Setting the bar on homelessness

1,100. That's the approximate number of people experiencing homelessness in Anchorage today, according to Mayor Ethan Berkowitz and members of the municipal government. On the one hand, that's not many: It's barely one of every 300 residents, about one-third of 1 percent of the population. On the other, it's a great many: enough to pack the University of Alaska Anchorage's Wendy Williamson Auditorium to capacity and still have 200 waiting outside. But whether you see it as many or few, that's where we are today. And as anyone who has ever been lost can tell you, knowing where you are is a very important step toward getting where you want to go.

Make no mistake, the path out of the woods on the issue of homelessness is likely to be a winding one. If there were a single easy answer to reducing the number of people without homes in Anchorage, we would have found it long before now. But just because a problem is hard doesn't excuse us from working to solve it. To his credit, Mayor Berkowitz and his administration have recognized the importance of this issue and made it a major focus. For the past several years, they say, the number of people experiencing homelessness here has been flat, hovering at or around that 1,100 number. It's hard to call that progress in a positive direction, but it's also important to recognize that our city and state have been in the throes of a serious recession that threatened to sunder our economy. Under some conditions, it's hard to do better than tread water.

Now, however, economists are forecasting an end to Anchorage's recession early next year. The state's fiscal picture is beginning to look less dismal with the budget gap considerably reduced, and the price of oil is back up to about $75 per barrel. A rosier economic outlook and a strong focus on the issue by the municipality mean we're at a point where we can begin to expect actual reductions in Anchorage's homeless population, and the next months and years will prove instrumental in telling if we're on our way out of the woods or heading in the wrong direction.

When it comes to addressing the issue, we all have roles to play. The municipality has outlined its plan of action: Clear illegal camps in public areas more systematically, expand availability of housing for those in need and move forward on solutions to address unmet behavioral and mental health needs. "There is a crushing imperative for us to be functional and get things done," Mayor Berkowitz said in a meeting with the Anchorage Daily News July 30, citing his frustration with funding cutbacks to Alaska's mental health services. He says the municipality is exploring partnerships and new financial avenues such as social impact bonds to expand services to combat homelessness.

As a news outlet, we have a responsibility, too. Ours is to illustrate the dimension of Anchorage's homelessness issues, and to hold our leaders accountable for finding solutions. As Mayor Berkowitz and his administration work to chart a course out of the wilderness, we'll report fairly on the success or failure of those efforts.

And as residents of Anchorage, we all have individual roles to play. It's important for all of us to keep in mind that while Anchorage residents experiencing homelessness may not have a roof overhead, they have the same essential dignity and are owed the same respect as everyone who lives here. We should do what we can, individually, to support the organizations such as the Food Bank of Alaska that serve those in need. Donations to such groups may not offer the same instant gratification of soothing the conscience achieved by giving a dollar to a person on the corner holding a sign, but they can stretch that dollar further and serve people in need more effectively.

So 1,100 is the number to watch. Achieving zero homelessness isn't realistic, but it's not unreasonable to expect that number to start ticking downward as we move forward with initiatives to combat homelessness. Although it's a big number (depending on your perspective), we're a big state. We have the tools to find our way out of the woods together.

The views expressed here are those of the Anchorage Daily News, as expressed by its editorial board which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. Current editorial board members are Ryan Binkley, Andy Pennington, Julia O'Malley, Tom Hewitt and Andrew Jensen. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser.