For many years, my younger sister was a homeless person wandering the streets of Anchorage. She suffered from a long history of mental and neurological illness, and substance abuse eventually became her coping mechanism. It was very difficult for me to imagine her circumstances during the many years of seeing only brief figments of her in public, during which she was frequently intoxicated. I did not know how much of her condition was affected by her own conscious choices and how much was beyond her control. I will never have the chance to know either, because she was murdered two summers ago during a nighttime walk down the Ship Creek Trail.
It is difficult for people who are not homeless to know what that experience must be like. The illegal camps lining Anchorage's parks, trails and forests are certainly a sore sight. Now try to picture living there yourself. As vandalism and theft may proliferate near the residences around the camps, I dread to think of what homeless persons themselves must experience inside them (in particular, homeless women).
There is no reason to suspect that homelessness will end in Anchorage anytime soon. I am thankful to see the issue being given greater attention now, but it is critical that we pursue prudent solutions to the matter. Actions taken by the municipality must be based in reasonable discourse according to available resources, while also valuing the lives and dignity of homeless people throughout the process.
Disgust, frustration and anger only hamper our ability as a community to solve our problems. I know the temptation to write off the respect for human dignity by blaming the suffering and poor for their own problems. But doing so will do no one any favors down the line, and the problem will remain unsolved. We can remove these camps and the people gathered in them, but unless they have somewhere else to go, we will find ourselves continuing to pick up camp after camp after unauthorized camp. The homeless will need to focus their efforts on finding a place to lay their heads, and will be pushed into more dangerous situations and places to make that happen. We need to break this vicious cycle.
Upon skimming this issue in recent commentary, I have already heard a number of good proposals. Arlene Carle suggested in a June 7 letter that homeless persons camp in Centennial Park for the time being. This is not a terrible consideration, but remember that the park is far from many services critical for homeless persons and away from the bus line (not to mention already-mentioned concerns about bears). Ideas about emergency shelters are also important, but it is more costly for our providers in the long run if principal care is confined to emergency situations.
Precedent can be a valuable tool in planning the next steps; Anchorage is hardly the first city to have ever struggled with homelessness epidemics, after all. Take Dignity Village: In 2000, homeless persons and activists established an intentional community in Portland, Oregon, specifically for persons with nowhere else to go. Since then, the community has expanded and is committed to maintaining a safe, crime and drug-free, dignified place for the homeless to start getting back on their feet. There are many similar examples of such settlements in the U.S. and Canada. If Anchorage residents were willing to commit to building such places, we could begin to do away with illegal, theft and alcohol-ridden camps for something much better.
Housing is only one resource homeless persons are struggling to attain, but it is foundational. Nonetheless, homeless persons will need further assistance in getting jobs, finding hygiene facilities and handling mental health and addiction problems. The municipality will not likely be able to do this alone. Anchorage churches, nonprofits, businesses and volunteer organizations will not only need to give their two cents, but they will also need to give time and energy as well. The most significant asset Anchorage has in assisting its homeless population is the rest of the population.
Finally, let us not forget the homeless themselves. Where are their voices in this matter? Are we sitting the homeless at our meetings and interviews while we discuss homelessness? If not, then this needs to change. The greatest threat to solving the crisis of homelessness is fear of homeless people. We must not allow homeless "encampments" to become homeless ghettos.
It is absolutely time to stop passing the buck and expecting someone else to pay for our lunch. While we can deliberate about how to help these people, many of them are experiencing sickness, poverty, violence, imprisonment and brushes with death. People need to speak out on behalf of their neighbors, and work needs to be done to reverse what is happening. Cities are only as great as what they consider to not be a problem.
Ryan Foisy is a writer and resident of Southcentral Alaska.
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