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In the homeless services debate, an undercurrent of racism

  • Author: Matt Schultz
    | Opinion
    , Samuel Johns
    | Opinion
  • Updated: July 20
  • Published July 20

People gather outside the Loussac Library while waiting to attend the Anchorage Assembly meeting on Tuesday, July 14, 2020. Bill Roth / ADN)

Over the course of the past week, the Anchorage Assembly heard testimony about the plan to purchase four properties as part of a broad, comprehensive strategy to address homelessness in Anchorage. People from both sides brought forward the pros and cons of the properties and processes, with each side raising valid points.

However, there was another thread that ran throughout the meetings: The evil of racism, both overt and obscured, seeping through people’s comments and pooling up in listeners’ collective memory. Terms like “drunken Natives” and “those kind of people” were bandied about repeatedly. People experiencing homelessness were compared to animals and cancer, spoken alongside barely-veiled threats of violence. The worst prejudices and stereotypes about the poor, those who are homeless, and Alaska Natives were on full display. Though not all opposition was racist — far from it — by the end of testimony, the accumulated racism was undeniable.

The causes of this racist thread throughout the testimonies are largely rooted in fear of various people: Fear of people suffering from addiction, fear of people who are suffering from mental illness, fear of people who commit crime and fear of people suffering from homelessness. They have mentally blended all of these people to create one frightening specter, and have given that specter the face of an Alaska Native.

What do we do when there is racism in our midst? Step one is to acknowledge it. Some would prefer to deny the severity, saying, “That’s not what they meant,” or “It was just a few fringe comments.” But this isn’t true. Those who watched and listened cannot deny the prevalence of the racism and the depth of its resonance with many in attendance.

Step two is to confront it. Once the racism is acknowledged, people of ethical character cannot choose to ignore it. There lives a monster in our midst, within us and between us, and it will tear us apart if it’s given the time. When racism is spoken, it must not ever, ever, be ignored.

Step three is to ensure that racism does not achieve its goals. The goal in this case is to prevent the purchase of these buildings. Racism rooted in fear is creating the primary obstacle to this giant leap forward toward the compassionate rebuilding of lives. You can help overcome this obstacle by providing your voice: Simply email your written comments to testimony@anchorageak.gov. In the subject line, indicate that you support Ordinance No. AO 2020-66.

The hearts and streets of America have burned with the consequences of racism in recent months, with many people of compassion asking, “What can we do?” Here is your opportunity to do something practical. People who are homeless are first and foremost people. Children, moms and dads. Your sibling and your neighbor, all of them with hopes and heartaches. It does no good to insult, stereotype, dehumanize and judge them, as so often happened in the testimonies. Instead, we need to recognize our inherent connection to them, and provide a plan to assist them out of homelessness, so that they can return to a life of stability, safety and health. This purchase is that plan.

Rev. Matt Schultz, an Anchorage pastor, is on the steering committee for Christians for Equality. Samuel Johns is an Athabascan community activist and performer.

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. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.

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