Opinions

OPINION: Finding opportunity in the challenge of unsheltered Anchorage homelessness

The past six months have brought both great success and challenge to Anchorage in addressing homelessness. New housing opportunities like the Guest House and a specialized complex care shelter are now up and running, adding long-overdue capacity to the homeless prevention response system, or HPRS. The HPRS continues to see people being housed at increased rates despite challenges of very low vacancy rates and high rents. Also, Brother Francis Shelter is now back to providing low-barrier emergency shelter. We’ve also seen other shelters offer extended stays or expanded capacity. These are all successes that we should not lose sight of as we see the number of individuals experiencing unsheltered homelessness, including families, increase because emergency sheltering services and housing programs in our community are already full and approximately 300 people continue to enter the HPRS each month.

The opportunity in the challenge of unsheltered homelessness is we can change our approach for better outcomes. Currently, when the city identifies an encampment, the Anchorage Police Department notices it for a 10-day abatement. In that 10-day time, outreach is provided to try to find a place for those staying in the encampment to go, often looking to any available emergency shelter capacity. At the end of the 10-day period, the city decides whether to have Parks and Recreation clear the camp or not based on emergency shelter capacity that day. Effectively, individuals experiencing unsheltered homelessness are left on edge for 10 days, waiting and wondering if there will be an alternative place to go. Compounding the uncertainty, belongings left after the 10-day notice has ended may be considered abandoned and stored for a short period of time, then disposed of as waste. When there is uncertainty of when and whether abatement will occur, and with some individuals having a large amount of belongings, waiting until the day of abatement results in individuals risking not having sufficient time or storage space for their belongings. This cycle of continuously having to start from scratch is detrimental to the health and well-being of unsheltered individuals. In the meantime, many just move their encampments to avoid the uncertainty, resulting in the loss of contact with outreach, case managers and others who can support them on their journey to housing.

What if, instead of the city’s current approach, we turned these into housing opportunities? Both Dallas and Houston have had success with identifying encampments and then, instead of noticing a day by which the encampment will be cleared, turn the encampment into a place for intensive housing services and not abate the camp until each person who engages is housed, acknowledging there may be individuals who do not wish to seek housing.

Dallas has been able to work with encampments of up to 10 people, layering on outreach and mobile case management services and successfully housing those individuals in a little more than two weeks. Larger encampments have taken more time. Most recently Dallas targeted an encampment of 85 individuals and completed housing them in approximately eight weeks. Houston’s success is detailed in a recent New York Times article.

This approach isn’t without cost. To be successful, this approach requires investments in more robust outreach, transportation and case management. But the costs of chasing and clearing camps around town is high, both for the community and those who are constantly shuffled. Let’s use this challenge of increased unsheltered homelessness as an opportunity to invest our limited resources more wisely. In the fall, there should be a new Navigation Center and more shelter capacity in place, but in the meantime, let’s try something different and see if we can’t improve outcomes for all involved.

Nathan Johnson serves as board president of Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness.

Jessica Parks serves as chair of the Advisory Council of the Continuum of Care.

Meg Zaletel serves as executive director of Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness.

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