Helping people who are homeless with improved behavioral health care

Judith Moore presents information at an AFACT meeting on Nov. 27, 2018. (Photo courtesy of
Dmytro Maloroshvylo.)

About half of the people experiencing homeless have mental illnesses or substance misuse disorders and can’t access the behavioral health services they need. It hurts the people who need support and the community in general. Anchorage needs a solution. Those were the key ideas expressed by some of the more than 175 people attending a meeting at Central Lutheran Church in Anchorage on Tuesday evening.

The gathering was hosted by Anchorage Faith & Action Congregations Together, or AFACT, and included local government officials. Community members said that providing compassion and charity isn’t enough to solve the problem. The state’s behavioral health system is inadequate, and the municipality, unlike many other cities across the country, does not offer any treatment options.

Kathy Freeman, who works at Central Lutheran, said they open their doors to everyone and welcome them in to use the facilities, but sometimes working with people who have mental illnesses and aren’t receiving treatment is hard.

“It’s hard to feel welcoming when some of them are experiencing such challenges that they are then using bodily fluids to express their displeasure,” she said. “Or throwing books at the staff, or using words that you’d really rather not hear in a church. And so yes, having access to really great mental health care for folks across the strata would be really, really helpful.”

Natasha Gamache joined the line of people making comments and told the gathering that she grew up surrounded by trauma, experienced homelessness as a child and as an adult, and has multiple mental illnesses.

“That I’m able to stand here, wait nicely in line, use polite language, so on and so forth — and be a reasonable, productive member of society — is because of adequate mental health care in a really inadequate system,” she said. She worked hard to get all of the services she needed. “And it would be my hope that instead of cutting budgets, that we start thinking of people first. We start putting them first. And we realize that recovery is absolutely possible not only from mental illness but from drug addiction and alcoholism.”

Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz was present and listening. After community comments, he was asked what his administration plans to do to address the problem. He said he’s committed to having the municipality take the lead and work with others in Anchorage to develop a comprehensive behavioral health system.

“I’m not expecting the state to come. I’m not expecting the federal government to come,” he said. “But I am expecting this community to do something about this problem.”

But doing that takes money. His solution involves a newly proposed five percent alcohol tax that would be used to fund substance misuse treatment centers, community behavioral health outreach, and supportive housing for people who are homeless. The proposal is before the Anchorage Assembly now and needs 8 votes before it could go on the April municipal ballot.