City, state leaders vow at vigil to help Anchorage homeless

Standing in the biting chill of October twilight, city and state leaders said Sunday that they're committed to easing Anchorage's acute problem with homelessness.

The comments came at a downtown vigil meant to honor people who'd died on the streets of Alaska's biggest city this year.

"A great city, a great state doesn't stand idly by while people perish in our streets," Mayor Ethan Berkowitz told a crowd of about 75 people.

The vigil, organized by Catholic Social Services, which runs Brother Francis Shelter, the city's largest emergency shelter, included songs from youth choirs, a candle lighting and a moment of silence.

On any given night, 450 people seek emergency shelter through one of Catholic Social Services' programs, said executive director Lisa Aquino. Many more uncounted homeless pass nights in campsites, in the backs of cars or secreted into other makeshift dwellings.

"It seems to be worsening," she said.

Gov. Bill Walker, who attended with his wife, said homelessness needed to be addressed in the broader context of the complex reasons people end up living on the streets, such as mental illness and substance abuse.


Berkowitz said his administration would release a "comprehensive plan" in coming weeks for dealing with homelessness in Anchorage.

Nancy Burke, the Berkowitz administration's new homeless coordinator, said her office is tackling priorities that include an alarming rise in the use of a shifting menu of synthetic drugs such as "Spice" and a resurgence in homeless camps.

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"I haven't seen this many people camping in years," Burke said.

The approach may include an emphasis on programs that seek to house some of the most chronically alcoholic or addicted homeless people first, before tackling their substance abuse.

The "harm reduction" approach hasn't been fully embraced by the city in the past, but its time in Anchorage may be now, she said.

"It's new territory," she said.

Michelle Theriault Boots

Michelle Theriault Boots is a reporter who covers news and features about life in Alaska, and has been focusing on corrections and psychiatric care issues in the state. Contact her at