On an August afternoon at Mirror Lake, the residents of Karluk Manor gathered for a picnic. In December, their home will be 10 years old.
When it opened in 2011, Karluk Manor was Anchorage’s first permanent housing for chronically homeless alcoholics. It was also Alaska’s first project to implement “Housing First,” a philosophy that holds people need a stable and secure place to live before they can change their lives.
The plan was immediately, hotly controversial. The idea of a “wet” housing facility — residents would not be required to stop drinking, and alcohol would be allowed in rooms — was met with fierce resistance from the neighborhood. The rhetoric around Karluk Manor turned ugly. Opponents posted signs that said “No Red Nose Inn.” Future residents were referred to as “inebriates.”
A decade later, Karluk Manor quietly lives on. Housing First is now a broadly accepted strategy for getting people experiencing homelessness off the street. And RurAL CAP, the nonprofit that runs Karluk Manor, has opened two more Anchorage facilities modeled on it.
Now, as Anchorage is debating some of the most significant homelessness policy changes in its history, the example of Karluk Manor has taken on new resonance. For the people who live there, Karluk Manor is not a policy debate or a philosophy — it’s home.
At the picnic, a spontaneous game of volleyball between residents and case managers commenced. Maynard Gibeau and Misty Browning had been living in tents secreted into greenbelts around Anchorage. Now each has a studio apartment at Karluk Manor.
Misty said they were working on taking care of health problems that had accumulated on the street. At 36, she is the youngest resident of Karluk Manor. She was hoping to get a job at Bishop’s Attic next.
“It feels good to be here,” she said.
At a picnic table, Art Ivanoff sat watching two loons glide across the lake. Ivanoff, a sly jokester, is an original resident of Karluk Manor. He likes to be alone, but he knows everybody at Karluk.
Manager Maurice Parker worked the grill. Parker, a New Orleans native, left a career in restaurants for social work. People come to Karluk Manor at the bottom of their life, he said. He sees his first job as coaxing residents to recognize their self-worth again.
He looked around to see how many tenants had come to the picnic. Like almost everything at Karluk Manor, participation was strictly voluntary and some opted to stay home.
“They have trials and tribulations, past trauma, all the way from childhood,” Parker said. “So even to get them to come out here today, get them out of their element, to just hang out — yeah, it’s a big deal.”
When Karluk Manor opened in a converted motel along busy Sixth Avenue east of downtown Anchorage, it aimed to house the people who would benefit the most, first.
Residents were selected by the intensity of their needs: Forty-six of the most severely alcoholic and chronically unhoused people in Anchorage were offered spots in studio apartments in a renovated Red Roof Inn. The “vulnerability index” criteria included how many trips to the emergency room and city sleep-off center the person had required.
Critics said people would have no incentive to change their behavior if they were allowed to drink, and complained the facility would cluster more of the public impact of street alcoholism in Fairview.
The rhetoric was heated, and sometimes cruel. At community meetings, someone handed out cards that depicted a person with a bottle crawling across a road, with the words “inebriate crossing.”
When residents moved into Karluk Manor’s freshly painted rooms in December 2011, they knew they were under a microscope, said Rob Marx, director of supportive housing for RurAL CAP and Karluk’s first manager.
“It was extremely painful to open and have people say things about the company, the staff, and about our tenants,” he said. “We took it all personally.”
The administration of Mayor Dave Bronson says its plans to address homelessness include “significantly increasing the supply of permanent supportive housing in Anchorage,” according to John Morris, the administration’s homelessness coordinator. “We also embrace the ‘come as you are’ ethos of Karluk Manor where sobriety is not a precondition of shelter or housing.”
Still, the administration’s embrace of Housing First philosophy is not clear: Bronson’s hired consultant Robert Marbut Jr., a former Trump administration “homelessness czar,” is known for his stance against Housing First, which he says incentivizes dysfunctional living.
In 10 years, Karluk Manor has been heavily studied by academics and policymakers. Often lost in the discussion is what the experience of living at Karluk Manor has been like for the people who call it home.
‘Is my camp good?’
Karluk Manor has blue siding and the managed feel of a college dorm. RurAL CAP staff are on-site 24 hours a day.
Each resident has a room that includes a kitchenette, a bathroom and a single bed. While many couples have lived at Karluk Manor, they aren’t allowed to share a room: It can be too volatile, and everyone needs a place to go back to alone if the relationship doesn’t work out.
Delivered meals can be picked up from a common room, and residents keep convenience foods and coffee setups in their rooms, too.
The long white hallways are worn but tidy. Some people keep their doors closed all the time, but others leave them ajar to invite visitors. Residents complain that drinkers can be loud and out of control, but most keep to their own spaces. No drinking in the hallway or outside overnight visitors are allowed.
David Pash was among the first to move in.
Pash, a soft-spoken 59-year-old with long, flowing hair, was in a military family that moved around. Before Karluk, he’d spent a lot of his adult life in tents and jail cells. Days were consumed by the pressing work of getting by.
“Is my camp good? Is my camp going to be tore up? Are the cops going to come around? Am I going to have lunch today? Am I going to have dinner tonight?” he said.
He was initially suspicious of the staff at Karluk Manor. They reminded him of prison guards, though Karluk’s ethos is that each resident has autonomy over their daily choices and rules are minimal. For years, he continued to drink heavily.
It wasn’t until one day when he was wracked with depression that he went to find his case manager. She was slammed, a line of people who needed her services snaking out of her office. But she stopped everything and took him aside to talk.
“She put everybody on hold, said everybody’s gotta wait,” he said. She really cared about his well-being, he realized.
For the first time in his life, he went to see a therapist. Over the years, he says, he has voluntarily sought help reducing his alcohol consumption. Things feel clearer now, though it’s not always easy being around a lot of people drinking.
These days, Pash likes to take daily walks around Anchorage. He collects trinkets he finds on the ground — lost earrings, broken toys. He occupies his mind with sudoku, computer games and books. The worries about survival are from a different life. “I don’t wonder about my place,” he said. “I know it’s good. I know it’s safe.”
He has lived in his apartment at Karluk Manor for a decade. It’s the longest he’s stayed anywhere in his life.
‘There’s a lot of varied and contradicting expectations’
People want to hear miraculous success stories about Karluk Manor residents, of people who spent decades homeless and then sobered up, got a job and an apartment, said Marx, the housing manager.
A few residents have done just that. But that’s not the reality for many tenants in Housing First, he said.
“There’s a lot of varied and contradicting expectations publicly about what Housing First can do,” Marx said.
In the past decade, 120 people have lived at Karluk Manor, according to RurAL CAP. Most have not moved on to independent living.
Of those residents:
• Nine original tenants still live there.
• 14 have moved to other assisted living facilities.
• 11 have moved to independent housing.
• Three ended their tenancy incarcerated.
• 31 people moved out for violating the rules, lease violations or other issues.
• 28 residents have died while they were tenants.
• Nine more died in the hospital, assisted living or on the street after having moved out.
It’s true that a lot of Karluk residents have died, Marx said. An apartment is not a fix for every problem in a complicated life. While most deaths are due to medical conditions related to alcoholism and other chronic health problems, some have died of violence and the kind of outdoor deaths that supportive housing places like Karluk Manor try to prevent.
Jessica Lake, a 24-year-old from Hooper Bay who was the youngest-ever resident of Karluk Manor, was found dead in Fairview in 2014. Her death has never been solved. A few residents ended up dying on the streets despite having a home to return to. Gregory Jack was a beloved Karluk resident who volunteered steadily at Bean’s Cafe. He was found dead on a loading dock in Fairview in 2016. His best friend, Art Ivanoff, mourns him still.
“He was my buddy,” Ivanoff said. “We went everywhere together.”
Is Karluk Manor successful? It really depends on how you define success, Marx said.
A 2014 Institute for Circumpolar Health study on Karluk Manor found that residents reported drinking less and made fewer emergency room visits within one year of moving in.
“Feeling safe was an influencing factor in reducing their drinking — that no longer having the stress of meeting survival needs or needing entrance to overnight incarceration (detox or ‘sleep-off’) resulted in a decrease in their consumption,” the study found.
Researchers also found that head trauma, other traumatic injuries and dental problems went down for residents. Residents spent more money on prescription drugs and visited behavioral health doctors and dentists more.
Most residents continue long-term struggles with alcohol. Some eventually ask for help, said Nick Hiteman, a mental health clinician. It’s never forced, always voluntary.
“To me, it means they’re really earnest,” he said.
Case manager Nioki Collins says people still don’t understand what goes on inside Karluk Manor.
“I think when people think of Karluk Manor, they visualize individuals drinking from the time they wake up to the time they go to bed,” she said. “And I think they just see it as a party. And that’s not what it is.”
Residents pursue hobbies and interests, she said. Many reconnect with family once they have a steady place to live. They visit with their kids and grandkids. They get long-deferred medical care. Those are successes worth counting too, Collins said.
Roger Williams and Lucy Tall lived homeless together for a decade. They’ve been in Karluk Manor for about a year and during that time have gotten much-needed health care, including major dental work and eye surgery.
“It’s easy to procrastinate when you’re an alcoholic,” Williams said.
Living at Karluk Manor is peaceful compared to being homeless, except when someone is drunk and pounds on their door, Tall said. They have taken Vivitrol shots to help them remain sober. To pass the time without alcohol, they play games like Scrabble and cribbage. They plan to get married this fall.
Karluk Manor has found a level of acceptance, and has expanded its model in Anchorage. Detractors remain, though some initially skeptical about the project say it has surpassed their expectations.
Back in 2011, Anchorage Assembly member Chris Constant was a member of the Fairview Community Council vocally opposed to Karluk Manor. He says he supported the Housing First concept, but not the location.
He still believes the location is flawed, but “Karluk Manor has proven that they can improve the lives of some 50 to 60 people,” he said. “That could be anything from getting them on their feet, to finding a place to die with dignity.”
RurAL CAP, the nonprofit that runs Karluk Manor, quietly opened two other Housing First facilities: an apartment building at 325 E. Third Ave., and Sitka Place, at the former Safe Harbor Inn location in Mountain View. Now there are more than 150 people living in Housing First arrangements. Those projects drew less community outcry than Karluk Manor.
Karluk Manor’s relationships with neighboring businesses remain “a work in progress,” said Maurice Parker, the on-site manager. Problems on the perimeter are rarely caused by the residents, he said. Still, staff have numerous ways to keep people from congregating. Sometimes keeping the peace involves a delivery of coffee and doughnuts to neighbors, he said.
Heidi Heinrich has worked at Lucky Wishbone, across the street from Karluk Manor, for 43 years and is now the co-owner of the Anchorage fried chicken institution. There were problems — loitering, panhandling — when the apartments first opened. Hands-on managers who attended community council meetings, passed out cards for neighbor businesses and generally “made an effort to be a good neighbor” changed the relationship, Heinrich said.
“For many years now, we have not had the issues,” she said. “I think it’s due to very good leadership.”
Though many Karluk residents can point to an improvement in safety and health if not a complete lifestyle change, a few have gone further.
Ed Quiver stopped by Karluk Manor on a recent afternoon to see old friends. He was passing through Anchorage after wrapping up summer work at a King Salmon cannery. Quiver was one of Karluk’s first residents. He moved out last year to return to Wyoming, his home state.
Living on the street made Quiver feel like he did when he served for the Army in Iraq. “Like being in war, you’re wired all the time,” he said. “Being here, it’s helped me out a lot, because I know I’m safe.”
Living there also allowed him to take stock of other health problems, like high blood pressure. It took years to get that under control. “You get to get to sleep in a regular bed every day, eat every day, shower every day, you get to notice ‘there’s a few things wrong with me,’ ” Quiver said.
He stopped drinking too. That was maybe five or six years ago.
“I don’t keep track. All I know is that I’m sober now, and that’s all I care about,” he said.
Quiver has his own apartment in Casper now. He spends time fly fishing. But he says there are things he misses.
“This is a good starting place if you want to get back to … just being a human again,” he said.