Brother Francis Shelter opened its doors just over 32 years ago. Prior to that, a small group of dedicated individuals served Anchorage adults living in homelessness by providing food and warm clothing. In the winter of 1982, Bob Eaton and Dave Sifferman, brothers of the Order of Servants of Christ, came to Anchorage at the invitation of Archbishop Francis Hurley. Having already done wonderful work in Washington state, their mission was to get to know the plight of people without homes in Anchorage. Joining equally dedicated citizens in Anchorage, they immediately saw the need for a homeless shelter and brought that need to the Archdiocese and to the Municipality of Anchorage.
Together the city and the archdiocese created the Brother Francis Shelter. The city provided the space and Catholic Social Services provided the service. Creating an emergency shelter in a public-private partnership was not common. Brother Francis shelter was an enormous undertaking and groundbreaking in many ways. It was, and is, an example of Alaskans bringing their ingenuity and compassion to the table in order to help others in their communities.
In the years since opening, much has been done to keep the Brother Francis Shelter operating as a safe place for those suffering homelessness. The condemned warehouse space was initially refurbished and then in 2005 the shelter was rebuilt with the additional aid of the Cook Inlet Housing Authority. Working together over the years all of the partners have maintained a safe facility in order to serve those without homes in Anchorage.
This last summer, Spice-related issues hit an all-time high in Anchorage, targeting those in homelessness. Our staff has noticed increased challenges generally. We wanted to define the issues we were seeing among those living in homelessness and we found shocking numbers in our review. The annual number of guests staying at the Brother Francis Shelter has increased by 30 percent over the past 10 years. The guest population age 65 and older has increased by nearly 250 percent, up to more than 160 individuals. The average length of stay by guests has increased by over 50 percent. Ten percent of the population at the Brother Francis Shelter is staying for longer than six months. This is largely because that population is too vulnerable to mental health issues, substance-abuse issues and physical health issues to find a permanent housing option.
On any given shift between 4 p.m. and 8 a.m. there are only two staff members to operate the Brother Francis Shelter for 240 guests. This winter, we have partnered with the municipality and the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority to open additional spaces for cold weather overflow so we can provide shelter for a total of 354 guests. Our staffing ratio remains unchanged -- approximately one staff to 120 guests on any given winter night. Historically our staff members, trained in a variety of methodologies, were able to maintain safety while our case managers worked diligently with guests on permanent housing plans. The number of vulnerable clients we are seeing has grown though and many require individual attention for their specific and complex problems. This has made it difficult to maintain basic safety for our staff and our guests. We are working to find solutions to increase staff to in order to take all guests who want to come in, and not limit the number of people because of safety concerns. We will need the help and support of our partners to meet this challenge.
Just as when Brother Francis Shelter opened, we are in a perfect storm. We are at a time when homelessness in Anchorage is on the rise and safety is becoming an issue at our shelter. We have an increasing number of our most vulnerable citizens without shelter and an economy that is faltering, and could potentially cause an increase in homelessness generally. Working in close partnership with many government agencies, businesses and committed individuals, Catholic Social Services is striving to achieve short- and long-term solutions. No single agency, group or individual can provide a fix to the issue of homelessness alone.
I am confident that with the ingenuity and creativity of Alaskans, and by studying solutions from other communities, we can continue to serve those burdened by homelessness and create a future where homelessness in not an issue. To do this, we must continue to work for more permanent housing solutions, provide support to those ready to make changes, and at the same time find shelter for our brothers and sisters with no place to sleep tonight.
One Brother Francis Shelter client named Tom said that our case managers provide hope "by helping us realize we are better than homeless and jobless." We believe every individual we serve deserves dignity and respect -- they are better than the circumstances in which they find themselves. This holiday season please join us in assuring Brother Francis Shelter, and all of our programs that address homelessness, can run at full capacity. All of you make Brother Francis possible and I know together we can make it through this winter. If you'd like to share some of the priceless gifts of the season, please contact www.cssalaska.org.
Lisa D.H. Aquino is executive director of Catholic Social Services.
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