New tech and political clout put toward homeless campers

The Anchorage Mayor’s office is throwing its weight behind initiatives to end homelessness, a problem the administration says has intensified in recent years. As social service providers gather data on homeless individuals, they’re pairing new technology with an increased level of political support.

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An entrance to the Chester Creek Trail where Burke and others set out ahead of the annual Point In Time survey. Photo: Zachariah Hughes.
An entrance to the Chester Creek Trail where Burke and others set out ahead of the annual Point In Time survey. Photo: Zachariah Hughes.

Just after 8 a.m. Thursday morning, city homelessness coordinator Nancy Burke stooped toward a snowy tent in the woods by Chester Creek, waking 58-year-old Duane English, who’s been camping in the area for the last month.

“My name’s Nancy,” Burke said. “I was wondering if we might visit with you?”

“Visit me for what?” English asked back from inside the tent.

Burke explained it’s part of a survey to figure out how many people are living outside of permanent shelter.

“Well why you gotta come now?” English asked, frustrated.

“We come in the morning because we wanna make sure people are in camp,” Burke responded almost cheerfully.

English tells her she should come back later. Burke is persistent, though, offering coffee and supplies.

“Can we leave some socks?” she asked towards the end of the short exchange, eventually handing a thick pair to English.

Burke and others are going to homeless camps across town to touch base with people about the upcoming Point In Time survey, an annual event where officials and volunteers try to get a census of who is living on the streets. This morning she’s joined by a small gaggle of guests, including two police officers, a radio reporter, and Mayor Ethan Berkowitz.

“This is my first time doing the count,” Berkowitz said in a parking-lot by the trail as plows cleared away snow.

Berkowitz campaigned on overhauling how the city deals with homelessness. In the months since, his administration has directed money toward a supported housing project, re-established the homelessness coordinator position, and built capacity in city hall for coordinating with nonprofits.

When asked why he was here, Berkowitz said he wanted to see homelessness first-hand.

“Some administrations ignore problems hoping that they’ll go away. That’s not been a good solution for homelessness,” Berkowitz said. “Our effort is going to be to identify individuals who are on the streets or living in the camps, there’s only 300 or 400 people like that, we can get this done.”

That identification step is key in the administration’s strategy. Burke is in charge of an aggressive push towards the Housing First model, getting folks into homes and rental units as a starting point for plugging them into services, employment, and help.

Before all those steps, however, officials and nonprofit employees need solid information on how many people are are homeless and what their needs are.

“It will give us an idea of where folks are in the community,” Burke said, “so that we can allocate resources to do outreach and to find people and see what they need to get assistance back into housing.”

To get better at that information gathering, officials have switched from paper surveys to an app.

“So, your age, gender, race,” Burke said, scrolling through the app’s questions on her phone. “Homeless information: How long have you been homeless? And then we have some questions about whether people were homeless when they moved to Anchorage or moved to Anchorage and then became homeless.”

Individuals have to give a signature in a field at the bottom of the survey before the GIS mapping coordinates are transferred to the Homeless Information Management System. Location data cannot be gathered without explicit consent.

The administration’s model depends not just on identifying and mapping people, but knowing each person’s name and needs.

Terry Chubin supervises Homeward Bound, a transitional housing program within the Rural Alaska Community Action Program. She’s done outreach work for years, and said getting people plugged into resources comes from building a relationship.

“We just introduce ourselves. And sometimes it takes a few times going back and giving out a lot of socks, bus passes, McDonald’s gift-cards–whatever we have–and then just building that trust and that rapport with the person,” Chubin explained. “Because if you just go in and go ‘here you go’ and leave–you’re not doing anything.”

The point in time survey is Wednesday, January 27th. Information for volunteers can be found through the Anchorage Coalition on Ending Homelessness. Or by contacting the Mayor’s Office.