After Providers Lobby, Walker Reverses Cuts To Homeless Programs

The Glory Hole, Juneau’s emergency homeless shelter and soup kitchen, is temporarily closed due to a burst pipe and flood Sunday night. (Photo by Casey Kelly/KTOO)
The Glory Hole, Juneau’s emergency homeless shelter and soup kitchen, is temporarily closed due to a burst pipe and flood Sunday night. (Photo by Casey Kelly/KTOO)

Advocates for the homeless in Alaska are rejoicing after Gov. Bill Walker released an updated budget proposal that restores funding for housing and homelessness services statewide.

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The governor had initially zeroed out the funding in light of the state’s multibillion dollar shortfall. But the Alaska Coalition on Housing and Homelessness leaned on the administration to restore it.

It’s mid-morning at The Glory Hole, Juneau’s emergency homeless shelter and soup kitchen.

Ralph Jackson and his girlfriend are sipping coffee, and waiting for lunch to be served in a couple hours. Jackson says they’ve been homeless for about nine months, ever since they got kicked out of an apartment in Petersburg for what he says was a trumped up noise violation. He says The Glory Hole is the first place to really help them out.

“They’re giving us some insight, you know, as to what kind of jobs we can get, and housing especially,” he says.

Jackson says he plans to apply for a dishwashing job at a Juneau restaurant. And he says he and his girlfriend hope to get into subsidized housing.

“We’re on a waiting list, and it’s six months to a year… all we can do is just wait,” he says.

In the meantime, Jackson says they’re grateful for The Glory Hole’s services. In addition to help finding jobs and housing, the shelter offers free meals and a warm, dry place to hang out when it’s cold and wet.

Executive Director Mariya Lovischuk says those services would have taken a $96,000 hit under Gov. Walker’s original state spending plan. She says that’s about a fifth of the shelter’s budget.

“If we did not have that funding it would be really, really devastating, because we already operate on a very bare bones budget,” Lovishchuk says. “And I think we do utilize all of the funding sources that are available to us really, really efficiently.”

The governor’s amended fiscal year 2016 budget funds the state’s basic homeless assistance program at $7.7 million. In recent years, that program has covered operating expenses for nearly 40 service providers statewide and helped thousands of homeless individuals and families. The updated budget also includes $1.5 million for special needs housing grants, aimed at helping nonprofits and developers build affordable housing for low income Alaskans.

Sue Steinacher is director of NEST, the Nome Emergency Shelter Team, which gets about two-thirds of its funding from the state.

“At a time where the state’s economic troubles are making life harder for others, it’s really critical that we provide that safety net,” says Steinacher.

Under the initial budget proposal, Steinacher says there was a real possibility the shelter would have closed.

“Given that the governor has put this money back… I feel much more confident about next winter and the shelter having enough operating funds,” she says.

Scott Ciambor co-chairs the Alaska Coalition on Housing and Homelessness. He says members mobilized to make sure Walker’s office knew the importance of the funds to homelessness programs across the state.

“It’s not something that the coalition has had to advocate for in the past. So there was some scrambling, as you would imagine,” Ciambor says.

He says their message was simple: In a state where affordable housing is hard to develop and doesn’t exist at all in some communities, many people rely on shelters.

“It’s everything from, you know, the chronic homeless population that have been kind of living this lifestyle for a long time,” he says. “But it’s also a lot of families, who just typically need some rental assistance to make sure that they don’t become homeless.”

In a release, Walker’s Budget Director Pat Pitney said taking the homeless money out “was an unintended consequence of submitting a stripped-down capital budget.” She called putting it back in “a cost-effective way to address issues that could be costly for our communities,” including money spent on law enforcement and social services.

Ciambor says the coalition also met with lawmakers in recent weeks. As the legislature continues to craft the final budget for next fiscal year, he says it’s an opportunity for the group to talk about the importance of homeless services statewide.

KNOM’s Matthew Smith contributed to this report.