Searching for homelessness solutions

There was a special meeting on homelessness at Central Lutheran Church on Oct. 16. It added a meeting of the Anchorage Assembly Homeless Committee, which
enabled a dialogue with a larger community than the daytime meetings allow.

The homeless discussion has been going on in Anchorage for many years and will
probably never be completely solved, but we can do better.

There were several statements that stood out to me that were more important than most. One was by John Rodda, Director of Parks and Recreation, when he said the parks department would provide trash bags to the homeless. The other was by Nancy Burke, Municipal Homeless and Housing Coordinator, who said we need restrooms.

First, I think trash bags were a good idea, but a better idea might or would be
dumpsters. I drove to the Solid Waste Services transfer station this morning to check, and there are indeed hundreds of dumpsters stored there. Why aren't some of these placed in the areas where homeless camps are? I think campers would use them if they were available. I have evidence of this because I pick up a lot of trash in the A Street Corridor Park. Most of what I pick up is what will not fit in the provided trash cans. Dumpsters have been "spotted" on the various trails for clean-up events, so I know that servicing them is possible. I think a lot less clean-up would have to be done if we met people halfway.

Second, Anchorage needs sanitary facilities. The city does provide port-a-
potties in Valley of the Moon Park and Westchester Lagoon as well as other areas.
Why doesn't the city provide them in other parks and along greenbelts? Are some
areas better than others or more special than others? The park strip and the
Town Center Park attract a lot of people. I have been in those places and not
had a restroom to use. It is a matter of human dignity, to me, to be able to use
a restroom when needed.

I have visited some of the shelters in Anchorage among the seven currently
operated. A statement by the executive director of the downtown soup kitchen, when I asked why they were more successful than others, was that the center tried to give everyone dignity. Their shower areas are private and clean. I have been very impressed by the way the homeless are treated at that center.

These problems will not go away. They have been here as long as I have, and I
remember when Brother Francis was approved. People think it is a problem that will be solved. After 40 years, I do not think it ever will be solved in its entirety. But it can get better. The biggest problems right now are:


1. Criminals are using the homeless and the camps to hide among the homeless as a base of operations. I think the Legislature will lead the way to fix some of
this in the new session in January.

2. Trash needs to be contained. I think well-placed dumpsters and trash bags
would help. I have talked to many homeless when cleaning areas and some have
helped me when I showed up with the tools needed.

3. We need to treat people with dignity. People need sanitary facilities and
showers. The annual Municipal budget is $550 million (round numbers) with 300,000 people (round numbers). We have 1,064 people that are currently completely homeless. They are residents also and deserve more than the $500,000 which is allocated to them — approximately $500 per person.

4. We need to let people know what is needed to make this happen. My wife and I
support several homeless shelters as we are able. When I talk to peers, some say
they have never been asked. My dream for this issue, and I know it is possible,
is that every person should have a clean, private shower available to them.
Every person should be able to go to the restroom in some type of a facility and
not on the ground. It is just basic human dignity.

I know some people will always camp. That does not mean that they are less human than me. This is also a health and safety issue that affects everyone.

In closing, at the meeting at Central Lutheran Church, we missed an opportunity.
A person, whom I would guess, was a homeless person who wanted to speak and he was told by the chair that he would have an opportunity at 7 p.m. He left
rather than wait until 7 p.m. I think we lost an opportunity. The chair
allows too little time for public input at most meetings. When given an
opportunity, let us hear from a person who may never be back to another meeting.

The Anchorage Assembly has been talking about this for 40 years. The problem has not been solved. After 40 years, can we give five minutes to a new voice?

Tom McGrath is a community activist and self-described eternal optimist.

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