Anchorage

Anchorage needs thousands more housing units and shelter beds to meet demand, report finds

Coronavirus, COVID-19, Bean's Cafe Emergency Shelter, Sullivan Arena

Anchorage needs about 3,000 new housing units and shelter beds to meet the needs of its homeless population, according to a report the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness released on Monday.

The need is expected to rise in the months ahead as the coronavirus pandemic continues to erode Anchorage’s economy.

The 41-page report is a supply-and-demand analysis of Anchorage’s homeless situation. It examines what it will take with housing and supportive services to get people off the streets, out of shelters and into suitable living arrangements. The report, called a gap analysis, also offers a snapshot of homeless demographics, including a statistic indicating Alaska Native residents comprise nearly half of the city’s homeless population and more than 75% of people experiencing unsheltered homelessness. According to census data, Alaska Natives comprise just over 9% of Anchorage’s population.

Social service providers have known anecdotally that Alaska Natives are disproportionately affected by homelessness. The report’s statistics, compiled with a tool from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), reveal an urgent need to bring a racial equity lens to the work of solving homelessness, said Katie Scovic, who chairs the coalition’s advisory council.

“Having a number put to it and seeing this comparison and how shocking it is, both graphically and then to think about that being individual lives, it’s is pretty jarring to see,” said Scovic, associate director of community development and homeless initiatives, Cook Inlet Housing Authority.

During a single night in January 2020, Anchorage’s official homeless population numbered 1,058 individuals. Of those, 1,003 were staying in shelters and 55 were found living outside. The number, as reported to HUD for federal funding purposes, has remained relatively flat in recent years.

In 2019, about 7,900 people in Anchorage sought some form of assistance because of homelessness, up from 7,763 from the prior year, according to the coalition.

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Two of the biggest unmet needs the report identifies are rapid rehousing and permanent supportive units for single adults. Rapid rehousing emphasizes helping people find and get into housing as quickly as possible with short-term financial assistance. Permanent supportive housing offers indefinite rental assistance and supportive services for homeless residents with disabilities or families with a disabled adult or child.

Rapid rehousing and permanent supportive housing are cost-effective, evidence-based strategies targeting specific subgroups of unsheltered people, advocates say. According to the report, Anchorage needs 1,695 more rapid rehousing units and 700 for permanent supportive housing.

Rapid rehousing is geared toward people with less acute needs or those at risk of becoming homeless and falling into a cycle of poverty. These are often people who face unexpected medical bills, a sudden job loss, or a violent relationship that caused them to flee. A person who qualifies for rapid rehousing might get rental and utility assistance, move-in funds, help identifying apartments and working with landlords, and if they need it, case management.

Permanent supportive housing targets the highly vulnerable, chronically homeless who are frequent users of the city’s emergency response system. Their vulnerability often stems from mental illness, behavioral health challenges, trauma, alcoholism or substance misuse, or combination thereof. Those who qualify receive a housing subsidy and wraparound services to address their complex needs. Services might include help with daily living skills, illness management, advocacy with landlords, and financial literacy.

Emergency shelter is also needed, about 400 beds for single adults, at least 30 for families and at least 20 for youth and young adults, according to the report. The Anchorage Assembly is slated to vote on Tuesday night on an ordinance that would allow the city to purchase four properties for day engagement, overnight shelter, transitional housing, and drug and alcohol treatment. If passed, the goal is to eventually close Sullivan Arena as a mass shelter. The arena opened in late March to serve homeless residents and provide them adequate sleeping space of six-feet-apart during the pandemic.

Single, homeless adults, many of whom are staying at the Sullivan, comprise 63% of demand for housing services, according to the report. The elderly are of growing concern. Alaska has the most rapidly aging population in the nation and providers see an uptick in elders needing services or finding it hard to secure affordable housing, according to the coalition.

Nearly 20,000 Alaska renter households are extremely low-income, a problem compounded by the lack of affordable housing, both statewide and in Anchorage. Alaska has 29 affordable housing units for every 100 households in need, according to the report.

Even before COVID-19, national experts expected an increase in homelessness among the elderly, the rent burdened and those living paycheck to paycheck. Now things look increasingly dire and the same is expected here in Anchorage. But the report says the city has the opportunity to divert people from becoming homeless in the first place, which is much cheaper than responding once they wind up on the street.

Besides identifying gaps in Anchorage’s system to prevent and respond to homelessness, the report lays out a series of recommendations and opportunities for policymakers. It does not attach a cost estimate for any of the solutions because it was beyond the scope of the project, said Jasmine Boyle, the coalition’s executive director.

A group called the Anchorage Homelessness Leadership Council is currently working to identify how much is spent in Anchorage on trying to solve the city’s homelessness problem and should have the report finished within the next few weeks, Boyle said.

Paula Dobbyn

Paula Dobbyn is an Anchorage-based freelance writer and former reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. She's a veteran Alaska journalist who has reported for ADN, KTUU and the Alaska Public Radio Network. Contact her at pauladob@gmail.com.

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