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Don’t bite the hand that feeds the homeless

  • Author: Ali Marvin
    | Opinion
  • Updated: November 21, 2017
  • Published November 21, 2017

I am proud and encouraged by the many positive steps being taken toward ending homelessness in Anchorage. However, the ordinance proposed by Amy Demboski and Dick Traini that would fine nonprofit organizations for an "excessive amount of 911 calls" is a misstep from progress. This ordinance was proposed at the Homelessness Committee Meeting and was to be introduced to the Anchorage Assembly on Nov. 21.

In an article published by KTUU on Nov. 15, 2017, Dick Traini explained that the ordinance is meant to "limit the number of emergency resources to areas that overuse the resources." A review of several incidents at nonprofits serving the homeless can provide some insight into this problem. In 2015, a wave of increased use of the drug Spice led to 110 medical transportations to hospitals for known or suspected use, as reported by the then-Alaska Dispatch News. In 2016, the Municipality of Anchorage began evicting homeless individuals from local woods and parks for camping illegally.

A makeshift shelter along East Third Avenue, across from the Brother Francis Shelter, blows in the wind on Sept. 6, 2017.  (Bill Roth / Alaska Dispatch News)

The leadership from a nonprofit organization reported to Alaska Dispatch News that they were having to turn away dozens of individuals due to being over-capacity. Many of these displaced campers set up makeshift camps around the premises. In 2016, two stabbings occurred at a nonprofit serving the homeless. With machete attacks, people being struck by vehicles, and overdoses, the work continues in tumultuous environments for nonprofits devoted to serving the homeless.

It may be more helpful to view this "overuse" of emergency resources as a symptom of the lack of more fundamental ones. We can reasonably expect poorer physical and mental health in the homeless population, a population where the severity of risk factors can include exposure to the elements, malnutrition, extreme poverty and prejudice. Similarly, we can reasonably understand how a high-needs population in high-risk environments may access more emergency services compared to those in more stable circumstances. The issue of increased use of emergency services appears to be more a symptom of an ailing system rather than the failings or mismanagement of nonprofits.

Creating punitive ordinances for nonprofits is unlikely to create the effective change toward our common goal of ending homelessness. This ordinance would be implementing a first-order change. First-order change in systems refers to doing essentially the same activities in a slightly altered way, leaving the system basically unchanged. Second-order change refers to a strategic change where the system itself is redefined or is itself changed. This can include making housing more affordable and working to eliminate prejudice. Fortunately, there are many dedicated professionals, legislators and citizens committed to and actively working for second-order change — real change.

Doing system-level change is complex and difficult, and I am deeply grateful for those in our community who remain committed to system-level work. I also honor the real challenges of trying to balance multiple legitimate interests and issues. An example of this tension was ironically portrayed in the statements by the Municipality of Anchorage on the issue of panhandling. The municipality website has a page providing information on why encouraging panhandlers is illegal. That ordinance emphasizes a public safety issue caused by panhandling, but it is unlikely to have any significant impact on the problem of homelessness.

At the same time, the page also declares that "Real change — not spare change — is the best way to help out panhandlers." It encourages citizens to donate money to nonprofits instead of directly to panhandlers, and among its recommended nonprofits are Brother Francis Shelter, Bean's Café, Downtown Soup Kitchen, Homeward Bound, Covenant House and United Way. The municipality asserts the value in providing funds for these nonprofits serving the homeless.

This newly proposed ordinance would further hinder an already overburdened and underfunded system. As a community, we need to stand and continue working toward real change, and the proposed ordinance is not in line with our common mission.

Ali F. Marvin is a doctoral student in the UAA Clinical-Community Psychology Ph.D. program with a rural indigenous emphasis. She is Tlingit Indian, and is interested in serving Alaska Native and homeless populations.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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