Anchorage

Apartments for Anchorage’s long-term homeless open near downtown

The latest attempt to put a roof over the heads of Anchorage's long-term homeless residents has opened up on Third Avenue near downtown.

Operated by Rural Alaska Community Action Program, the project marks the latest in a growing effort to find permanent housing for the city's most vulnerable homeless.

Formerly known as the John Thomas Building, the four-story complex at 325 E. Third Ave., newly renovated for $6 million, offers 20 subsidized apartments for people with extensive histories of homelessness.

Corrine O'Neill, RurAL CAP's supportive housing director, stressed in a Wednesday building tour the project targets the segment of the homeless population hardest to house — the so-called "frequent fliers" who have spent years on the street, often battling mental illness or medical problems, and consume a disproportionate amount of emergency resources.

"This isn't the approach for everybody that's homeless," O'Neill said. "This is the approach for people that have been on the street for 10, 15 years, and really are not going anywhere in the system, and are costing the system a lot of money."

Eleven people have moved in so far. One is Bernardo Fernandez, 54, who moved into room 201.  

Fernandez is 6 feet, 3 inches and weighs 315 pounds. He's originally from Cuba, which he left in 1991, and spent years working for a private ambulance company. In 2014, he said, he got laid off from the Wal-Mart in Kenai. He'd developed a painful hernia and was on medication.

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He hasn't worked since and mostly lived off food stamps.

Fernandez's car, a navy blue 1998 Mercury Mountaineer, has been his home. He parked at a Holiday gas station on Tudor Road, he said, and spent nights there. He lowered the rear seat backrest and put in a futon mattress.

He kept an electric grill, stove and pots and pans in a crate strapped to a platform. To cook, he plugged into an electrical outlet at Cuddy Family Midtown Park.

Fernandez has been in and out of emergency rooms. He learned about the John Thomas Building from the Anchorage Neighborhood Health Clinic, where he was seeking treatment for heart and lung conditions.

Three weeks in, he's happy and feels stable.

"I got everything I need here," Fernandez said, sitting in the break room on the ground floor of the building, near case management offices. His apartment is spare, with a TV and some food on the countertops.

The apartments have beige walls and laminate flooring. There's small stoves that tenants are being asked not to use, for now, for safety reasons.

Beds and dressers came from RurAL CAP's Homeward Bound transitional program, which closed at the end of March as the federal government shifted its focus to the "Housing First" model — permanent housing over temporary facilities to transition people out of homelessness.

To find tenants, RurAL CAP plans to work off a community list, started just this year, that ranks homeless people by their likelihood to die on the street.

People have to show a substantial record of homelessness to qualify. Other factors, like criminal history, are taken on a case-by-case basis, O'Neill said.

The city owned the building for decades and leased the space at a discount to nonprofits, including the NAACP, before deciding to sell it in 2013. 

Now it's owned by a limited partnership and financed partly with low-income housing tax credits. The main investor is the Alaska Housing Finance Corp., joined by Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority and the Rasmuson Foundation. Enterprise Community Partners, a Maryland-based nonprofit that gets involved in affordable housing projects nationally, is selling the tax credits. The developer was Anchorage-based firm Alaska Project Development, and local architectural firm Lumen Design planned the new building.

The financing arrangement has been used by Cook Inlet Housing Authority to build affordable housing in Anchorage, but this is the first time it's been used for a project dedicated to helping the chronically homeless, O'Neill said.

RurAL CAP manages the building but doesn't own it. The organization could buy it in 16 years, based on the terms of the agreement, according to a fact sheet distributed Wednesday.

A federal housing grant and state matching money will cover most of the $800,000 annual operating costs. Rent from tenants will also pay for some of the costs, O'Neill said.

As long as they pay rent, or about one-third of their income, tenants like Fernandez can stay as long as they want. Evictions, for tenants in supportive services, are likely to be rare.

Most people pay about $250 a month. Fernandez is paying $16 a month, using income from his Permanent Fund dividend.

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Fernandez was uncertain about his job future Wednesday. He said he's trying to resolve his medical problems first. But he's worried getting a job would mean he can no longer stay in his apartment, because he may not qualify as low income anymore.

O'Neill said that's not how it works. Once qualified, a tenant can stay for life, she said — getting a job may just mean a higher monthly rent payment.

Devin Kelly

Devin Kelly was an ADN staff reporter.

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