Homelessness and winter both get real when you see an old classmate at Bean's

I am standing outside the entrance of Bean's Cafe in my North Face puffy jacket and L.L. Bean boots trying to muster up the courage to interview a person for my final assignment for my journalism class at UAA.

I am here to talk about Karluk Manor, a housing facility in Fairview that allows residents, who were formerly homeless, to consume alcohol on the premises. Other homeless shelters in Anchorage do not allow any alcohol consumption at all. I have already interviewed Nancy Burke, homeless and housing services coordinator at the manor. She told me that wet housing facilities have had great success in Seattle and Utah. Karluk Manor is the first of its kind in the city. Burke has a vision to build facilities like it all over Anchorage. I'm here to ask prospective residents what they think.

The sun is shining and it's the kind of cold that makes my skin itch and my fingers freeze in my fleece-lined mittens. A man in an orange reflective vest is passing out hand warmers and I accept a pair. I have my iPhone in hand and my notebook in my back pocket. I approach a smiling man with ice in his beard.

"Call me Rabbit," he says. "That's what everyone calls me."

We talk until my nose is dripping and I yearn to go inside. His eyes crinkle at the corners and his gentle smile never fades. He tells me he started drinking heavily when he was 13 after his twin sisters drowned in Goose Lake.

He tells me he cannot read past a first grade level. He tells me about his experience with the drug Spice.

"I only do it occasionally," he says. "I know too many people who have died from it."

We talk about Karluk Manor.

"Have you ever slept outside? It's damn cold. Everyone in here would give a leg to get in," he says.

Rabbit is my guide for the rest of the morning. We go inside, where all the tables are full and people are eating their meals standing up.

I meet Stella Roberts. She can't be over 5 feet tall. She has a college degree from UAA and shows me her old school ID as proof. She's been homeless for 12 years, she says. She refuses to sleep at the Brother Francis Shelter because she's worried about bedbugs, so she stays in camps. I ask about Karluk Manor.

"How do I get in?" she asks.

I interview several more people. So many tragic stories. Deaths. Losses. Mistakes. It makes me think life has more to do with luck than I thought. How I would handle my own grief if something terrible happened to me?

Everyone talks about a kind of cold I don't understand. I wear my high tech ski gear when I am out on the slopes and complain when my toes go numb. I have never spent a night outside in winter. I thank Rabbit for his hospitality. I'm making my way back to my car when I hear someone call my name.

I spin around to follow the sound and there is a familiar face. I went to high school with him. We sat next to each other in a desk built for two in biology. Occasionally, I remember, he showed up to school with a black eye. He was so quiet, but he always said hi to me. His face looks different now, clearer, thinner. He is so skinny I can see the bones under the skin of his hands.

"Do you remember me?" he asks.

Yes, I say. I feel awkward. I tell him that I'm at Bean's Cafe to do a class project. He tells me he has been better. He is wearing a thin sweatshirt. I consider giving him my coat even though I know it won't fit him. The gesture would probably be belittling.

I ask him about Karluk Manor. His tone sharpens and he gets loud.

"Karluk Manor is a joke. It's a good place for drunks to get drunk and that's about it. It's not a good place for people like me who want to get better and improve their lives."

We stand there for a moment just looking at each other.

"How did you get here?" I ask.

He says he got into some trouble with the bank. He owes money. He spent too much on his credit cards. He doesn't talk to his family. He doesn't drink, he says. There's probably more to it than that but we don't talk about it. He lights a cigarette.

Before I can say anything else, he storms off. Is he mad? It feels unfair that he is here. I watch him talk to a man in Carhartts and a thick black beard.

The people I've talked to today all had a time when they weren't homeless. But it feels different with him because I knew him before. It strikes close to home and I want to do something to help. Should I give him money? ?I don't have any money. Would it be too much to offer him a place to stay? I can't help but think that he would be the perfect candidate for a place like Karluk Manor but I know he doesn't have the issues it takes to get in.

I begin trekking to my car again when I hear, "Have a nice day, Haley! It was good to see you."

I lift my hand and wave goodbye.

Haley Bissell, an English major at the University of Alaska Anchorage, wrote this story for her Reporting and Writing News class project on Fairview.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com.

Haley Bissell

Haley Bissell is a journalism student at UAA.