Anchorage homeless need help, not a shrug of resignation

Headlines and newscasts have recently been filled with the story of the alarming number of deaths of homeless people in Anchorage. In the last three weeks we lost seven Bean's Cafe clients, and at least two more are in the hospital. On Wednesday alone, 12 people went to the hospital via ambulance. That's unprecedented.

In a summer with record high temperatures and sunshine, what's causing this? What did the victims have in common other than a lack of a safe, affordable place to live? Is there a connection? What more could we as an organization and a community do?

These are the questions our staff, clients, community partners and volunteers are confronting. What we know for sure is that addiction plays the role of the equalizer. It does not discriminate between men and women, does not care about race or education level and does not pay attention to annual income. And, as we are learning, the designer drug Spice, made to resemble marijuana, is available on the streets of Anchorage. According to a recent CNN story, Spice "is flooding the streets of major U.S. cities this summer."

Following a memorial service at Bean's Cafe last Wednesday, we invited our community partners to make immediate connections with our clients seeking help. People are scared. At Bean's Cafe, we provide referrals to services when the client agrees to accept help. Right now, people want help. It's our community's job to make sure they have access to the help they so desperately need and deserve. We must remove the barriers to services. Our answer must be, "How can I help?" -- not, "There's nothing we can do."

We are working closely with Mayor Ethan Berkowitz's office, Gov. Bill Walker's office, the Anchorage Police Department and our community partners to come together and break down barriers to services. We know there are limited resources for detox, rehab and supportive housing, but we must ensure that we utilize all available services at 100 percent capacity. No bed should be empty when people are dying on the street.

What can individual citizens do? We've heard this question many times in the past few weeks. While there is no easy solution to the problems of homelessness, chronic mental health or substance abuse issues, here are a few ways that everyone can be part of the solution:

• Do not give money to panhandlers. Spice is a very inexpensive drug, and even a few cents given with good intentions can enable an addiction. If you want to support the homeless, consider giving to a local charity that serves on the front lines of substance abuse, housing and emergency shelter services.

• Respond. If you see someone who appears to be passed out or unresponsive, call 911.

• Advocate. We need more supportive and transitional housing, more treatment and detox facilities, and we need to work on some of the very complicated issues that contribute to the problems this population faces -- including complex trauma.

• Most of all, understand that homelessness is a complicated issue. People experiencing homelessness often have myriad problems they face at the same time, and this makes change a slow and often difficult process.

Thank you for your outpouring of support during these difficult times. We are proud to serve those who are most in need in Anchorage, and we are very grateful to the generous donors and volunteers who make our work possible.

Lisa Sauder is executive director of Bean's Cafe, which provides meals and referral services to homeless people in Anchorage.

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