Volunteers turn out in force to conduct Anchorage's homeless survey

Next to a dark tent near Anchorage's Valley of the Moon park, Aaron Barnes' headlamp illuminated a clipboard and several pages of questions.

A man and a woman peered out from inside the tent. Barnes, an Air Force medical technician, stood outside. He asked them questions about family and medical history, addiction, incarcerations and hospitalizations. He wanted to know how long the two had been homeless and why.

Before most of Anchorage awoke Wednesday morning, Barnes and roughly 140 other volunteers fanned out across the city to speak to as many homeless people as possible. The occasion was the annual "Point-In-Time" homeless count — a national, federally required homeless census that Anchorage and other cities conduct on a single day in late January. The actual survey results won't be known for weeks or months, but some 797 people showed up for a homeless event later in the day, 71 more than at the same event last year.

This was a larger effort than in previous years, spearheaded by Mayor Ethan Berkowitz. For Berkowitz and his staff, this year's count offered a chance to start gathering the most accurate data yet on the city's homeless population, and harness it to make policy decisions. Since taking office, Berkowitz has hired a homeless coordinator and pledged to house 300 homeless people by the time his term expires in three years.

In recent weeks, the coordinator, Nancy Burke, has visited camps and trained military and community volunteers. She rolled out a phone app to better store and share data between agencies. She brought back a vulnerability index, last used in a 2012 campaign by Anchorage outreach workers, to assess who is most likely to die on the street.

The immediate goal is a list of homeless adults, rated on their level of vulnerability. Starting next week, Berkowitz plans to hold weekly meetings with his staff and social service agencies to review the list and track progress for each adult — taking cues from a "Housing First" model deployed successfully in Salt Lake City.

"If we're really serious about housing people, we need to know what types, what levels," Burke said in a recent interview.


Gathering volunteers

Around 4 a.m. Wednesday, people packed into a room at St. Mary's Episcopal church off Tudor Road, where Burke's husband, Michael Burke, is the rector.

More than 80 volunteers from Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson, including students working on a class project for a noncommissioned officers academy, mingled with service providers and community council members.

The scene contrasted to last year, when only about a dozen social service providers conducted the count, said Monica Stoesser, a camp outreach worker with Anchorage Community Mental Health Services.

"We'll be able to cover a lot more ground," said Stoesser, also a group leader Wednesday.

On circular tables, zoomed-in maps of where camps were located sat alongside plastic bags filled with items like socks, snacks, water, hand-warmers. Wearing a blue puffy jacket, Berkowitz walked around the room with a box of doughnuts in his arms.

Berkowitz said he wants to turn the "theoretical into the practical" when it comes to homelessness in ways that could include the construction of more housing. But the city needs data first, he said.

"We're in the preparation phase," Berkowitz said. "This is the critical piece."

As the departure time neared, Stoesser gathered her group at the back of the room. She asked if anyone had done a camp outreach before. Heads shook no.

Stoesser laid out the ground rules. Camps were people's homes, she said. It wasn't okay to trample through them. No one wants to be woken up at 5 a.m. by a stranger.

If told to back off, back off, Stoesser said. Just count the voices you hear, then leave.

Outside the room, members of the Anchorage Police Department's community policing team waited for Stoesser's group, one of 22 leaving the church. Four cops would accompany them to the area near Sullivan Arena and Valley of the Moon Park, a wooded area along Chester Creek packed increasingly with campers over the years.

Finding camps

Headlights flooded the parking lot next to Ben Boeke Ice Arena close to 5 a.m. Wednesday.

People left their cars and circled up. In addition to Stoesser, there were six military members; the chair of the city's Housing and Neighborhood Development Commission; a member of the South Addition community council; Nora Morse, a special assistant in the mayor's office, and Berkowitz.

They headed south into the woods, where tents were scattered among the trees. Stoesser called: "Anybody home? Hello ..."

From within an orange tent covered by a blue tarp, someone coughed, but didn't answer. Stoesser put a mark down. No one was surveyed. The group moved on.

There was trash strewn about the woods. A red couch cushion. Mattresses. A piece of luggage. Empty camps and tent shells. The group split into two, with Stoesser headed elsewhere.

A little while later, Stoesser returned. "Do we have two bus passes?" she asked.


Passes in hand, she walked away and delivered them to 39-year-old Gene Smallwood, who had been sitting in a small camp among the trees with his sister. Smallwood and his sister planned to catch a bus to the Project Homeless Connect fair at the Egan Center later in the day.

"Catch everyone before they wake up and disappear, huh?" asked Smallwood, who lit a cigarette as he stood up to talk.

After asking Smallwood's permission, volunteer John Ashbery, a member of the South Addition Community Council, pulled out his phone and started asking questions from the point-in-time census survey: "Date of birth?" "How long have you been homeless?" "Have you been a victim of domestic violence?" Smallwood said he'd been homeless in the past, but not for some time. He had a place to live and was going to college. But recently, he said, he lost his job as a janitor at a gym.

Ashbery typed the information into his phone.

Assessing vulnerability

About a half-hour later, Ashbery knelt next to another tent in the woods further east. He was talking to two people: Dwayne Nelson, 33, and a woman who asked only her first name, Yvonne, be used.

They answered census questions. Then Ken Argenbright, a volunteer from the Air Force, dropped to his knees and opened his backpack.

"I have warm pants ... you guys need some of these things?" Argenbright asked. Nelson nodded, taking the clothing.

Then Barnes, the Air Force medical technician, stepped in to do the separate, more detailed vulnerability survey. When asked what kind of housing he was looking for, Nelson said without hesitation: "Permanent housing."


That's often the answer from people who are camping in the winter, said APD officer Mike Jones, who was escorting the group. He said in the summer, there are more temporary campers, and people who aren't interested in permanent housing. Or at least not interested in the current offerings, Burke said.

Low morning numbers

While volunteers were quick to praise the fast-paced and widespread morning camp canvassing, the effort didn't produce as many surveys as expected.

Argenbright, who is new to Anchorage and heard about the volunteer opportunity from an email last week, said he felt he learned more about what he described as one of the city's biggest problems. Ashbery, 61, said he was surprised at how "cooperative and forthcoming" the campers were.

Ashbery lives near Valley of the Moon Park. where there have been years of antagonism between neighbors and campers.

"It was a big eye opener," Ashbery said of the count.

But from a data perspective, the initial results were disappointing.

Back at the church, Burke said she'd only received several dozen point-in-time surveys and very few vulnerability surveys. She called the count "surprisingly low."

Burke noted the count would continue at homeless fair later Wednesday. That evening, volunteers would enter shelters — Bean's Cafe, Brother Francis Shelter and the Downtown Soup Kitchen — to administer more vulnerability surveys, one of the more critical evaluations for the administration.

Burke also said data would be expanded throughout the rest of the week. She said she planned to organize another count in the summer, when there are traditionally more people camping, and for different reasons.

Berkowitz said after the count Wednesday that roadblocks for collecting data -- namely, homeless adults declining to take surveys -- shouldn't impede the city's efforts.

"We need to not make perfect the enemy of the good," Berkowitz said. "It's still a lot of names."

As Burke packed up, her morning canvass wasn't yet over. She went out with a volunteer to follow up with one of the hesitant campers, and convinced him to take a survey.

Devin Kelly

Devin Kelly was an ADN staff reporter.