With funding from Amazon, Catholic Social Services launches effort to end family homelessness in Anchorage

Catholic Social Services unveiled an ambitious $5 million plan on Friday to end family homelessness in Anchorage.

More than 10,000 Anchorage families live in poverty, with a looming risk of homelessness, and hundreds more already stay in temporary shelters, a number expected to rise amid the coronavirus pandemic, said Lisa Aquino, executive director of the Anchorage-based nonprofit agency. With grant funding from Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos, Catholic Social Services expects to make a serious dent in Anchorage’s home crisis as it relates to kids and their families.

“Our goal is really about creating a generation of children who haven’t experienced the trauma of homelessness,” said Aquino, standing in the backyard of Clare House, a shelter for homeless women and children in Spenard.

Ending family homelessness means achieving “functional zero,” said Aquino. It doesn’t mean families will never become homeless. But if they do, help will be readily available to get them housed before the next needy family comes along.

Over the past several months, Aquino said her agency has collected data that has identified nearly 450 families in the city’s homeless shelter system, places like Clare House and the Salvation Army’s McKinnell House. The data found another 1,100 families who compose the “invisible homeless,” not usually found on street corners or in tents. These are households with minor children who are homeless as defined by the McKinney-Vento Act.

The federal law requires school districts across the nation to count and provide services to homeless children. These are kids without regular, fixed and adequate nighttime residences. They often double or triple up with friends or relatives, live in motels or vehicles, or other places not intended for human habitation.

With funds from the Bezos Day 1 Families Fund awarded last year to Catholic Social Services, Aquino’s agency will boost rapid rehousing units, expand efforts to keep vulnerable families in their existing homes, craft solutions to end generational homelessness and find ways to financially sustain the effort, dubbed “Flourishing Families.”

Aquino hoped to stretch the $5 million over five years, spending $1 million annually, but since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, she said many more families are facing homelessness. It’s unclear how long the money will last but Aquino hopes to raise more through partnerships and donations. The agency is also planning to bill Medicaid for some services, using a new tool called the 1115 waiver. It allows the state to waive some federal guidelines on Medicaid billing to pilot innovative strategies that serve clients.

Anchorage is a community that cares about ending family homelessness, she said.

Catholic Social Services is one of Anchorage’s largest homeless service providers, operating Brother Francis Shelter, Clare House, St. Francis Food Pantry and other programs.

By analyzing data from Homeless Management Information System, Catholic Social Services found that one in three children on every Anchorage school bus and one is every classroom is at risk of becoming homeless.