First in an ongoing series. The Anchorage Daily News will be spending the year looking closely at homelessness in Anchorage and in Alaska — the problems, the complexities and ways to make things better. We’ll be exploring the roots of the issues, the people affected, what’s working and what isn’t. We’ll be reporting on impacts across the community and potential solutions.

Homeless clients settle in for the night at the Bean's Cafe emergency shelter in the Sullivan Arena on Monday evening, April 27, 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Bill Roth / ADN)

Homelessness in Anchorage is a stubborn, persistent scourge. It has many faces: some familiar, some not.

Disheveled and disoriented people wander city sidewalks, sleep in parks and greenbelts, panhandle on street corners.

Others live in cars, surf couches or battle bugs and crime at low-budget hotels.

Anchorage’s homeless population includes many adults with alcohol and drug problems. Some have mental health issues. Others are sober elders raising grandchildren because their adult kids are addicted, incarcerated or otherwise unfit to parent. Some have intellectual disabilities. Many are school-age children living with unemployed or troubled parents.

Some are former foster kids who aged out of the system. Others are teenagers fleeing abusive homes. Some are stay-at-home moms who escaped violent relationships. Others were evicted because they couldn’t pay the rent, their budgets blown by a hospitalization, a divorce, a lack of financial literacy. Some are from tiny rural villages and ran out of money in the city and couldn’t afford to get back home.

The demographics of homelessness in Anchorage are complex and changing. A common denominator is the desperation and frailty of many of their lives. In Anchorage’s subarctic climate, homelessness can be deadly. People experiencing homelessness in the city regularly die from exposure. They’re found at bus stops, curled up behind utility boxes, lying face down in creeks.

Motorists and pedestrians often report people passed out — and sometimes not breathing. They call 311 and medics or police respond. Several times a year, people are found dead outdoors. Police summaries of these outdoor deaths often conclude with the same words: “There was nothing suspicious.”

And it may be getting worse. Amid the coronavirus pandemic and economic slump, a continuing opioid crisis and trouble in Alaska’s oil-dependent economy, the scope of Anchorage’s homeless problem threatens to deepen, even as social service agencies and others scramble to come up with more housing. Experts say many more Alaskans are likely to face homelessness in the weeks and months ahead, at a time of compassion fatigue when many residents vent their frustrations with the problems on social media and in public forums.

Anchorage Safety Patrol responders tend to an incapacitated man on Friday, April 17, 2020 outside the Sullivan Arena. The arena is serving as a emergency homeless shelter during the coronavirus pandemic. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

In some parts of Anchorage, the presence of homeless residents is painfully obvious. Places like Gambell Street in Fairview, East Third Avenue, urban greenbelts like the Chester and Campbell Creek trails, areas of downtown, Midtown and Spenard. The number of people experiencing homelessness in these places puts a heavy strain on first responders and hospitals. They scare some residents and frustrate many.

In other neighborhoods, the homeless are not a familiar presence. They are practically invisible. But they’re there.

They have kids in the school system. They work minimum or low-wage jobs. Many survive on Social Security, public assistance, food stamps or other benefits, including the Permanent Fund dividend. Some receive dividend checks from Alaska Native corporations.

The less-visible segments of the homeless population often sleep at friends’ houses or rent rooms by the week at low-budget hotels. Others manage to secure transitional housing where they work with case managers to find jobs. They try to pull together enough money or get housing vouchers to move into their own place. Some make it on their own. Others with deeper needs and lower income might get permanent supportive or subsidized housing when their number comes up on a waiting list.

The path out of homelessness is often long, bumpy and difficult. It’s commonly a revolving door of renting, eviction, a return to homelessness, couch surfing, transitional housing and apartment hunting all over again. Alaska families experiencing multiple generations of homelessness are not uncommon.

Amid all of this, new investments and funding sources to solve homelessness are starting to flow into the city. Strategies that have been successful elsewhere are being deployed. With the economic tsunami from the coronavirus pandemic, a wave of urgency about solving homelessness in Anchorage seems to be cresting.

There’s also a growing sense among many residents that enough is enough: Things have been bad for a long time, the misery and impacts across the community are getting worse, and somehow as a city, the time has come to solve the problem, or at least make a meaningful dent.

Clients use dots on the floor to keep recommended social distance spacing while lunch is served at the Bean's Cafe emergency shelter inside the Sullivan Arena during the COVID-19 pandemic on Wednesday, April 29, 2020. (Bill Roth / ADN)

‘I’m not trying to ask for a favor’

Spend time with Anchorage’s homeless residents and you quickly see a patchwork of complicated stories. Each is unique in its own way. Some people seem resigned to living on the streets or in the woods. Some say they prefer it. Others want to improve their situation. Not always, but sometimes, being a parent is a motivating factor.

That’s the case with Henry Wheeler, 54, a single father with ties to the Bristol Bay region of Western Alaska, salmon country. The longtime Anchorage resident has a 17-year-old son whose mother died from alcoholism, he said.

Henry Wheeler holds his son, Jaxzon Katelnikoff, 5, in their room at Safe Harbor, a transitional housing facility for homeless families with children, on Thursday, May 28, 2020 in East Anchorage. Jaxzon was born with cerebral palsy and fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. Registered nurse Shelley Federspiel helps Wheeler, who is a single father, care for his son 50 hours each week. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

His younger son, Jaxson, will turn 5 soon. The two live in a single room at Safe Harbor, a transitional housing program run by RurAL Cap in Muldoon. Jaxson doesn’t speak but smiles and engages with his eyes. He was born with cerebral palsy and fetal alcohol syndrome to a mother who is now homeless in San Francisco as far as the family knows, said Wheeler. Jaxson requires a feeding tube, medications and skilled nursing care.

“He’s my miracle son,” said Wheeler.

Wheeler gets by on Social Security, disability, the PFD and Native corporation dividends. He’s been evicted several times for failure to pay rent and utilities.

He’s staying at Safe Harbor for now but is actively combing Craigslist for other options.

“Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” said Wheeler. “I’m not trying to ask for a favor.”

Across town at the Salvation Army’s McKinnell House, many homeless families are in a similar boat, trying to make it to smoother waters. People like Stephanie Wise, who said she is a mother of 10 who used to work in dental offices and as a personal trainer.

Stephanie Wise is staying at McKinnell House, a shelter for homeless families on Wednesday, May 27, 2020 in Anchorage. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

Five of Wise’s kids are adults, she said, although one of her older daughters became homeless, developed an addiction and died. The five youngest kids were living with her at McKinnell House until last week. Through a rapid-rehousing grant, Wise’s case manager at McKinnell House helped her find an apartment. The family just moved in with a one-year lease.

Behind McKinnell House, the Chester Creek Trail snakes through the city. The community has struggled for years with homeless camps in the woods along the trail, a popular spot for bicyclists, dog walkers and people out for strolls.

One of the men living in the greenbelt recently was Gil Jacko, originally from Pedro Bay. As morning sunshine filtered through spruce trees, Jacko packed up his shopping cart and got ready to move. City crews in bright vests fanned out nearby, cleaning up an abandoned camp, near the site of a recent brush fire, one of more than 60 that the Anchorage Fire Department has extinguished in the woods so far this year. Over the course of two days of cleanup in the area, crews filled a red sharps container with used needles. Junk piles still littered the woods.

Gil Jacko hauls some possessions to a homeless campsite along Chester Creek on Thursday, April 30, 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Bill Roth / ADN)

As he neatly placed his belongings into a grocery cart stolen from Carrs-Safeway to move to another campsite, Jacko reflected on the mess left behind by others. It bothers him.

“Why can’t they keep it clean?” Jacko asked.

He said he likes to keep his campsite tidy and organized.

Asked why he didn’t take advantage of emergency shelter during the pandemic, Jacko said he likes the woods. It feels more like home. The privacy of the woods also provides cover for substance use.

Just east of downtown, Jennifer Currie lives on the streets, most recently at a camp on Third Avenue and Ingra Street. She describes herself as a survivor of domestic violence who battles residual damage to her brain, ears and eyes. The abuse left her physically and emotionally scared, she said.

“I have PTSD,” she said. “I’m scared most of the time.”

In her former life, Currie made a living doing medical billing and collections, she said. Currie is the mother of three adult children, ages 22, 24 and 32. The youngest is in college, she said.

“They worry about me constantly."

Currie said she doesn’t use needles and wishes people knew that “not all homeless people are bad.”

The camp Currie spent the winter at is gone now. She walked along East Fourth Avenue with a backpack recently, accompanied by a young person who appeared to be intellectually disabled and homeless.

Asked how they were doing, Currie smiled and said, “Fine.”

Myron Traylor pushes his belongings in a shopping cart as Anchorage Police and Parks and Recreation workers removed an illegal homeless campsite near Third Avenue and Ingra Street on Monday, May 11, 2020. (Bill Roth / ADN)

A soul-crushing day

Given current economic conditions, Anchorage’s chronic homelessness problem could spiral, according to experts.

The national unemployment rate in April was 14.7%, a level not seen since the Great Depression. It declined to 13.3% in May. A Columbia University analysis recently found that homelessness nationwide could increase by as much as 40% to 45% this year. That could mean nearly 250,000 Americans experiencing homeless for the first time if mass unemployment continues and if history is a guide.

More than 103,000 Alaskans filed initial unemployment claims over 10 weeks through May 16. Demand at food pantries has recently skyrocketed by about 75%, according to the Food Bank of Alaska. During March and April, calls to United Way of Anchorage’s 211 line for help with rent and utility assistance, food, emergency shelter and other immediate needs jumped by nearly 300% over the same period last year, according to the agency.

A state law is forestalling evictions and foreclosures until June 30. Without an extension, Anchorage’s homeless numbers could explode as families who lost incomes run out of money and options.

Jose McPherson watches the deterioration from his business, Good Guys Auto Sales. The used car dealership spans a lot on Gambell Street between East Sixth and East Seventh avenues, one of Anchorage’s roughest spots. During the pandemic, the north-south thoroughfare has grown more nightmarish than in recent memory with homeless residents sleeping in the doorways of businesses, begging outside liquor stores and wandering into oncoming traffic.

Good Guys Auto Sales owner Jose McPherson points at a small homeless camp behind his business on Tuesday, May 27, 2020 along Gambell St in Fairview. Fairview has seen the impacts of homelessness more than most other neighborhoods in Anchorage. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

McPherson found a recent Wednesday particularly soul-crushing. He arrived at his business around 9 a.m..

“There was a lady who slept down the street, on Fairbanks Street, butted up to the cemetery,” said McPherson.

“The lady was there all day. I worked about 12 hours. When I was leaving my business around nine o’clock, she had woken up. She was smoking a cigarette. She came over to my car. She tried to ask me for some money,” said McPherson.

The woman had trouble forming coherent sentences, but she didn’t seem to be on drugs, he said.

“She clearly had psychological issues,” said McPherson. “Someone like that needs medical care, or some respite care, inpatient or outpatient.”

There are legions of others like her, a testament to the city’s lack of mental health care.

Katie Tullius, a homeowner who lives between two homeless shelters, sees them all the time. Over the past five years, Tullius estimates she’s called emergency dispatchers over a hundred times, sometimes three times in a single day. There was the time a man appeared into her yard and peeled off his clothes. The police responded and took him to the Alaska Psychiatric Institute. Last fall, Tullius called 911 after hearing a woman yelling for help from behind her house.

“She was telling these guys not to take her pants off,” Tullius said.

Police came and handcuffed the men. For Tullius, the saddest part was when the woman didn’t want to be separated from the men when the time came. It became clear they were part of her support network, said Tullius.

The incidents tend to blend together, even the homicide next door in 2017. But Tullius said she loves the neighborhood despite the crime and antisocial behavior. There’s a sense of cohesiveness. Everyone on her street knows each other by name. They share phone numbers.

“We look out for one another."

With the city’s recent removal of some homeless camps nearby, things are looking better than they have in a long time, Tullius said.

A panhandler wears a mask at an intersection in midtown Anchorage on Friday, April 17, 2020. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

Who are the homeless?

The Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness says about 1,100 individuals were homeless in Anchorage last year, a number that has remained nearly flat since 2013. In any given month, about 2,350 people seek some form of homeless assistance, and many more live on the margins. An estimated 373 are chronically homeless, costing society an estimated $47,000 each annually in criminal justice, emergency response and medical treatment, according to a May 2018 study commissioned by the United Way of Anchorage.

Before the pandemic, more than 17,000 Anchorage families lived on a financial cliff, one or two paychecks away from disaster, according to an estimate by United Way of Anchorage.

Although panhandlers and illegal campers are often the public face of homelessness and soak up the resources of police, firefighters and emergency rooms, homeless children in Anchorage outnumber them.

According to the Anchorage School District’s Child in Transition program, 1,686 enrolled students were considered homeless this past winter, many of them living in motels, doubled up with other families, couch surfing or staying at Covenant House Alaska. Including young children and those who are homeless and eligible to be enrolled in school but are not, the count increases to 2,420.

The number is likely to surge when schools reopen and teachers begin reporting what they see in the classroom.

“I am anticipating a significant increase in our numbers next year. Once landlords are allowed to evict, I anticipate many will lose their homes. The demand for rental assistance right now is huge,” said David Mayo-Kiely, Child in Transition program coordinator.

Besides living in poverty, many homeless children have parents with substance dependency or mental health challenges, or both. About one-quarter of adults who experience homelessness suffer from severe mental health disorders, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Scholars and policy analysts who study homelessness say it can result from many factors, among them poverty, lack of employment, domestic violence, high housing costs, lack of mental health or addiction treatment, intellectual or physical disabilities and re-entry after incarceration. All are factors in Anchorage homelessness, with poverty and lack of affordable housing topping the list, according to experts.

A cold, remote and expensive city

Anchorage is not an easy place to live, even for those with roofs over their heads. It’s dark and frozen much of the year. Public transportation can be difficult, and waiting for buses in the cold can be excruciating. Anchorage is geographically isolated.

And it’s expensive: about 25% more expensive to live in than the average U.S. city. A good paycheck is essential to eke out a middle-class lifestyle — dinner out occasionally, affordable child care, a reliable vehicle.

For the working poor, Anchorage is hard, especially finding an apartment that doesn’t devour a meager paycheck.

The setting sun casts a warm glow on the Anchorage skyline and frosty trees in the foreground during subzero temperatures on Sunday, Jan. 5, 2020. Shelters for the homeless were at capacity during the cold snap. (Bill Roth / ADN)

Over the last decade, it hasn’t gotten any easier. Hundreds of mobile homes in Anchorage have been cleared for redevelopment. Many low-budget motels, which offered long-term rentals to low-income tenants, have been bulldozed, tightening the already sparse options for affordable housing.

The average two-bedroom apartment in Anchorage costs $1,292 a month. To afford the rent without spending more than a third of one’s income, a household needs $4,306 every month in earnings, or $51,669 a year, according to the homeless coalition. That means earning $24.84 per hour. The minimum wage in Alaska is $10.19. The average renter earns $18.96 an hour, according to the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness.

While homelessness often runs in families, it can happen unexpectedly too. People come to Anchorage from rural communities for what they think will be brief trips. They arrive for medical appointments, shopping, business meetings or family visits. But things don’t always go as planned. They may get released from the troubled Alaska Psychiatric Institute without much of a plan. The crushing cost of airfare in a giant state like Alaska can make getting home impossible if money runs out. It’s not uncommon for rural residents to get stuck in Anchorage if they lose their driver’s license or a state ID. It may be hard to get home if they have to stay to complete probation or parole requirements. There’s even a group that assists this population called the Association for Stranded Rural Alaskans.

Ricardo Molina and his dog stay in a tent Ingra Street and 3rd Avenue on January 6, 2020. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Sometimes the move to Anchorage just doesn’t work out. The skills needed to thrive in remote Alaska don’t always translate in a much bigger city. English is sometimes a second language and that can make job and housing applications tough to fill out.

Research indicates that people of color are overrepresented in homeless populations nationwide. In Alaska, it’s no different. Alaska Natives make up a disproportionately high percentage of Anchorage’s homeless community — about 45%, although they make up about 15% of the state’s overall population.

Alaska Native and non-Native children often grow up in communities with high rates of poverty, alcohol and drug use, suicide and trauma, according to many studies.

Domestic violence, sexual assault, and child abuse are common throughout Alaska, making many residents vulnerable to becoming homelessness. These factors can impair child development, debilitating kids’ cognitive, emotional, and neurological functions.

Rising frustration

Although the number of people experiencing homelessness in Anchorage is fairly stagnant according to official numbers, many residents and business owners say the city looks more dystopian by the month. They question the statistics. There’s a widespread sense among many in the community that things are getting worse.

The official number of 1,100 or so homeless individuals is based on a twice-yearly count on a single night. It’s called a Point in Time Count. The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development requires the count for communities to receive homeless assistance and prevention funding. But the spider web of people living in the woods, in cars, motels, on couches, or places other than shelters makes counting the homeless more of a guesstimate than a science.

Nancy Burke, Anchorage's housing and homeless services coordinator, enters data into an app during the yearly Point in Time Count on Tuesday night, Jan. 28, 2020 near downtown. The count, required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, aims to assist in measuring the extent of homelessness in Anchorage. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

Some residents fed up with Anchorage’s homeless problem say the city-collected data isn’t transparent. For example, the municipality withholds the exact location of camps for fear the homeless will be attacked by vigilantes. Some think the problem is much bigger than statistics show. Some say people living in illegal camps do so by choice because they’re criminals, vagrants and drug addicts who steal anything that isn’t nailed down. Shovels, rakes, extension cords, propane tanks, children’s bikes — you name it.

“The city wants you to think these people want resources. They don’t want resources. They won’t even go to the shelters. They won’t go. The woods are a lawless no-man’s land,” said D.E. White, a resident of the Northstar neighborhood along the Chester Creek near the Sullivan and Ben Boeke arenas.

Jamie Meeks tosses a garbage bag as Parks and Recreation workers cleaned up a homeless camp along Chester Creek on Thursday, April 30, 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Bill Roth / ADN)
Parks and Recreation workers clean up a homeless camp along Chester Creek on Thursday, April 30, 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Bill Roth / ADN)

Some residents draw a clear line between those who they describe as legitimately homeless and those who favor an outdoor lifestyle with no rules. Among them is Russ Webb, a former state deputy commissioner and frequent Chester Creek Trail user who lives in South Addition.

In the past five or six years, homeless demographics along the greenbelts and elsewhere have shifted from chronic inebriates toward younger able-bodied men who operate bike chop shops and other illegal operations, according to Webb.

This segment of the homeless population doesn’t live in small camps. They fashion makeshift homesteads.

“They have all the comforts of home — heating, food, gas grills, 100-pound propane tanks, baby carriages, cast-iron wood stoves, freezers, televisions, commercial totes used to move tons of fish, solar panels, generators — you name it,” said Webb.

One “homesteader” who Webb saw even had his own Keurig coffee maker.

The Chester Creek Trail offers a corridor to downtown, where business owners have grown increasingly incensed.

“There’s often human feces on our walkways,” said Carmen Baker, co-owner of Elaine S. Baker and Associates furniture store on East Fifth Avenue. “Since the lockdown, we have had people camping out during the day and night.”

Baker hired a security company to patrol her business. But the atmosphere feels far from secure. Rocks get hurled through her store windows, shattering the glass and rattling employees. Baker recently decided to move the store to a new location she hopes will be safer.

Paul and Vernon Wood of Wood Enterprises board up a smashed window at Elaine S. Baker and Associates, located on the corner of 5th & Gamble, after a vandal hurled a rock through it on Thursday, April 16, 2020. (Bill Roth / ADN)

“I want the mayor to enforce the law,” said Richard Shafer, who lives on East Third Avenue, across the street from where a large homeless camp grew over the winter. “They have a place to go. They should either be in the Sullivan Arena or in jail.”

Shafer was referring to a city-owned sports arena that was converted into a mass shelter in March.

‘I lose business’

When Chong Han arrives at work at Burger Jim, her fast food restaurant on East Fourth Avenue., she often finds the residue of the night before. People experiencing homelessness — or illegal campers, depending on one’s perspective — are passed out, or trying to use the bathroom.

They smell and drive away customers. In a telephone interview cut short because she said she was busy cooking, Han agreed with Shafer.

“The boss need to do something,” said Han, referring to the mayor. It’s bad, she said. “I lose business.”

Han’s neighbors are getting vocal, led by a group called the Third Avenue Radicals that has cleaned up garbage, called and written to city officials, and testified before the Anchorage Assembly to try to force change.

Anchorage Police informed people at an illegal homeless camp at Third Avenue and Ingra Street on Thursday, April 30, 2020, that they should clear out before the camp is abated in 10 days. (Bill Roth / ADN)
Rob Cupples holds signs along 3rd Avenue to protest against illegal activity he said happens near a homeless camp at Third Avenue and Ingra Street. Photographed on April 17, 2020. (Marc Lester / ADN)
Jonathon Cannon, center, is confronted by a man on Third Avenue after the two exchanged angry remarks near a homeless camp there on April 17, 2020. Police, monitoring nearby, ordered them to separate. (Marc Lester / ADN)

The Radicals organized a group of about two dozen people who staged a noontime rally on the corner of Third Avenue and Hyder Street in April, demanding that the city clear what was then a large homeless camp across the street. The camp became a haven of drug dealing, stolen goods, non-stop partying and general mayhem, according to the Radicals and their supporters.

In an era of face masks and hunkering down, the protesters found it unconscionable that authorities seemed to turn a blind eye to scores of homeless people roaming freely, possibly spreading COVID-19. The city pushed back against the COVID-19 claims. The health department tested more than 225 homeless people for COVID-19 in May and all the results came back negative, according to the mayor’s spokeswoman.

The city says it’s listening to neighborhood concerns.

On April 30, Anchorage police posted notices at the Third Avenue camp informing people they needed to leave soon. Parks and Recreation crews, aided by police and staff from the emergency operations center, began clearing the camp 11 days later.

Tons of trash

Camp clearing, a process called abatement, happens each spring. As the snowpack retreats, parks and recreation crews visit camps citywide. They remove hundreds of tons of trash, including the ubiquitous used syringes.

Last year, 438 camps were cleared out and 450 tons of trash removed, according to the mayor’s office.

Outreach workers typically go from tent to tent, informing people of the impending cleanup and how they can access services and housing. Because of COVID-19, agencies drastically scaled back outreach this spring as their workers hunkered down.

Anchorage police informed people at an illegal homeless camp at Third Avenue and Ingra Street on Thursday, April 30, 2020, that they should clear out before the camp is abated in 10 days. (Bill Roth / ADN)
Day after the Anchorage Police and Parks and Recreation workers removed and cleaned up an illegal homeless campsite near Third Avenue and Ingra Street on Monday, May 11, 2020. (Bill Roth / ADN)

Although abatement prompts some to move from homelessness into housing, most campers shift to new sites in vacant lots, wooded trails and parks.

During community briefings on Facebook Live this spring, Mayor Ethan Berkowitz described the campers as “a difficult population to deal with.” The mayor blamed failed national policies and a broken safety net in Alaska and across the country.

During an April 30 visit to the Third Avenue homeless camp, Berkowitz urged people to go to the Sullivan and Ben Boeke arena complex where social services, food, clean beds and showers are available.

Some expressed interest. Others said they don’t like feeling closed in or the limited storage at the arenas, where guests’ belongings are kept to one tote.

Turning things around

Anchorage has attempted to solve homelessness for decades. Task forces, summits, plans and various initiatives have come and gone. The latest effort is a three-year plan called Anchored Home that aims to reach “functional zero” by next year.

Functional zero means anyone who needs housing can get it quickly, and homelessness becomes a rare, brief and one-time event.

The plan, released in October 2018, is a roadmap with four main elements that builds on previous efforts and incorporates national best practices for ending homelessness. The plan’s first pillar is preventing people from becoming homeless in the first place. The second is boosting housing and support services, the third is increasing public safety and the fourth is advocacy and funding.

Occupational therapist Kevin Knight with Orthopedic Physicians Alaska takes the temperature of a client entering the Bean's Cafe emergency shelter at the Sullivan Arena on Monday evening, April 27, 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic. Jason Grabowski of OPA is at right. (Bill Roth / ADN)

The effort is being led by the Municipality of Anchorage, Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness, United Way of Anchorage, Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority and Rasmuson Foundation. Some 70 other groups are participating.

The plan involves stronger collection and sharing of data. The theory is that by knowing each homeless person’s name and details of their story, better, longer-lasting outcomes will result, with interventions tailored to each individual case. Underpinning this approach is a federal strategy called coordinated entry, which aims to streamline the process of moving a homeless person into the right type of housing.

Anchored Home got a strong financial boost last fall. A five-year, $40 million investment was made by Premera Blue Cross Blue Shield of Alaska, Providence Health & Services Alaska, Rasmuson Foundation and Weidner Apartment Homes.

The funders described it as the most significant private investment to address homelessness in state history. The idea is to invest in new strategies that have shown success in other parts of the country, including accurate identification, tracking and follow-up of people who experience homelessness.

Other efforts are already underway. Path to Independence is a pilot program, a public-private partnership, that provides housing to homeless individuals in apartments owned by Weidner Apartment Homes and Cook Inlet Housing Authority. Case management, employment help and other services are included.

Home for Good is a permanent, supportive housing pilot project led by United Way of Anchorage. Launched in July 2019, the public-private partnership intends to house 150 chronically homeless residents who frequently use emergency services, shelters and hospital emergency rooms when it’s fully scaled up.

The Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority recently approved a $500,000 grant to support the effort, following a similarly sized investment in 2019. Twenty people are currently being housed by the project, according to the United Way.

Additional money to fight homelessness has also recently flowed. Last fall, Catholic Social Services received a one-time grant of $5 million from Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s chief executive. The Bezos Day One Family Fund grant is for rapid rehousing of homeless families.

Millions of dollars in homeless COVID-19 relief funding is also coming to Alaska, a portion of which Anchorage will get.

Plans are in the works to open a day shelter with services possibly in Midtown. Assembly members Meg Zaletel and John Weddleton, along with Mayor Ethan Berkowitz, introduced an ordinance on June 2 that would change city code to allow mixed-use districts, zoned as B3, to host homeless or transient shelters. A public hearing is scheduled for July 14.

Whether any of these strategies will make a significant impact on Anchorage homelessness is unknown. Even with more housing and case management, the lack of drug and alcohol treatment and mental health services remains an ongoing challenge. Anchorage voters seem to have recognized the depth of the problem recently. They passed Proposition 13 in April, a 5% alcohol tax which is expected to raise between $11 million and $15 million per year. A portion of the money will go toward substance misuse treatment, behavioral health support and sheltering the homeless.

The Anchorage Fire Department, which responds to more than 36,000 emergency calls a year, supported the alcohol tax. More and more often, medics are responding to calls from people experiencing behaviorial health crises, often combined with alcohol use disorder. Anchorage simply doesn’t have the resources to treat them other than taking them to hospital ERs, according to Chief Jodie Hettrick.

New attention on the problem

The alcohol tax revenue and the new cash infusions for homeless response and prevention come at a critical time. The coronavirus pandemic upended the city’s existing shelter system and many see opportunity amid the crisis.

Berkowitz has said there’s no going back to the way things were before COVID-19.

Anchorage’s two largest shelters, Brother Francis and Bean’s Cafe on East Third Avenue, radically shifted operations to comply with social-distancing protocols. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends 6 feet of spacing between cots or mats during the pandemic. To comply, Brother Francis began accepting only elderly, medically frail or mobility-compromised clients. Nearby Bean’s Cafe, a soup kitchen and emergency overnight shelter next door, closed and moved to the much larger Sullivan and Ben Boeke arenas.

Sean Jimmie of Toksook Bay said he ’isn't homesick yet ’ but looks forward to fishing as he sat on a cot on the concrete floor of the Sullivan Arena that has been converted to the Bean's Cafe emergency shelter during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Bill Roth / ADN)
Bean's Cafe food services supervisor Aaron Lochridge distributed sack lunches to clients at the emergency shelter inside the Sullivan Arena during the COVID-19 pandemic on Wednesday, April 29, 2020. (Bill Roth / ADN)
Homeless clients settle in for the night at the Bean's Cafe emergency shelter in the Sullivan Arena on Monday evening, April 27, 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Bill Roth / ADN)
Daryl Shaw is a client staying at the Bean's Cafe emergency shelter in the Sullivan Arena on Monday evening, April 27, 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Bill Roth / ADN)
Clients stand on dots marking proper social distance spacing while waiting for sack lunches to be distributed at the Bean's Cafe emergency shelter inside the Sullivan Arena during the COVID-19 pandemic on Wednesday, April 29, 2020. (Bill Roth / ADN)

The arenas have been open 24 hours a day and are capable of housing up to 480 people a night, although the Ben Boeke arena closed as a shelter on June 1 because of declining numbers, according to city officials.

Prior to COVID-19, Brother Francis and Bean’s Cafe were often filled to capacity with people sleeping mat-to-mat with no spacing, an arrangement far from ideal in the best of circumstances. But in the presence of a highly infectious virus, the practice became potentially fatal.

Clients wait in line for the doors to open at the Brother Francis Shelter on Thursday afternoon, July 11, 2019. (Bill Roth / ADN)
People sleep in the men's dorm at Brother Francis Shelter on Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2018. The downtown Anchorage homeless shelter can house up to 240 people each night at regular capacity. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

Soon after the mass shelters opened, nonprofit agencies set up tents in the parking lot where workers offer assistance with housing, jobs, unemployment, treatment and other homeless resources.

Lisa Sauder, executive director of Bean’s Cafe, said she’s long wanted to have services and shelter beds physically connected as they are now and what’s happening outside the Sullivan and Ben Boeke is a giant step in the right direction. She has seen evidence that it’s working.

“Our goal is to try to get people out of this system,” said Sauder, standing outside the Boeke in the evening sunshine.

Beans Cafe executive director Lisa Sauder speaks at Ben Boeke Ice Arena on Friday, March 20, 2020. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

Likewise, COVID-19 has prompted Catholic Social Services to step up its efforts to move shelter users into transitional and permanent supportive housing, said Lisa Aquino, executive director. Since the pandemic hit, the agency has managed to help about 470 people get housed or prevent those in danger of losing their housing from becoming homeless.

Before the travel clampdown, Catholic Social Services flew several homeless residents out of state to be with family or friends or back to their villages as long as a safe home was available.

COVID-19 also forced change in the city’s emergency cold weather program, where homeless families would stay overnight at various churches around town. It was a program staffed by volunteers, many of them elderly, putting them at high risk for catching the virus. The church program has ended. But homeless families can still access help by calling 211 and some are being housed in a downtown hotel during the pandemic.

‘I’m considered a third-rate citizen’

Phylicia Timmerman, 34, of Dillingham was recently staying at the Ben Boeke arena, which sheltered women, couples and members of the LGBTQ community. Timmerman slept, ate and showered at the arena, and spent her days in the woods along Chester Creek.

Phylicia Timmerman, 34, who is originally from Dillingham, is homeless and pregnant with her fifth child and recently began staying at the women's mass shelter in the Ben Boeke Ice Arena during the during the COVID-19 pandemic. Wednesday, May 6, 2020. (Bill Roth / ADN)

Pregnant with a fifth child due in October, Timmerman prefers the fresh air, sunlight and freedom of the woods. On a recent afternoon, she sat along the creek banks with her friend Jesse, eating chips and sharing hand-rolled tobacco.

Timmerman said she left Dillingham at age 14 to attend residential treatment in Anchorage at North Star Behavioral Health, and later in Utah. Timmerman said she still struggles with emotional self-regulation and an addiction to methamphetamine. She lost custody of her four children.

“OCS didn’t give me enough time,” Timmerman said, referring to the Office of Children’s Service, the state child welfare ageny.

Phylicia Timmerman, 34, who is originally from Dillingham, is homeless and pregnant with her fifth child and recently began staying at the women's mass shelter in the Ben Boeke Ice Arena during the during the COVID-19 pandemic. Wednesday, May 6, 2020. (Bill Roth / ADN)

She lives on Social Security disability payments and public assistance.

“I hate that I am considered homeless. I’m considered a third-rate citizen,” she said.

Timmerman wasn’t sure at the time if she would seek housing assistance. She worries about committing to a lease, and all the restrictions and obligations of being a tenant.

“They might kick me out,” she said.

As she walked back to the Ben Boeke arena, Timmerman said she wants to do whatever she can to “see the light of the next day.” That’s her main goal for her future.

“I want to live to see another day," she said.

Correction: The original version of this story said the minimum wage in Alaska is $9.89. That was 2019′s amount. It is automatically adjusted for inflation and is now $10.19.

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About this series

The Anchorage Daily News is spending the year looking closely at homelessness in Anchorage and in Alaska — the problems, the complexities and ways to make things better. We’ll be exploring the roots of the issues, the people affected, what’s working and what isn’t. We’ll be reporting on impacts across the community and potential solutions.

The project is receiving financial support through The Alaska Community Foundation from a variety of sources: Alaska Children’s Trust, Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, GCI, the Knight Foundation, Premera Blue Cross Blue Shield of Alaska, Providence Health & Services Alaska, Rasmuson Foundation and Weidner Apartment Homes. Daily News reporters, photographers and editors operate independently of the funders, have full editorial control over the content and are solely responsible for it.

We want to hear your ideas, questions and feedback. Email homeless@adn.com