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Anchorage’s failure on homelessness inspired these ideas from a frustrated activist

  • Author: Charles Wohlforth
    | Opinion
  • Updated: September 30
  • Published September 30

Fairview activist Allen Kemplen is calling for a new approach to homelessness in Anchorage, AK on Friday, September 28, 2018. (Bob Hallinen / ADN)

After fighting for his neighborhood for decades, Allen Kemplen has changed his approach on the ever-rising flood of homelessness. He has some radical new ideas.

More of Anchorage is learning what it feels like to live under the burden of the homeless population. The plague has spread. Antisocial behavior shows up more often beyond the core neighborhoods where it had been relatively contained for decades.

This summer I stopped at the intersection of Benson Boulevard and New Seward Highway, with my daughter in the passenger seat, to see a man defecating on the sidewalk in front of dozens of cars.

Of course, not every homeless person is disgusting. Not all are junkies, alcoholics, psychos or rip-off artists. Many are lost souls, hard luck cases and even ordinary people who made a couple of bad choices. Everyone deserves help.

But until now, rather than solve the problem, we've shoved it on a couple of unfortunate neighborhoods. It was easier for local politicians and the social service industry to keep the homeless concentrated, even if that was worse for the homeless themselves and discriminated against minority and low-income neighbors.

I fought against that unfair and unsuccessful policy alongside Kemplen in the 1990s when I represented the downtown district on the Anchorage Assembly. I achieved nothing.

Kemplen fought it longer and harder than I did. He has been Fairview's unsung guardian angel almost 30 years. Now, he said, he is done railing against the injustice of the municipality's social service redlining of Fairview, Mountain View and eastern downtown.

"We've brought those up until we're blue in the face. The moral issues, the social justice issues. The vested interest groups ignore them. So now we're taking a more pragmatic approach," he said.

In comments on the new Anchored Home Plan, a three-year homelessness strategy to be finalized Friday, Kemplen called for an end to incremental improvements. Adding capacity and efficiency to a system that doesn't work won't solve anything, he said.

Instead, Kemplen suggests remaking the system by spreading it out, ending the concentration of the homeless on a campus next to the Anchorage Correctional Complex on Third Avenue.

"If you provide shelter in a place where they are constantly exposed to bad behavior, then investing in treatment is not very effective," he said.

Recovery from substance abuse requires more than detox. The life that led to abuse has to change. That requires addressing the underlying traumas.

For example, Kemplen said, the Chief Seattle Club offers cultural connection and renewal along with homeless services for American Indians and Alaska Natives in Seattle. A facility like that could be located on the Alaska Native Medical Center campus. More than 40 percent of Anchorage's homeless are Native.

"It ties them to their culture and helps to engage them in a structured setting where they are able to deal with the trauma—the psychological trauma—that they wrestle with on a regular basis," Kemplen said. "I don't see us having anything like that here in Anchorage."

He suggested adding affordable housing as part of a Municipality development for its health services near Tudor Road. Homeless facilities could also be located in a rural area, such as in the Mat-Su Valley, far from the temptations and negative influences of the shelter community.

"You get more bang for your buck because the land is cheaper, you remove those individuals from that culture of addiction, and it gives them a true chance of renewal, and it allows for that land in the Anchorage bowl to be used for a higher and better use," he said. "It just makes sense to me."

Kemplen had other ideas, and so do I. I've written about the Department of Corrections importing sex offenders from around the state and stranding them on the streets of Anchorage, waiting for treatment. I've written about the Alaska Psychiatric Institute discharging patients directly to the homeless shelter. I've written about the need for more substance-abuse treatment.

It doesn't make sense to bail out a boat without stopping the water coming in. As long as state systems funnel troubled people to downtown Anchorage streets, the good people trying to help them will always be overwhelmed.

But Kemplen is afraid those who run programs for the homeless are getting ready to increase investment in the current system.

He was alarmed by remarks by Robin Ward, the city's chief housing officer, that land the municipality is buying around the shelter could be used for homeless housing. He also believes the Anchored Home Plan points to incremental investments in the current approach.

He has little hope of success. He called himself a Don Quixote.

"You can't have an honest conversation with them, because you can almost visibly see them shutting down when you begin offering ideas that are new," he said. "Because all they can see is what they see, and what they see is incremental improvements. That's all they can visualize."

But I'm not so sure. I called Jasmine Khan, the executive director of the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness. She's a new kind of person here. She was a management consultant with Deloitte before taking this job four months ago. She's definitely not tied to the old ways.

"Any community you speak with will talk about scattered sites. You do not want to concentrate services into one place," she said.

Khan also hopes to broaden decision-making on these issues beyond the social service workers who have always been in charge. Her coalition board could add new people, including those who have been homeless and those who have suffered from living around the homeless.

Ward, with the Municipality, also seemed receptive to listening. The city is buying parcels of land around the shelter blighted by the homeless population. She wants to do a community-based study to determine what will happen there.

"I cannot be expanding the shelter. There has got to be a better way," Ward said.

More people are beginning to understand that. For the low-income neighborhoods weighed down by this problem for so many years, having it break out and afflict more of the city may be the first step to a real solution.

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(at)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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