Seeking to highlight his administration's goals of reducing homelessness in Anchorage, Mayor Ethan Berkowitz said Wednesday the city and the state mental health agency will jointly hire a special coordinator for homeless issues.
Nancy Burke, a senior program officer specializing in statewide housing at the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, will take a position in city government created in 2009 but vacant since 2012. Burke will report to the mayor, but she'll remain a state employee, with her $113,000 salary paid by the trust, officials said. The agency has a bank of state land it can use for revenue.
At a news conference introducing Burke, Berkowitz framed homelessness as a priority issue for his administration and the entire city.
"Anchorage has a problem right now," Berkowitz said. "We have a problem that has a moral dimension and a fiscal dimension."
Berkowitz said the city has the "capacity" to help more than 2,000 homeless residents, including veterans. He also said it's costly for the fire and police departments to respond to emergency situations related to those who are homeless.
Burke, who has spent more than two decades working in disability and mental-health services, served on Berkowitz's transition subcommittee on homelessness -- the selection of a homeless coordinator was one of the recommendations for Berkowitz's first 60 days in office. Hiring the homeless coordinator is the administration's second major initiative related to homelessness since Berkowitz took office July 1. On Tuesday, the Anchorage Assembly approved $200,000 in city money toward the opening of 56 new housing units near Merrill Field for city residents who are alcoholic, homeless, or have mental illness.
Among those listening to Berkowitz's announcement Wednesday were several residents of Karluk Manor, Anchorage's first facility using the "Housing First" model to provide housing for nearly 50 chronic alcoholics without requiring them to get sober.
David Pash, 52, said he started living in Karluk Manor nearly three years ago after about three decades of homelessness and alcohol addiction. He said he's sharply curbed his drinking while living at the facility after unsuccessful attempts to get sober in years past.
After many years of unemployment, he now works at Karluk Manor part-time as a janitor. He said he knows Burke and thinks she can find ways to build more "Housing First" facilities in Anchorage.
"Most of my friends are homeless. I've seen a lot of them die," Pash said. "It seems hopeless out there."
Others who praised the selection of Burke included city ombudsman Darrel Hess, who served as the city's first homeless coordinator from 2009 and 2012. He called Burke the "perfect person" for the job, noting her experience with grant-writing and with homelessness coalitions over the years. Hess said keeping the position funded, however, is a matter of political will.
Myer Hutchinson, city spokesman, said Burke's position will be funded for 18 months, with an option to extend for another 18 months.
Carley Lawrence, chief communications director for the mental health trust, said no state general funds are being used for the position. Burke will remain an employee of the trust, under her current salary, but she'll be relocated to City Hall to focus on Anchorage issues, Lawrence said.
The trust started funding homeless coordinator positions in 2008 through grants to the the Mat-Su Borough, Fairbanks and Juneau. This is the first time the trust has provided both staff and money for a position, Lawrence said.
According to a statement sent by Hutchinson, Burke's duties will include the following:
Methods of "reducing neighborhood impacts" will likely be a key point of contention moving forward.
Christopher Constant, president of the Fairview Community Council and an administrator at the nonprofit Akeela, attended Wednesday's announcement. He said he supported Burke's appointment, but reiterated his concern for what he has characterized as the concentration in the neighborhoods near downtown of the city's social service providers and homeless housing.
That concern was acknowledged at Tuesday's Assembly meeting by Patrick Flynn, who represents downtown, just before the Assembly voted 9-1 to give money to the Safe Harbor project. Flynn supported the measure; the only one opposed, with Bill Starr absent, was Amy Demboski, who earlier said the city should be looking at increasing the number of detox beds in the community.
But Flynn gave fellow Assembly members a warning before the vote.
"Your decision to vote for this, I interpret as tacit approval of a facility in your district … when the next one comes up," Flynn said, looking around the dais. "Because we are done in my neighborhood."
At Wednesday's news conference, Burke said she and others would be looking at "how and where" the city is siting housing projects for those who are homeless. She said that "Housing First" facilities are among a number of different ways to approach the problem.
"The model is getting people housed," she said.