Alaska News

City wants to hire Anchorage's homeless to help clean up homeless camps

The city of Anchorage wants to pay a local nonprofit to help find and hire crews of homeless people to go into the woods and clean up homeless camps that may once have been their own.

Through a $75,000 contract, the nonprofit, Alaska WorkSource, would also invite the homeless workers into substance abuse treatment or job training programs. The administration of Mayor Ethan Berkowitz has proposed the contract with the agency, and the Anchorage Assembly is expected to discuss the contract at its Tuesday night meeting — at the start of a packed meeting agenda that includes public hearings on cellphone tower regulations, electric bikes and a ban on smoking and using electronic cigarettes in Town Square Park.

With the Assembly's approval, the city and Alaska WorkSource will launch into recruiting the work crews, said city homeless coordinator Nancy Burke. That will include talking to panhandlers on street corners and canvassing homeless camps to find people willing to work. Eventually, a van will help connect the workers with the day labor sites

The administration's approach stems from a program pioneered in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a city that has tried to reverse its approach to homelessness from punitive to compassionate after the police fatally shot a homeless man in 2014. The Albuquerque workers make $9 an hour, a dollar above minimum wage, and are also served lunch. A service provider in a van drives around the city looking for panhandlers willing to become city workers for a day.

In Anchorage, in addition to panhandlers, Burke said the city wants to find people living in homeless camps who could go to work with a bit of extra help. The Berkowitz administration has been compiling a list of names of homeless people and their level of vulnerability, which Burke said will be used as a tool to recruit the work crews.

[City aims services at a place that's already an unofficial refuge for the homeless — the Loussac Library]

The executive director of Alaska WorkSource, Darryl Waters, wasn't available for comment Monday. The contract was not competitive, meaning that no other organizations submitted bids for it.

Burke said the city looked at different organizations affiliated with the state's vocational rehabilitation division. Alaska WorkSource was the only one in Anchorage that already worked with homeless people and offered job training as well as substance abuse treatment, she said. The nonprofit is working with Tutan Recovery Services, a faith-based substance abuse treatment program in Anchorage.

The money comes out of a pool approved by the Assembly in April — a $425,000 boost to the mayor's office budget for grants for homeless programs. There was no specific list of projects or grants, but the administration discussed general categories with the Assembly, like homeless camp outreach, Burke said.

When it comes to cleaning up debris left in camps, Burke said, a lack of resources has created a backlog that stretches back years.

A memo from Berkowitz's chief of staff, Susanne Fleek-Green, noted that other community service organizations have focused on camp cleanup, like the Anchorage Responsible Beverage Retail Association, which is funded by the alcohol industry. But Burke said the city wants to more directly tie camp cleanup to recovery services and employment.  

"I think the biggest value of it is people being part of a community service that is valued by the community," Burke said. "When you're homeless everyone drives by you, and they don't look at you. You become nonexistent."

She said the city will provide vests to the homeless workers to indicate they're part of a crew, "just becoming part of the community again."

Anchorage's homeless workers would be paid minimum wage, and keep all the money they're paid, which would be paid out of the mayor's office budget. The money would only be taxed after the first $600, Burke said.

Separately, on Wednesday, Burke said the city plans to launch an online website portal where Anchorage residents can report homeless camps and upload photos.  

That portal will connect to an internal website that will provide the geographic coordinates for homeless camps, helping police find them more quickly to post eviction notices.

Fifteen days after the notices are posted, the work crews can go into the camps and clear them out before anyone else moves in, Burke said.

Devin Kelly

Devin Kelly was an ADN staff reporter.