City Hires Homelessness Coordinator Using State Funds

The Municipality of Anchorage is hiring a new coordinator for handling homelessness. Though the topic is usually framed as an urban issue, local politicians often complain the city is shouldering the burden of a state-wide problem.

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Mayor Berkowitz, center, with his new Homelessness Coordinator, Nancy Burke, standing to his right during Wednesday's press conference. (Photo: Zachariah Hughes, KSKA)
Mayor Berkowitz, center, with his new Homelessness Coordinator, Nancy Burke, standing to his right during Wednesday’s press conference. (Photo: Zachariah Hughes, KSKA)

Now, Mayor Ethan Berkowitz is now leveraging state resources to re-balance the equation.

At a press conference Wednesday morning, Berkowitz told a room filled with social service providers that Anchorage has “about 2,000 neighbors” struggling with homelessness.

“In some ways this is a classic Gordian Knot problem: how do you end homelessness?” Berkowitz asked. “You create homes.”

That knot is expensive. In his remarks, Berkowitz articulated not only a moral imperative to get homelessness “functionally” to end, but a fiscal necessity. It is costly maintaining what many see as a revolving door between partial treatment, emergency services, and life on the streets.

“We can make better use of our resources by coordinating our response to homelessness,” Berkowitz said it response to a question. He alluded to the unintended consequences of the Sullivan Administration’s elimination of the homeless coordinator position in 2012 for budget constraints, which many believe shifted costs to emergency responders at the Fire and Police departments. “Those are what I’d consider penny-wise and pound foolish cuts.”

This time, the position is funded by a state organization, the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority. The new coordinator, Nancy Burke, has been with the trust for 13 years. The starting point for many of her goals is the Housing First model: Getting people into homes and connected with services before trying to solve issues like employment, substance abuse, and mental illness.

“Money is not wisely used if a person isn’t stable,” Burke said. “People have to be safe and secure before we can look at the root cause of addictions.”

That assumption has not been a given before in City Hall. And it is still unpopular with some neighborhood and business groups.

The night before, Assembly Member Patrick Flynn chastised colleagues for approving municipal funds for a project that will drop a third Housing First facility into the same downtown neighborhood within his district.

“Your decision to vote for this: I interpret as tacit approval of a facility in your district when the next one comes up. Because we are done,” said an impassioned Flynn, departing from his usually staid demeanor.

“We’ve given of the office, and we’re not giving again,” Flynn continued. “You better be ready–because it’s coming. And I’ll not countenance your opposition if you vote for yes on this one.”

That measure passed 9 to 1, with only Amy Demboski voting against. It approves $200,000 from the city to leverage a multi-million dollar grant from the state. The money covers years of support services for individuals dealing with extreme cases of mental illness and substance abuse, housing 56 people in the newly renovated Safe Harbor facility.

It’s similar to Karluk Manor, just a few blocks away. David Pash has lived in Karluk almost three years, and says after more than 30 years of drinking every day, surviving on the streets, the wet housing program was a bridge to rebuilding his life.

“That was the start for me: I got a place I can call my own, and I can drink there. And somewhere along the line it changed me,” Pash said after the event ended. “I don’t know what happened, but I really don’t want to drink now.”

Pash has been almost totally sober for the last nine months. He has a part-time job–his first in at least 25 years. “I actually am looking forward to moving out of Karluk,” he said, “I’m working toward that point, to get my own place.”

As members of the homeless community and service providers are grappling with a startling wave of recent deaths, Pash believes the extra beds at Safe Harbor and Nancy Burke’s new position at the city are welcomed news.

“I’ve known Nancy for a couple years now, and I’ve been keeping track of what’s been going on with my friends out there and how to get them off the street,” Pash said.

“Just this last couple weeks, ya know, so many people died under a tree,” Pash said with a quiver in his voice. He thinks any sollution needs to give people the dignity and respect they are deserved in order to work. “It has helped me.”

The Mental Health Trust would not provide a number for her full compensation, but says it’ll be at the same amount as her previous role. According to records through the Department of Administration that was $160,136.32 in 2014.

Burke officially starts September 1st.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified Patrick Flynn as the lone no vote in the Assembly’s Tuesday vote.