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When we help the homeless, we make Anchorage better and more prosperous city

  • Author: Ethan Berkowitz
  • Updated: June 29, 2016
  • Published December 12, 2015

Homelessness has many faces in Anchorage. There are victims of violence and veterans. There are those suffering mental illness and combating addiction. There are some who have borne medical or financial tragedy. There are families. The roots of homelessness are many, and we have witnessed a marked increase in the number of people who live on the streets -- that population now is approximately 300 to 400. When we act and implement a strategy that makes shelter and services available, we also reduce costs to the wider community. It is my conviction that each of us benefit when we make decisions that are compassionate, fiscally responsible and make Anchorage a better place to live for all of us.

Experts have articulated a straightforward formula linking outreach, services and housing to reduce homelessness, which forms the blueprint Anchorage is using: Access to affordable housing + Appropriate Social Services + Work, Business and Economic Options = Housing Stability = Reducing and Ending Homelessness.

Implementing this strategy requires partnerships between nonprofits and governmental agencies, between the private sector and the public. It means leveraging resources and breaking down silos. At the municipality, we partnered with the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority to create a homeless coordinator position. Nancy Burke, who has taken that responsibility, wakes up every morning focused on helping coordinate multiple agencies and funding resources to find housing for individuals who are currently on the streets, in our neighborhoods and without the stability of a roof overhead.

One consistent theme resonates in all analyses about the cost and availability of housing and development needs in Anchorage. We simply should have more housing in the community, and a portion of that housing needs to be at a level a person working in a retail or direct service position can afford. The projected level of housing needed in Anchorage is about 1,200 units annually. In 2014, we saw about half of that constructed. Affordable housing is critical for a healthy, balanced community and my administration has embarked on efforts to find land, reduce costs, expedite permitting and provide opportunities for density that lead to lower cost housing options.

Our efforts to combat homelessness also include strategies that assist people in transitioning out of homelessness. Communities in Utah, Denver and other locations have used strategies such as a "by name" list to identify the specific people who need assistance and in coordinating their needs with the social service providers, attempting to provide these services. Without this close coordination, people fall out of services and get lost -- back to the streets.

Housing First is another cost-effective strategy that has been used by Utah and many other communities to provide ongoing housing and assistance to people as they transition out of homelessness and back into community lives. Substance treatment, mental health care and medical referral/attention are the focus of Housing First on-site programs and all of the tenants pay rent according to their income or ability to pay. Nationally, these programs have demonstrated a reduction in drinking among participants, dramatic reductions in costly community services and stability, often for the first time in many years for the tenants of these programs. Some studies suggest the magnitude of savings are profound -- each individual living on the street receiving emergency services generates social costs of approximately $50,000 to $60,000 per year; in contrast, the Housing First option is approximately $15,000 to $20,000. Here in Alaska, our Housing First programs have demonstrated similar results, and we will be promoting this housing approach for the homeless in Anchorage. Our goal is to generate 300 units in this niche.

The strategies we are proposing for our homeless action agenda are proven strategies for cost savings, personal outcomes and community solutions to homelessness. Our ability to achieve these goals, live up to our values and implement fiscally responsible policies depends on taking action today. The measurable results from those actions will help Anchorage be a stronger, safer community where we can all feel proud of the city we call home.

Ethan Berkowitz was elected mayor of Anchorage in May 2015. He is a former member of the state House of Representatives.

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