OPINION: Let’s keep compassion at the center of Anchorage’s homelessness response

Homelessness is a complicated and multifaceted issue. Though it is still a large problem in Anchorage, progress has been made. September saw more than 200 people enter housing from homelessness, the Emergency Cold Weather Shelter network was reactivated and now includes a permanent location (creating less upheaval for the families it serves), and the Guesthouse was purchased as a means to provide low-income, dignified housing for people who would otherwise be homeless. When we work together, we can make things better for everyone.

There are still challenges ahead, of course. We all know that more affordable housing is needed, as are treatment options for people struggling with mental health or addiction. Both of these require stable, strategic funding and government support. But we are missing an even more crucial element: the element of grace.

“Grace” means giving to someone, regardless of whether they deserve it. In the context of homelessness, this means giving a home, or the means to secure a home, even to those who do not appear to be “worthy” of it by our societal standards. It’s a tough thing to do in our culture of capitalism, which labors under the myth that misfortune stems from failed virtues or poor work ethic. But this lacks grace, and it has spawned monstrous comments in public testimony and social media alike. It is revealed in comments like, “We cant give people handouts unless they get a job first,” and “We can’t treat addicts until they clean themselves up first.” In effect, it is a mindset that says that people don’t deserve help unless they earn it.

This mindset often expresses itself as unkindness: Over the past few years, discourse has been replaced by diatribes as basic kindness and respect have been kicked to the curb. A Hatcher Pass resident’s racist comments at the Oct. 11 Assembly meeting were just the most recent example. Assemblyperson Jamie Allard validated those comments, and a few weeks ago also said of some homeless people, “If they don’t want help, their rock bottom might just be death.” While this pro-death position is not usually stated so blatantly, it is certainly present in the dehumanizing comments and attitudes that have been visible since at least 2020 from angry individuals and from groups like Save Anchorage. Time and again, angry mobs and elected officials have displayed a shocking lack of grace toward our beloved fellow human beings who are experiencing homelessness.

It’s easy to understand why people have become frustrated and angry with the current situation. We all see the negative side of visible homelessness: the loitering, littering, and far less-palatable activity that is usually described in hot-tempered public testimony. These are very real issues which my own church also experiences on a daily basis. But we have to remember that this behavior is not indicative of the whole. “Homeless” does not equal “criminal;” most homeless people are just trying to survive, to be treated with basic respect and, we hope, to take a step forward in life.

As we continue forward in attempting to create and execute long-range, well-funded strategies in order to make homelessness rare, brief and one-time, I hope and pray that we can all remember that people who are experiencing homelessness are not numbers on a page or characters in a crime novel. They are your parents. They are your siblings. They are your children. We have to delete the word “deserve” from the conversation, so that it can be replaced with grace. Or, as theologian Thomas Merton put it, “Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business and, in fact, it is nobody’s business. What we are asked to do is to love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy.”

Rev. Matt Schultz, an Anchorage pastor, is on the steering committee for Christians for Equality.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.