Anchorage’s outdoor deaths are preventable

Seventy-four. Seventy-four people lost since 2017 on our city streets, in our woods and, in so many cases, in plain sight of passersby. But that’s just it: When you see unhoused folks with cardboard signs nearly everyday as you drive through Anchorage, when they are a part of your commute to work or each time you go for dinner or to the library, the sight becomes commonplace, and many don’t stop to think or ask or wonder about the person on the side of the road. The very fact that they are in plain sight makes us blind.

But homelessness in Anchorage isn’t rooted in something in plain sight, it’s much deeper. Of the folks who passed away outside in Anchorage since 2017, 39 of their deaths were related to alcohol or drugs. As a former emergency medical technician at Anchorage Safety Patrol, our city’s service that helps those incapacitated by alcohol or minor drugs, I grew to know many of our city’s unhoused population. I knew our clientele because they would come in at least every week, many every day, to “sleep off” their intoxication or to pretend they were intoxicated to find a warm bed after being temporarily banned from the Sullivan Arena for one misbehavior or another. Anchorage Safety Patrol’s station gave them what they needed short-term — for 12 hours, they could rest on black Lysol-sprayed mats on the floor, use bathrooms where the Purell had to be removed after folks kept drinking it or, if they were violent or waking up other clients, in a very small “quiet room” with a tiny window and several locks on the door until they calmed down or relaxed. You can probably tell by now, but I’m sorry to say that our temporary sleep-off shelter only handles immediate need; it is just a flimsy Band-Aid for something rooted much deeper.

What we are seeing here in Anchorage is fallout. Fallout from decades of ignoring and perpetuating pain and trauma. While the data doesn’t break down these 74 deaths by race, with a large majority of clientele at Anchorage Safety Patrol identifying as Alaska Native, I’d hazard a guess that there are far more underlying causes to outside deaths than the data is telling us. But how do we begin to tackle something that goes deeper than below-zero temperature intoxication and overdose? Something rooted in unresolved pain and historical trauma? How do we overcome this trope that Alaska Native people need to be resilient and overcome these hurdles on their own and without resources, when many are tired of having to be resilient, tired of the yoke of a history of residential schools, relocation and racism?

Alaskans, it’s time to reconcile with our ugly history and present-day mistreatment of Alaska Native people. Let’s help the generations of kids grown up in residential schools who were pushed away from their culture and language. Let’s help them by stopping our judgment of alcoholism and drug use, getting them real resources that focus on mental health and addiction support, supporting and giving from our individual Permanent Fund dividends to organizations like First Alaskans Institute and Recover Alaska, and by working to stop the cycle. Let’s help break the cycle of trauma for Alaska’s kids by encouraging legislators to devote resources to upstream prevention of trauma. Let’s invest in upstream prevention of child abuse and neglect and alcohol and drug-use in our youth through afterschool programs that keep children and youth safe during the critical hours where they may be alone afterschool, by encouraging and investing in paid parental leave for new parents, and by providing universal pre-K options for every Alaskan family so that they have what they need to thrive.

Let’s make sure that that this trend of allowing our most vulnerable to pass away on the very streets we drive along is broken. Let’s shore up supports for those struggling while also preparing our state, so that the next generation doesn’t have to carry that same weight.

Kaila Pfister is an Anchorage resident and former EMT for the Anchorage Safety Patrol. She has a Master’s of Public Administration from Binghamton University. She works as a communications program manager at Alaska Children’s Trust; this commentary is her own opinion, not that of her employer.

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