The April 7 grand opening of a respite center at the Brother Francis Shelter marked a new approach to the care of Anchorage’s homeless population.
The project brought together those who are committed to serve the homeless — beyond basic shelter for the night.
Besides the addition of a 10-bed respite facility, the shelter offers transportation of clients to various caregivers around town.
The additional services represent the collaborative efforts of Catholic Social Services, Providence Alaska Medical Center, Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, Alaska Regional Hospital, Anchorage Neighborhood Health Center and a myriad of supporters including construction companies.
About 100 supporters gathered for a celebration, which included a blessing by Anchorage Archbishop Paul Etienne.
“The unique thing that we’re celebrating today is the fact that the major hospitals, the municipality, Catholic Social Services and a number of other organizations came together to provide this respite facility so that when the homeless come out of the hospital they have a place to transition,” Archbishop Etienne said.
The idea stems from an endeavor in Washington State where Catholic Social Services coupled with medical service providers and other organizations to build a facility that would offer homeless clients a place to convalesce after treatment in hospitals. Homeless patients with broken bones, infections and other ailments were treated in hospitals only to be discharged back to the streets where they could not recover. The result was recurring visits with complications, and in some instances imminent death. The program not only won recognition for its mission at a regional hospital convention but planted seeds in the minds of hospital administrators in Anchorage.
“We saw a video about this four years ago at a leadership conference,” said Dick Mandsager, a chief executive at Providence. “And we said, ‘Could we bring it here?’”
Meanwhile, Lisa Aquino, executive director of Catholic Social Services in Anchorage, saw the need to provide Anchorage’s homeless with more than a place to sleep.
In looking at data from 2005 to 2015, she noticed that the homeless population had increased by more than 30 percent and the population aged 65 and over had increased by 240 percent.
“And the story that told us was that we have to approach our work here in a different way. We can’t just warehouse people and have them come in and out,” Aquino said. “We need to surround each person and make our services client-centered to help them reach their own success.”
Valerie Davidson, commissioner of the State of Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, noted that 3,600 clients are served with meals and a place to sleep at the Brother Francis Shelter each year. Davidson said the expansion of Medicaid services to clients provides funding resources to allow the services to continue.
“I think one of the challenges folks have sometimes is that they have a great idea, but if it doesn’t have resources behind, it there’s only so long that they can provide that service,” she said.
The idea to expand medical services to the area’s homeless gained momentum quickly among Catholic Social Services, major hospitals and other health care providers.
Aquino called it “extraordinary.”
“I don’t believe there’s ever been a partnership where the three hospitals in town have come together around an issue like this,” she observed. “You have to remember that this is a business industry and there’s competition. So what’s happened here is that leadership teams at our hospitals have seen the bigger picture, and they’ve come together with passion and good intentions to help the most vulnerable people in our community. It’s amazing.”
The price tag for the renovations to the Brother Francis Shelter are around $600,000, according to Mandsager, adding that many other costs have been offset by contributions and partnering from local construction and contracting companies. Though the facility now offers 10 beds, Davidson and others said more are needed and they remain hopeful about expanding the facilities in the future.
In the meantime, those providing the services have expressed elation at the chance to serve the homeless in another capacity.
Kayla Pokupec, a care provider at the new respite center, said the stresses of street life often preempt safety, warmth and rest — ingredients that most take for granted in the healing process, and that the new program at Brother Francis will make possible for the homelessness.
“I was born and raised here in Anchorage, so I knew of the problem, and when I heard there was an opportunity to fix that problem, and that I could be a part of it, that was just so exciting,” Pokupec added.
Archbishop Etienne said the respite program is in line with Jesus’ approach to the poor.
“I cannot help but think that by the Gospel and certainly by the life of the Lord himself that this facility does exactly what he did,” Archbishop Etienne said as he blessed the Brother Francis Shelter at the event. “Jesus touched and healed people — he listened to them.”