Best help for homeless: Housing first

Should Brother Francis Shelter and Bean's Café be fined like slumlords for excessive police and fire calls to their properties?

The answer is in the question. These outfits are not slumlords. They comprise the people on the front line of care for the poorest among us. They are the emergency room of food and shelter for people many of us cross the street to avoid.

Assembly members Dick Traini and Amy Demboski have proposed an ordinance that would subject the social service providers to fines for too many police, fire and EMT calls to their properties. Their proposal is a response to violence at the Third Avenue locations of Brother Francis and Bean's.

Traini said he intended the proposal as a conversation starter.

Starter? The conversation about the homeless  in Anchorage has been going on for decades. People dying of exposure here accelerated the founding of the Brother Francis Shelter in 1982. Bean's Café opened in 1979 to feed the chronically hungry and homeless, seasonal workers in need and those just temporarily down on their luck, all without discrimination.

Brother Francis and Bean's are not the only shelters and kitchens in town, but they are the most visible — and recently have endured a profile raised not by their good works but by bad behavior around them, and the resultant protest by neighbors.

Hence the Traini/Demboski proposal.


The Assembly members have a point. Emergency medical, fire and police calls cost money, and when such calls become chronic the community pays a steeper price — and other calls may go unanswered. And all of our streets, from Third Avenue to Rabbit Creek Road, should be safe.

But rather than slap fines on those who comfort the afflicted, their energy would be better spent on long-term solutions based on the "housing first" principle that other cities have adopted and that the United Way, municipality and the Anchorage Coalition on the Homeless are working on here.

The coalition has a list of the homeless — not a survey of numbers, but about 850 names, people who have given their permission to be on the list, with some information about their history, condition and needs. The idea is to get them with a case manager who can help them get into housing as soon as possible and then navigate the services that both private and public agencies provide — tailored to their needs. The goal is not to put people through programs, but swiftly connect people to services they need.

"Some people simply need bus tokens, laundry and a month's rent," Michele Brown, CEO of United Way of Anchorage, said. Others require treatment for addictions, mental illness or other services, and the chronically inebriated may be best off in housing like Karluk Manor, where a structured facility improves their lot and cuts costs and problems for the community as well.

Brown said the idea is to have case managers work with people for up to a year as needed.

The system isn't working in an ideal fashion yet, she said, and it's too early to count success, but she's optimistic, given the number of dedicated people willing to help and the realization that help needs to be specific to a person's needs.

"We need to do more than make homelessness a little less miserable on a day-to-day basis," she said. The idea, she said, is to change the landscape, and that can only happen when the community pulls together — emergency responders, law enforcers, social service agencies, church groups, individual volunteers, landlords, mentors. And the first step is to help people find a place to rest their heads that isn't a doorway, a pocket park or a shelter mat.

"We can help people turn their lives around," she said. "And it all starts with having a home." Brown suggests reflecting on what home means to those of us fortunate enough to have them, particularly during the holidays. "You can't thrive without a base like that."

We'll always need the bottom-line kindness of places like Bean's and Brother Francis;  better an Assembly resolution of thanks than a threat to their budgets.

But the long-term work that will make the greatest difference is what the city, the coalition and United Way are doing now. The goal isn't to herd the homeless; the goal is to unify the dedicated people who have the will and the means to help, and connect them with those who need to find their way home.

We'll give Mr. Traini this – he's spurred more conversation, even as his distraction of an ordinance goes nowhere.

BOTTOM LINE: Housing first and help tailored to individual needs is the investment that can pay in fewer homeless people and a healthier community.