With the closure of the Sullivan Arena, this is the first time in decades our city has not had a low-barrier, walk-up shelter option. Most of the shelters in our city are referral based and are operating at or close to capacity. Right now, accessing safe shelter in Anchorage is difficult — if not impossible. Hundreds are living in tents at Centennial Park, in greenbelts and on sidewalks.
Our neighbors are in crisis. Our entire community is in crisis.
Shelter services should not be contentious. They’re intended to meet the most basic needs of our most vulnerable neighbors — a place to sleep, find safety and food.
This type of care is about humanity.
Shelters are critical, lifesaving services. They provide the most basic needs. From there, guests can begin to build permanent stability. But without basic services found at shelters, the work of case management and long-term services is difficult at best.
When shelters are gone, we lose the ability to stay in consistent contact with clients, which is essential to building trust and inspiring positive change. When individuals become unsheltered, case management for those clients becomes extremely difficult. Communication channels are broken, and case managers lose touch with clients, impeding progress as clients work toward permanent stability.
Although ensuring access to shelter is logical, there is another reason – perhaps even more important than any other – that we must provide it: It’s simply the right thing to do. Among debate and planning, we must remember the true consequences of our actions or inactions. These decisions and delays have real impacts on the lives of real people – the lives of grandparents, parents, daughters, sons and loved ones.
I ask you to keep this in mind when thinking about homelessness in Anchorage. I started my time with Catholic Social Services at Brother Francis Shelter in a front-line staff position, getting to know hundreds of people staying there. I know their faces, names, and stories. It didn’t take long to see that one significant trauma could put someone I love in that chair across from me.
If for no reason other than this, I ask that we act now and simply treat others how we’d like to be treated – with kindness, dignity, and respect.
The responsibility to those experiencing homelessness lies with all of us. Winter is just around the corner, and our neighbors’ lives are at risk. If we let the lack of shelter continue into the fall, I can say with certainty and sorrow there will be loss of life.
It’s time to refocus. This work is about protecting human dignity and life. We must come together with this concept at the core of our work. If we do so, I know we can find solutions. This community has always looked out for one another and must continue that spirit through this work – for lives are at stake.
Robin Dempsey is the executive director at Catholic Social Services in Anchorage.
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