Evans also said anyone in an organization affected by the topic can contact the municipal clerk’s office for more information on the committee, or reach out to him directly.