Opinions

Fight homelessness by helping the homeless

Correction: The original version of this column misstated the percentage of Anchorage's homeless population that is Alaska Native. That percentage is a plurality, not a majority.

Anchorage is facing the existential crisis of increasing homelessness due to skyrocketing costs of living, less livable area due to climate change and failures in public policy to properly care for our neighbors. Solutions do not lie in committing violence against vulnerable populations.

I was horrified reading the news of Ron Alleva spreading pool chlorine outside the Brother Francis shelter in Fairview. I was even more disgusted to see him and his family defend the actions and cite the deterrence of violence as justification.

There is some truth in what he is saying. Conditions in Fairview are horrific. But they are more horrific for those experiencing homelessness. Solutions to poverty, drug addiction and homelessness can never come from a place of wanting to "clean up" a city or an area, because cleanliness is not the issue.

[Anchorage's hardest-to-house homeless cost $50,000 a year on the street. Could that money be better spent?]

My main issue with the narrative that has spread in Anchorage surrounding crime, violence and homelessness is that members of families that are often first- or second-generation Alaskans have no problem claiming the issue to be the homeless population rather than the reasons people are experiencing homelessness in the first place. A plurality of chronically homeless people in Anchorage are Alaska Native, according to the Alaska Housing Finance Corp. Alaska has forgotten about our indigenous populations, introduced alcoholism and drug addiction to them, then blamed them for the violence produced from cyclical poverty and homelessness.

An attack against homeless people — and not homelessness — has been occurring across Anchorage and the country. With recent volunteer-led clearing of homeless camps, to replacing soil at stoplights with rocks so people cannot sit and ask for money, to attempt to poison already vulnerable populations, to adding armrests on benches so people cannot sleep on them, the municipality and business owners have made it clear that their focus is not the conditions that have led to homelessness.

We should not want to end homelessness so that your daughter doesn't have to see the trash left behind in homeless camps, we should want to end homelessness to ensure that everyone has somewhere safe to sleep at night. When cleanliness is the reason you want to end homelessness, you push the problem out of sight rather than actually solving it.

Clearing out homeless camps should be seen as obviously inhumane. If you are experiencing homelessness in Alaska, a tent is often all you have to keep you warm during 18-hour nights and below-zero temperatures in the winter. Complaining about trash and remnants of alcohol and drugs victimizes the viewer of homelessness rather than those who are actually without a home.

Mr. Alleva has sued the municipality of Anchorage more than once and has used his pulpit to refer to homeless people as "vermin" and "subhuman." He has complained that Bean's Café and Brother Francis create an environment that fosters homelessness — he prefers to attempt to poison, lie to and harass the clients of these establishments.

Surprisingly, making life easier for individuals experiencing homelessness does not actually foster homelessness. Whether Bean's provides cardboard to sleep on or not, people will still be homeless. But without the cardboard, they have to sleep on the cold ground and face a higher risk of death. Mr. Alleva has acted inappropriately and violently. I refuse to allow him to narrate the story of homelessness in Anchorage. I refuse for his actions to be legitimized.

I also grew up around homelessness, as do most people in Anchorage. Growing up on Muldoon Road meant being exposed to needles in the woods by my house and seeing trash as a result of old cardboard people used to sleep on, but my mother taught me to help, not to be disgusted. You have no more right to that street than someone who is merely trying to find somewhere to sleep. If you see homelessness, you are not the victim. If you are a witness, it means you have a roof to sleep under at night. It means the city of Anchorage hasn't failed to provide a safe environment for you.

What we do when we spread stories of sexual violence, abuse and drug addiction in homeless communities without a critique of how the city can act to reverse these conditions is blame homeless individuals for violence. Those who choose this approach paint homeless men as rapists. They blame victims of a system they benefit from.

When Alleva says laying chlorine is an act of "public service," he paints homeless communities as an enemy of the public. That violence will only lead to continued cycles of homelessness, violence and drug abuse.

Quinlyn Manfull grew up in Anchorage.  She is a senior at Willamette University, where she writes for the student-run newspaper, The Collegian.

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