City Puts Its Chips On Providing Housing For Those Most In Need

Anchorage is struggling with how to address serious and expensive problems stemming from chronic homelessness. Today, the new mayor’s administration announced a dramatic plan to more than double the city’s capacity for housing the most severely affected population living on the streets. The sudden move isn’t without controversy.

Download Audio

Melinda Freemon is the director for the Department of Health and Social Services, and she says the addition of 56 housing units fits within Anchorage’s Comprehensive Plan for addressing homelessness.

“DHSS is supportive of this model because it is considered the nationwide best practice: permanent supportive housing actually does end chronic homelessness for high users of safety centers across the nation,” Freemon says.

The plan also funds “intensive case management,” the official term for the comprehensive help clients receive to regain control over their lives.

“They provide assistance with accessing medical care for the tenants, they provide them with shopping opportunities, employment opportunities,” Freemon says. “They would facilitate substance abuse treatment, mental health treatment, and all of the services that go along with helping people retain their housing.”

Providing shelter and help is not cheap, but advocates and city officials are quick to point out the cost of treating symptoms instead of the causes of homelessness is even more expensive. the municipality has spent millions of dollars on studies proving how costly it is just managing the most high-cost users of emergency services.

That’s partly why news from the mayor’s office was such a surprise: the Administration is chipping in just $200,000, but the funding is essential for accessing a much larger pool of grant funds $3.5¬†million ($3,595,717 to be exact) for a multi-year budget paying for the treatment. Originally that money was dropped into the city’s budget by the Sullivan Administration for a controversial pilot program that would have sent 10 people for a short-term course of aversion therapy in Seattle. Now, the funds are helping renovate the Safe Harbor facility by 4th Avenue and Sitka Street to accomodate long-term tenants.

“All the units needed upgrading–so just new flooring, new paint on the wall, but in order to make it serve a special needs population or a highly disabled population, like many people who are long-term homeless, we’ve had to make some safety improvements.”

Corrine O’Neill is a housing director at RurAL CAP, which is administering the project. The statewide nonprofit bought the Safety Harbor facility last winter [November 2014], but had struggled to find funds to keep it up and running.

“And Rural CAP felt it was really important to save this housing and that it would exacerbate the homeless problem in Anchorage if we didn’t save these assets. But we also inherited some of the same struggles they had in terms of operational costs.”

Long-term residents are expected to start moving in by September. The funding will also make vouchers available for subsidized housing spread across different parts of the city. The project will end up similar to Karluk Manor, a wet-housing facility that’s just a few blocks away–a factor that’s hardly insignificant for critics of the plan.

Christopher Constant is president of the Fairview Community Council, and says the neighborhood wasn’t consulted ahead of the decision to support more long-term supportive housing–an issue with a contentious history in the area.

“We take on more as a community than any other neighborhood in this town–between Mountain View and Fairview, ya know, we are the city’s social service epicenter,” Constant says.

Constant says it’s not only unfair to residents, but it makes for bad treatment policy, keeping those people in the middle of treatment within the same geography and social circles they may be struggling to get away from.

A spokesman for the Berkowitz administration says the president of Mountain View Community Council was contacted about the plan, along with the chair and vice-chair of the Anchorage Assembly.