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Dunleavy budget veto cuts services to the homeless statewide, hitting Anchorage hardest

  • Author: Julia O'Malley
  • Updated: July 20, 2019
  • Published June 28, 2019

People sleep in the men's dorm at Brother Francis Shelter on Dec. 11, 2018. Catholic Social Services executive director Lisa Aquino says that Gov. Mike Dunleavy's cuts to funding for homelessness services will force Brother Francis Shelter to reduce its capacity from 240 people to 100, leaving more people out on the street. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

Among the casualties of Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s line-item budget vetoes Friday is most of the state’s contribution to homeless services, which will drastically reduce capacity at shelters, shrink programs for the hungry and eliminate several kinds of funding for low-income and supported housing, homeless advocates said.

Anchorage, which has the largest homeless population, loses the most.

Mayor Ethan Berkowitz, joined by officials from nonprofits that serve the homeless and low-income Alaskans, described the impacts of the cuts as “dire and horrific” at a press conference Saturday afternoon outside City Hall.

“More people will wind up in homelessness as a result of these vetoes,” Berkowitz said, “people can die as a result of these vetoes.”

Ethan Berkowitz speaks with a reporter after a press conference regarding the governor's budget vetoes, Saturday, June 29, 2019. (Anne Raup / ADN)

State support for homelessness services was reduced from $13.7 million to $2.6 million, said Jasmine Khan, executive director of the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness. There were also large reductions to Medicaid and programs that support seniors, the blind and the disabled, which will likely add to those needing help with housing and food. In Anchorage, the cuts mean reducing capacity at five out of its seven homeless shelters, she said.

“These cuts are targeting domestic violence victims, homeless children, low-income seniors, and other marginalized populations," Brian Wilson, executive director of the Alaska Coalition on Housing and Homelessness, wrote Friday. “This action decimates an already greatly underfunded homeless service delivery system.”

Berkowitz said that to his knowledge, Dunleavy had not reached out to the organizations before the cuts.

“People should make policy decisions based on good information, addressing the people who are impacted, understanding what the experts have to say about the subject matter," Berkowitz said. “That was not the case with these cuts.”

The cuts are particularly discouraging as Anchorage has been making some modest progress toward moving people out of homeless encampments, which has been a priority for community members and businesses, Khan said. Reducing shelter beds in the city erases that progress and will make encampments and other kinds of visible homelessness worse, she said.

“Residents of Anchorage are already concerned about public health and safety. Slashing critical safety-net services will jeopardize recent efforts and increase unauthorized camping,” Khan said.

When there are fewer homeless services and fewer shelter beds, it shifts the burden of caring for the homeless — from social service providers to law enforcement, jails and emergency rooms, which is ultimately more expensive to the public, she said.

Lisa Aquino, left, speaks at a press conference, Saturday, June 29, 2019. Alison Kear is at right. Aquino is the executive director of Catholic Social Services and Kear is the executive director of the Covenant House. (Anne Raup / ADN)

Lisa Aquino, head of Catholic Social Services, said her organization lost funding for Brother Francis Shelter, Clare House and its housing service program, which helps get people who are homeless into permanent housing. Clare House, a shelter for women and children, may have to close during the day, she said.

“That means that, like, babies and little kids and moms don’t have a place to stay,” she said.

Between the reductions to Catholic Social Services’ programs and capacity alone, Aquino said, she expected homelessness in Anchorage to increase by 48% in the next year.

“You’re going to see it immediately,” she said.

Brother Francis Shelter will have to reduce its capacity from 240 to 100 people, she said, which will undoubtedly increase the number of people on Anchorage streets.

“That will impact camp abatement, it will impact all the frustrated people in Midtown and downtown, and the business owners,” she said. “Most important it’s going to impact all the folks that don’t have a safe place to sleep.”

Aquino said she was unsure who will get priority for the shelter beds.

“Do you choose that frail older woman who uses a walker and doesn’t have anywhere else to go, or do you choose that young person who just got a job and just needs a place to stay for one more month?" she said. "Who do I turn out?”

Reporter Tegan Hanlon contributed.

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