With Cold Weather Coming, Anchorage Homeless Numbers Up

A townhall style meeting took place at Anchorage’s Bean’s Cafe on Tuesday to highlight the dangers of living outside through the upcoming winter. Bean’s serves daily meals to those who are homeless and the working poor. Yesterday’s meeting featured speakers from the Anchorage Police department, Catholic Social Services and clients of Bean’s and the Brother Francis shelter located across the parking lot. A paper listing the warning signs of hypothermia was handed out.

Susan Bomalaski is the executive director of Catholic Social Services, the organization runs Brother Francis shelter. She says they want to get the word out that when temperatures drop below freezing, people need to come in from camps to shelter. She says there’s been a 20% increase in people needing services this summer and although they used to average about 133 people per day, they were close to 240 this summer and nearly had to house people in Bean’s Cafe.

“We didn’t have to go over and use Beans over the summer, but we were close and we also run a food pantry and we’re seeing 20% increase in people using that. That’s usually the first line of economic struggle, people will get food so they have more money to pay rent, we hope that those numbers don’t translate into increased need for shelter but we don’t know. The municipality is giving us a grant for extra staff so we’re ready.”

The numbers are bleak and growing more disturbing for poor people struggling to keep a home and food on the table. Daryl Hess with the Municipality of Anchorage said in less than 20 years medical expenses have risen 424%, housing- 174% and all other expenses have jumped nearly 200%. local wages have risen by 88%.

Bean’s Cafe executive Director Jim Crockett says a man from Detroit recently showed up in an aging Winnebago with nine children.

“He said oh I’ve come up for the permanent fund, wonderful opportunity, understand it was 1200 last year, I got myself and nine kids, that’s 12 thousand dollars, had no food, nothing. So we’re seeing a huge influx of people coming in.”

He says they gave the man a week’s worth of food, but when he was told he wouldn’t qualify for the PFD for well over a year, he didn’t have any idea of what he and the 9 kids would do. He didn’t have money to leave the state. Crockett has been involved with Beans for nearly two decades. He says it’s not just homeless people that come for meals, it’s also the working poor.

“People that have apartments. People that look in their refrigerators on the ninth or tenth of the month and there’s nothing there. So I’ve seen more cars with more duct tape than I’ve ever seen before.”

Crockett says he worries about the growing divide between those who can make it and those who fall into poverty.

“And the difference between the people who are rich and the people who are poor is just widening like crazy. You can just see it. It’s frightening. You don’t see a middle class anymore, it’s gone.”

He says the town hall meetings have been good opportunities for people in need to help come up with solutions to the problems they face. One of the clients that spoke during the gathering was Mickeal, (like nickle) Knellinger. He’s been on the streets on and off since arriving from Baltimore more than 20 years ago. He says the available beds for cold nights number in the hundreds but the people who need them are in the thousands. He says he’s tired of people freezing to death so he offered a solution.

“Open up city halls and open up city building first floors, put mats down, other cities do it, and the cost, believe me, hiring a couple people to watch is a heck of a lot cheaper than the police department pulling people out of camps, taking bodies, the whole nine yards.”

He says when he first came to Anchorage, the average age of the homeless was somewhere in the 40s, now he sees more people in their twenties. He says he’s homeless by choice but most people aren’t. They’re stuck and they can’t just go away.

“Heck I ain’t got twenty cents, how am I gonna get a dollar coffee? How they gonna leave?”

There is at least partial relief on the horizon with an expansion of Claire house that will add 73 beds for homeless women and children and a 2012 draft plan for the municipality that seeks proposals for housing specific to those with mental health issues or those who have been released from incarceration.

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Lori Townsend is the News Director for the Alaska Public Radio Network. She got her start in broadcasting at the age of 11 as the park announcer of the fast pitch baseball games in Deer Park, Wisconsin. She has worked in print and broadcast journalism for more than 24 years. She was the co-founder and former Editor of Northern Aspects, a magazine featuring northern Wisconsin writers and artists. She worked for 7 years at tribal station WOJB on the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibway Reservation in Wisconsin, first as an on-air programmer and special projects producer and eventually News Director. In 1997 she co-hosted a continuing Saturday afternoon public affairs talk program on station KSTP in St. Paul, Minnesota. Radio brought her to Alaska where she worked as a broadcast trainer for Native fellowship students at Koahnic Broadcasting. Following her work there, she helped co-found the non-profit broadcast company Native Voice Communications. NVC created the award-winning Independent Native News as well as producing many other documentaries and productions. Townsend was NVC’s technical trainer and assistant producer of INN. Through her freelance work, she has produced news and feature stories nationally and internationally for Independent Native News, National Native News, NPR , Pacifica, Monitor Radio, Radio Netherlands and AIROS. Her print work and interviews have been published in News from Indian Country, Yakama Nation Review and other publications. Ms. Townsend has also worked as a broadcast trainer for the Native American Journalist’s Association and with NPR’s Doug Mitchell and as a freelance editor. Townsend is the recipient of numerous awards for her work from the Alaska Press Club, the Native American Journalists Association and a gold and a silver reel award from the National Federation of Community Broadcasters. Townsend was the recipient of a Fellowship at the Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting in Rhode Island as well as a fellowship at the Knight Digital Media Center in Berkeley. She is an avid reader, a rabid gardener and counts water skiing, training horses, diving and a welding certification among her past and current interests. ltownsend (at) alaskapublic (dot) org  |  907.550.8452 | About Lori