Rural Alaska

6 people lived for years inside this one-room shelter: Why villagers say overcrowding is a crisis

NOORVIK — Outside Hannah Coffin’s front door, iced trails disappear toward the horizon in one of the most sparsely populated places in all of the United States. Inside her door, six people live in a 12-foot room.

For four years, the Coffin family has lived in a makeshift shelter the size of a small bedroom or large closet. There is no bathroom, no running water. Adults share the only bed. Kids sleep on a small mattress beneath the pale spruce limbs and overlapping plywood that form the homemade roof.

“We had no choice but to live like this,” Coffin said. "We were homeless.” She estimates another 20 families in Noorvik need houses too, including one group of 15 or more who said they live in a windowless former bingo hall.

When Gov. Mike Dunleavy visited this Northwest Arctic village Monday to celebrate his first day as Alaska’s new governor, he was also inadvertently placing a spotlight on a region where the number of families living in overcrowded homes is 12 times the national average.

[INTERACTIVE VIDEO: Step inside the Coffins' home in this immersive, 360-degree clip. Mobile users, open the YouTube app for best results.]

The Daily News asked several Noorvik residents what the new government should focus on as leadership shifts in Juneau. The majority of those interviewed said a lack of affordable housing and small homes overstuffed with multiple generations of families should be a top priority. Across the Northwest Arctic Borough, 39 percent of homes are overcrowded or “severely overcrowded,” according to the Alaska Housing Finance Corp.

A Dunleavy spokesman did not immediately respond to questions Friday about how and if the new administration plans to address the overcrowding issue. Sen. Lisa Murkowski chaired a field hearing of the U.S. Senate Indian Affairs Committee Aug. 27 in Savoonga, focusing on village housing and the impact on Alaska Natives and American Indians. What is called “overcrowding” is often actually a form of homelessness for village families who cannot afford their own place, Murkowski said at the time.


Hannah’s husband, Alfred Coffin, said he is unfazed by living in the lakeside shelter that has been home to his wife, stepson and adopted children. He was born in a spring hunting tent this same size 62 years ago, miles outside of Noorvik.

But his family needs room, he said. They need windows. Indoor plumbing.

“They are more special. They have to have a warm place, safe place. Finish out their school years and let them try to be happy,” Alfred said Tuesday as the older boys watched a DVD of “Thor: Ragnarok," sipping Gatorade.

The family’s home has no divider and no privacy. In one corner, a squat stove warmed water in a steel bowl. An unloaded AR-10 rifle, used for bear and caribou hunts, leaned against parkas. It’s home, Hannah said. Everyone gets along but they are ready for elbow room.

Hannah began applying for programs that place families in newly constructed homes 17 years ago, with selection based on family size, income, military service and other factors. She now counts herself lucky. In the latest round of selections, her family was chosen for a four-bedroom home funded by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Maniilaq Association, with the cooperation of the Noorvik tribe, oversees the program, said coordinator Jackie Hill. Building a home from scratch, without assistance, would be prohibitively expensive for some families. Freight and shipping costs, as with all goods in Noorvik, balloon the cost of any new home building.

The Coffin family’s house project is about $300,000, Hill said.

It is nearly finished. The new bedrooms smell of sawdust and a large wood stove sits in the middle of the tall living room. Once they move in, sometime after Christmas, no one will have to haul water from a washeteria. The boys are already thinking of taping Lebron James posters on their bedroom walls.

Hannah plans a housewarming potluck and has picked out the first picture, a framed poem, that she will hang on the wall of the new place: “I thank the Lord for you today, for the hands that give so much."

Kyle Hopkins

Kyle Hopkins is special projects editor of the Anchorage Daily News. He was the lead reporter on the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Lawless" project and is part of an ongoing collaboration between the ADN and ProPublica's Local Reporting Network. He joined the ADN in 2004 and was also an editor and investigative reporter at KTUU-TV. Email