This week social service providers held a town hall at Beans Cafe to discuss winter safety with Anchorage’s homeless community.
Keeping warm and safe outdoors is more important this winter than ever because the city’s homeless shelter is going back to a rule that kicks people out if they’re not making progress toward finding permanent housing.
Cyrus Farquhar is just the type of person that Brother Francis Shelter wants to see in permanent housing. But that’s unlikely.
“I’m one of those people that likes outside better,” he said.
But when it’s too cold, Farquar stays at the shelter. He’s one of a couple of hundred chronically homeless in people in Anchorage.
The 30-day-in-30-day-out rule forces residents who are not working with a case-worker to find housing or leave the shelter for 30 days before they can come in again.
That could be a dangerous prospect when temperatures drop. Farquhar, who has been homeless for many years, said he worries that more people will die outside now that the rule is back in place.
“If they keep on doing that we’re going to have more people frozen like they did one year – seven, eight, nine [in] one year. There’s gonna be more. And there’s a lotta new people who’s still new and doesn’t know how to survive during winter,” Farquhar said.
Susan Bomalaski is the Executive Director of Catholic Social Services, which runs Brother Francis Shelter. She says the shelter started in 1983 as a response to several outdoor deaths, but she says going back to the 30-day-in-30-day-out policy is necessary to motivate people who were using the Brother Francis as a permanent residence instead of an emergency shelter.
The shelter started getting overcrowded and fights broke out, Bomalaski says, after the municipality raised the temperature at which shelters had to open their doors to 45 degrees. That was early 2012.
“The unintended consequence is people were staying here when it hit 45, which was September to when it went above 45 which was late May and really staying here for those nine months and not making positive steps,” Bomalaski said. “It also resulted in difficulties for our staff. Our numbers were very high. We were letting people in that had behavioral difficulties.”
The result was an increase in calls to the Anchorage Police Department.
Records show that there were more than 1,300 calls for service to APD from the shelter in 2012.
Photo by Daysha Eaton, KSKA – Anchorage.
In 2003, comparatively, there were just 35 calls. Most of the calls in 2012 were for disturbances, medical assistance and drunk problems.
Bomalaski says it’s hard to turn people away, but she hopes a new 24-hour pick-up service from the Anchorage Safety Center will help keep people from dying outside this winter.
Mark Lessard with the Municipal Department of Health and Human Services, which runs the Anchorage Safety Center service says the center is getting two new vans.
“We’re going to be going to five eight-hour shifts. The first shift will close the 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. gap in services gap we currently have where there’s no van running during that time. And the second van will go on top of the shifts that run from 2 p.m. to 6 a.m. in the morning to be able to respond to calls for assistance under Alaska statute Title 47 which is you know someone that’s incapacitated in a public place,” Lessard said.
In September, the Anchorage Assembly approved just over $189,000 to fund the two additional vans.
In June, the ASC began dispatching through the Anchorage Fire Department, which resulted in increased demand, says Lessard. They pick people up from the Beans Cafe and Brother Francis Shelter several times a day, he says, and deliver them to a the safety center where they can sober up.
Farquhar says he’s trying to get into the city’s new 46-unit housing first apartment complex for homeless alcoholics.
“I’m trying to get in Karluk Manor, just gotta wait until there’s an opening. A lady came down. We talked and I filled out my paperwork. Most of my friends are up there, at least there off the street,” he said.
But the program is full for now, so with winter on the way, Farquhar says he plans to bounce between his camp and Brother Francis Shelter.
The Anchorage Police and Fire Departments do not keep track of outdoor deaths in Anchorage, nor does Municipal Health Department or the Mayor’s office.
Lessard says the Anchorage Safety Center hopes to begin running the new van shifts later this month.