Homelessness in Anchorage. Say that simple phrase out loud and it will certainly elicit passionate responses. While homelessness has always been a challenge in our community, it has recently come to a head.
Catholic Social Services has been serving the poor and those experiencing homelessness in Anchorage for more than 40 years. In addition to providing shelter, CSS has worked to become a leader in connecting clients to services so they can make progress toward permanent stability and ending the cycle of homelessness.
As the nonprofit’s CEO, I have met and worked with the most incredible people in Anchorage. I am now transitioning my career to a different role in our community and would like to share lessons I’ve learned in hopes it will help inform others as our community continues to address the homelessness crisis.
• Dignity and respect are core to every success. This must include smaller, less-crowded shelters; language access in all public services; and the right for the poor and vulnerable to have a choice in services such as food, shelter and more. All people deserve dignity and respect.
• Be trauma informed. Recognize the impact that past trauma has had on people and the impact it’s having on decisions they make now. We cannot make that trauma disappear, but we can meet people where they are and accept them – while offering help and a path forward.
• Adequate funding for services is not too much to ask. Homelessness is an issue of basic health and safety, and our municipality must play a significant role to address it. It’s our collective responsibility to make sure people do not die outside. History has shown the community suffers when services are underfunded to cut corners, and the people experiencing homelessness will pay the most. Adequate staffing is essential for safe shelter operations and strong relationships between shelters and surrounding neighborhoods.
• We all need to be at the table. Communities with the best outcomes have all the partners at the table. It is essential to recognize the role social service nonprofits play in homeless services, emergency services and in so many other vitally important parts of our community. Keep those entities engaged and involved in the planning as well as implementation. Public-private partnership work because they bring partners together and allow sustainable solutions to be found. Everyone must be invited to the conversation, with a priority placed on transparency.
• Small kindnesses win the day, every time. Nothing I have learned at CSS has struck me more than the power of small kindnesses. Every time you truly see another person, and can look past your differences, you make the world better. At CSS, I have learned so much from our diverse staff and clientele about celebrating the whole person and living a better life. Reach out to connect with others. For some, it might be making eye contact, or a gently placed hand on an elbow, or a smile. There is cultural context to this, and different people have different ways make connections. You may hold a door, wish others good morning, or say “bless you” when they sneeze. What’s important is trying and asking how we can help each other.
Before every tough day, I tell myself it’s going to be great. I say that because I have hope. Catholic Social Services gives me hope for the future of this community and this world. Hope is not an overabundant commodity right now, so I say this with all the meaning it could hold. I have hope for Anchorage, for Alaska and for our world. There are so many challenges in our path ahead. To the people who live and work here every day, who struggle and thrive, who send their kids to school and make it to work just in time and hold the door open for the person behind them: you are the neighbors and friends who have made CSS the hands of this community. You’ve allowed us to be there when someone needs help. And all of us need help at some point. When we can get past our challenges and move forward because of that help, we are a testament to our amazing community and to our extraordinary selves.
Lisa D.H. Aquino, MHS, is the CEO of Catholic Social Services of Anchorage.
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