The majority of chronically homeless people in Anchorage are Alaska Native, and most of them are from Northern and Western Alaska. That’s according to a new analysis of data by researchers with the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation during a one-day point in time survey.
They say the data validates anecdotal evidence and they hope it will be used to create more culturally relevant programs to get the homeless off the streets and into stable housing. One Inupiaq woman, who’s been homeless herself, is a model for how that might work.
“Morning, morning, how are you? Good. Pixi Down. And who’s this? This is Pixie.”
The mid-town Anchorage street where Wanda Conley lives, is lined with rows of beige duplexes that look just like hers, but to her the place is special.
“Yeah, I like the lightness, yeah,” she said. “I like the yellow paint and windows.”
“They make it really light here.”
Conley, a mother of three, used to be homeless. She says she took her first drink when she was 5-years-old.
“My dad gave me my first drink when I was 5,” Conley said. “My brother would make him drinks, rum and coke, and he messed up the quantity, got them confused and it was more rum than coke and my dad was like, ‘whoever drinks it, I’ll give $5.’ And I drank it. I got the $5. I wanted his approval more.”
Conley spent most of her childhood a Northern coastal village. She didn’t want to give the name because she didn’t want to further stigmatize the community. She says alcoholism and abuse were commonplace in her home.
“I didn’t really know I had a choice about the alcohol and drugs. Everybody did it. You know, it was a part of our life. It was normal,” Conley said. “The abuse, it was normal too. Lookin’ back now, you know not everybody wakes up to your mom stabbing your uncle in the leg. You know, they were drunk at the kitchen table.”
She was drinking steadily by her teens and using drugs. Soon, she and her three kids were living on the streets in Anchorage. That was January 1995.
Melinda Freeman runs ‘Homeward Bound,’ a supportive housing complex for chronically homeless people that’s part of Ruralcap. She says Conley’s story is, unfortunately, not unusual in Alaska.
“We have a very high rate of social problems such as sexual assault, child abuse and many of the social ills, that often, at the heart of that is alcoholism,” she said.
Freeman says, many homeless people come to Anchorage from a village for one reason or another, and get stuck here.
Around 70 percent of the 700 or so homeless people surveyed say they’re Alaska Native. Many are from rural villages.
Kris Duncan, with the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation hopes the new data can be used to develop more culturally relevant strategies to end long-term homelessness in Anchorage. The city has a plan to do so by 2019.
“Well, certainly as we are formulating a program or response, it’s not just about homelessness. But this is the trauma of going from a longstanding rural lifestyle to that of a more urban centered lifestyle,” Duncan said. “And so a certain degree of sensitivity toward that and assistance with that transformation then can help achieve housing stability.”
Housing stability is something that Conley never thought she’d achieve, but, through treatment and stable housing, she began to unravel her own trauma and receive the therapy she needed. She says she believes trauma was at the root of the substance abuse which led to her homelessness.
“My mom was abused, her grandfather, you know, my Aapa, I don’t know the trauma he went through,” Conley said. “It was when western people were going up north and all that they brought, and the diseases. You know it is generational.”
Conley spent about five months on the street back in 1995. Her kids went to live with family while she got treatment, but it took several tries to get sober and clean.
“When I got called on, you know called on my stuff – like ‘why are you here, why aren’t you working the program?’ I had to take a real hard look why I couldn’t get it and it was because I didn’t believe I was worth it,” Conley said. “I knew my kids were, but I wasn’t.”
But she says she realized she was worth it. In treatment she began to rebuild her self-esteem. Then she reunited with her kids. Last year, she bought the duplex in Anchorage. And today, she works as a case manager at Homeward Bound, helping people whose shoes she was once in. She says, reconnecting with her own Alaska Native culture played an important role in her recovery. She says she it also helps her clients at Homeward Bound.
“The joy they feel when they’re eating Muktuk or caribou soup or moose stew,” Conley said. “It brings back memories of when they were in the village, living off the land – the good stories from back then, but again there’s the generational trauma.”
“Again, their history in the village has trauma, you know.”
Conley says, reconnecting with the positive elements of Alaska Native culture is good. But she also says better funding for safe, stable housing, mental health services and alcohol and drug treatment, are critical for addressing homelessness in Anchorage, whether you are Alaska Native or not.