Social worker to team up with Anchorage police officers entering homeless camps

A social worker will soon be embedded with Anchorage police making rounds to homeless camps as part of an ongoing effort to move people sleeping outside into housing and treatment as quickly as possible, city officials said Tuesday.

Anchorage Community Mental Health Services, a nonprofit that has conducted camp outreach for years, is poised to sign an agreement with the city health department and the Anchorage Police Department. 

Starting at the end of this month, a staff member from the agency will accompany APD on camp patrols, paid by a mix of federal funds and community donations, said city homeless coordinator Nancy Burke.

Burke said the city wants to shorten the time between an APD officer ordering a camp closed, and a social worker responding. Social workers are trained to know the wide range of options for that person, she said.

Right now, it can take days for a social worker to respond to a homeless camp if police call for help, Burke said.

"It's so we address moving people out of camps to something, not just moving people around," she added.

She said the social worker and police will be directed to focus on people who are most at risk of dying on the street this winter. Since early this year, the city and a number of other agencies have been building a list of names, ranking the city's most vulnerable homeless people.


"We still have some folks that are attempting to camp out downtown," Burke said. "So we will start with those folks."

For years, police have called ACMHS for help when clearing homeless camps, said CEO Jerry Jenkins. The nonprofit agency was founded in 1974 and runs mental and behavioral health programs.

Jenkins said the new agreement will formalize that arrangement. It's the first time a social worker will be based at police headquarters, he said. The social worker will be stationed with APD's Community Action Policing Team, which patrols homeless camps.

"We've always done outreach to the homeless, in camps or on the streets or in the shelters," Jenkins said in a Tuesday interview. "This is just moving it in sync with law enforcement."

Other cities, including Everett, Washington, have taken up the approach of embedding a social worker with police, Burke said.

About $66,000 in federal grant money will be put toward the position, Burke said. The remainder is expected to come from local matching grants, she said.

The total budget for the position is $86,000, which will include supplies, supervision and administrative overhead, according to Jessica Cochran, an official with ACMHS.

As of Tuesday, Burke said the city hadn't yet signed a formal agreement with the nonprofit and was still working out a few details.

Jenkins said the job is going to a new employee at the nonprofit who previously held a similar position in the state of Washington.

Devin Kelly

Devin Kelly was an ADN staff reporter.