Next steps for homelessness in Anchorage

Nov. 1 was a landmark day for our city. That night, the Assembly voted unanimously to approve the framework strategy for exiting Sullivan Arena and systematically addressing homelessness in our city. It also marked the 591st consecutive day our ice rink had been used temporarily as a mass care shelter – by far the longest running such operation in the country – an embarrassing and dubious distinction. Other communities, after a period of no more than a few months, built or bought well-designed facilities to provide services and shelter more efficiently in terms of cost and more effectively in terms of outcomes.

The agreed framework is a better plan than what was originally presented by Mayor Dave Bronson’s team upon taking office and far outshines the hope-based “strategies” of the past. The cooperation that created this framework is a shining example of what can be done right when our city’s leadership sets aside politics and works together to solve the problems facing our community.

While the train of progress has officially left the station, it still can be derailed by a departure from the rational compassion on which the city’s plan is based. Good data is necessary to make the best decisions, but unfortunately, quality data is lacking in Anchorage. As a foundational step, we need to know how many people need help and, for each individual, what type of services are needed to promote self-sufficiency. For example, the municipality dashboard routinely lists well more than 500 individuals utilizing the Sullivan on any given day, but meals for only about 400 are generally served daily, an odd inconsistency. Separately, the service provider managing the shelter operations at a hotel in our city provided a list of 187 people under their care, but only 44 of them had any indication as to why they needed shelter or what assistance could help them get back on their feet. Fewer than one in four.

Could you imagine walking into one of our local hospitals, finding it full, and the staff saying “Well, we only have a diagnosis for about one-quarter of the patients, but we are fairly sure the rest need to be here.” Would that be a hospital you’d rely on or give tax dollars to? If we do not even know how many people are really in our shelter on a given day, or why nearly 75% of them are there in the first place, how can we possibly design a system to help them get above the broader issues?

We must set the bar higher for ourselves and for our homelessness services operations. The homelessness space far too often uses slogans and sound bites rather than empirical truths. Sound bites such as “housing solves homelessness,” “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” “housing first works,” “smaller shelters are better,” etc. sound good but provide little practical guidance on how to proceed. Rather than hollow sound bites based on opinions and not facts, we should instead treat people with dignity and respect and provide a data-driven path for individuals to leave homelessness behind permanently. I submit that listening to others, whether it be about their struggles or their politics, is the first and greatest way to show respect. As we move forward, rather than warehousing people experiencing homelessness, let us instead take a moment to authentically listen to these individuals and find out what we really need to do to promote self-sufficiency, and not just do what is politically expedient.

It is critical to understand that we can absolutely make our situation worse (just like what has happened in Salt Lake City, San Francisco and elsewhere) if we depart from data-driven plans. Building or buying facilities we do not need would waste precious resources while building too small would doom our efforts before we even begin, leaving our neighbors out in the cold. Real-time, accurate data should drive decision making, not politics.

More important than any proposed building is the need for professionally run agencies – the people – that provide the right mix of tailored services for our neighbors in need. The next step in our planning must be a rigorous survey, conducted by experts who have done the work before, to identify individual needs, the causes, and the actual numbers so that we can scientifically, rather than politically, design a system that finally fulfills the promises of past politicians and coalitions to end homelessness.

John Morris, MD, served as Mayor Dave Bronson’s homelessness coordinator from July until his resignation in late October. He is an anesthesiologist and lives in Anchorage.

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