Catholic organizations respond to Alaska’s homelessness dilemma

Editor’s note: This article was published in the February 2023 issue of the North Star Catholic.

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Catholic organizations caring for the homeless in Alaska say they experienced a busier year than usual in 2022. According to Alaska Coalition on Housing and Homelessness, more than 15,000 people throughout the state needed some kind of service in 2022.

The number of people seeking emergency shelter in both Anchorage and Juneau presented a huge challenge for local governments and organizations. While the overall homelessness rate stayed stable from January 2021 to the present, the number of those seeking emergency shelter rose dramatically, according to Owen Hutchinson, a communications specialist for the Anchorage Coalition for Ending Homelessness (ACEH).

Not only organizations such as Catholic Social Services but also groups like the Knights of Columbus and other parish communities stepped up fundraising across the archdiocese, said Dave Ringle, executive director of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in Juneau.

Similarly, Anchorage churches and non-profits have helped CSS. St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish’s Magi Workshop and Bazaar group collected Christmas gifts for newly housed families, and they provide dinner once a month for all the families at Clare House. St. Patrick Parish in Muldoon hosts an annual Advent warm-clothing drive each year for clients.

“Many parishioners are donors and volunteers as well — we could not do this work without them. Their time, treasure, and talent is supporting our community,” said Molly Cornish Cordy, CSS chief communications officer. “Our parish community is incredibly generous.”

Such help makes all the difference in this trying time when the number of those seeking emergency shelter comes at a record pace.

“There’s been an explosion in the numbers of homeless people here,” Ringle said.

The Juneau community’s Point in Time (PIT) count numbers 235 unsheltered individuals on Nov. 30, 2022. Another count, one that covers two-year windows, places the city’s count at 664 individuals who sought services rooted in homelessness, according to the ACEH.

Anchorage has a PIT count of around 500 individuals who needed emergency shelter in 2022. The ACEH said its overall number of people who sought housing help, however, reaches up to nearly 10,000 people in the Anchorage area for the past two years.

The shelter system has seen many changes in Anchorage over the last few years. According to Robin Dempsey, CEO of Catholic Social Services, one essential part is adequate “low barrier walk-up shelter.”

That’s defined as a place where no one will be turned away from a shelter for the night. The Sullivan Arena currently serves as that shelter.

“But when the Sullivan shut down over the summer, many of our neighbors experiencing homelessness did not have a place to go,” Dempsey said.

Since then, the Sullivan has reopened, “but those are temporary,” Dempsey said, “we need a long-term, sustainable solution.”

Brother Francis Shelter, along with the Gospel Rescue Mission, remains one of the city’s only permanent walk-up shelters that accepts any person in need.

Solving the shelter shortage takes more than building up better walk-up shelters, Demp- sey said. CSS is strategizing a more effective way to combat the shelter shortage: breaking it into parts and solving each one by one.

“Each person’s path to permanent stability is different, and often requires many parts – outreach, shelter, case management, employment – but the goal is always permanent stability, or in other words, housing,” Dempsey said. “In order to have a strong homelessness response system, we must have all those pieces operating, and working together.”


Smaller shelters offer better shelters


Brother Francis Shelter continues to serve 120 individuals each evening, coordinating closely with the Sullivan Arena staff to fill any available beds. But before COVID-19, Brother Francis served twice that many, Dempsey said.

“One of the things we’ve learned over the years is that these small specialized and scattered shelters can better meet the needs of our guests,” Dempsey said.


A client of Brother St. Francis Shelter writes a message on a leaf-shaped paper. (Courtesy of Catholic Social Services)

Brother Francis served 240 guests pre-COVID; beds were closer together before the pandemic. Dempsey said it was necessary to increase spacing between beds and reduce the number to 120 beds during the pandemic.

“That meant better results for the neighborhood as well,” Dempsey said. “When we have less guests, staff can work one on one, providing more individualized care, meaning more people are finding permanent stability. That’s how Complex Care was born. We now have 83 beds for the elderly and medically fragile at that program.”

The CSS facilities, in addition to Brother Francis, are now the Complex Care at 303 West Fireweed and Clare House at 4110 Spenard Road, which cares for 50 moms and children.

Also coming online is the Third Avenue Resource & Navigation Center. The center provides adults experiencing homelessness access to numerous services. CSS officials said these services range from short-term needs like a shower or a phone charge to long-term engagement like case management and employment support.

Along with CSS staff, other partner service providers share the facility, so a client at the center can meet with case managers, housing coordinators, or employment specialists all in one location.

“That experience (the COVID-19 pandemic) confirmed what we have long believed: smaller, specialized shelters and facilities are the best solution for Anchorage’s homeless response system,” Dempsey explained in a column she wrote for the North Star Catholic‘s July 2022 issue. “In a smaller facility, improved staff-to-client ratios allow for deeper relationships, individualized care, better outcomes for guests as they get back on their feet, and most importantly, more dignified care. As Brother Francis Shelter has seen, smaller populations can foster a healthy sense of community and have a much lighter impact on surrounding neighborhoods as well.”

Complex Care is just one piece of a greater network of services needed. The 83-room facility, which opened last summer, increases the capacity of the homeless response system both in available beds and specialized medical expertise. It also provides dignity to the communities most vulnerable individuals, Dempsey said.


All about the rent


Debates between the Municipality of Anchorage and the Anchorage Assembly’s current use of Sullivan Arena as a temporary shelter have kept homelessness visible in news accounts. But people who say it seems like there are more homeless than ever before would be partially right – and partially wrong, said ACEH’s Hutchinson.

“Homelessness is very visible right now, but there are not necessarily influxes in areas other than those seeking emergency shelter,” Hutchinson said. That is, those seeking walk-in shelter.

ACEH works with Catholic Social Services and other non-profits to manage data, coordinates individual assessments at intake, and helps with com- munity-wide plans to end homelessness, Hutchinson said. It also accepts the community applications required for federal funding.

“It’s all about rent,” Hutchinson said. “Those who couch-surf at a friend’s house, or sleep at Grandma’s or mom’s or a cousin’s house – those suddenly weren’t available.”

That started during the pandemic and carried over in even more dramatic ways once the eviction moratorium was lifted, Hutchinson said. It affected people across all walks of life.

The current ethnic make-up of Anchorage homeless people is 46.6 percent who identify as white, about 43 percent identify as Alaska Native, and the rest identify as other minorities. Meanwhile, the number of homeless veterans remains alarmingly high at nearly 1,000 individuals, according to ACEH data.

“People who were on the edge before the pandemic were suddenly faced with evictions after the (eviction) moratorium was lifted, and rent skyrocketed everywhere,” Hutchinson said. “If you make minimum wage, then you pay more than 50 percent of your income and the feds call you severely rent burdened.”

Dempsey adds that the homeless count was steady for several years. But it went up during the COVID pandemic and the post-eviction moratorium for several reasons before finally settling on the numbers known now, she said.

“There were so many prevention dollars for renters to keep them in place during the pandemic that the number of vacancies reduced. So trying to find housing was difficult,” Dempsey said. “That helped people retain housing when (Anchorage sees) a 20 percent normal vacancy. A lot less people moved so there were fewer rentals to access.”

That left people homeless who wouldn’t have been before the eviction moratorium.

Then the cost of living increased, added Cordy, the CSS chief of communications.

“The price of living has gone up. Rents went up. This doubled as food needs (did) since this time last year. It’s more difficult to pay utilities and rent. There’s a lot of factors that place people on the edge,” Cordy said.



Juneau’s experience


Juneau’s had its own version of the Sullivan Arena – a large warehouse that wasn’t COVID- friendly, St. Vincent de Paul’s executive director Dave Ringle said. Juneau also has found solutions in numerous specialty facilities that can more personally outreach the homeless.

During COVID, St. Vincent de Paul ran its warming shelter out of the old Armory downtown from March 22, 2020, through Aug. 1, 2021. The 72-person capacity allowed for the safe sleeping of patrons at least six feet apart. St. Vincent works with other agencies within the community on this issue. They also used grants to house the vulnerable and elderly in hotels.

Like the lessons at Brother Francis, Ringle said they needed to change their design and capacity to safely serve individuals in shelters.

During this time, the Glory Hall was able to build a new, larger COVID-friendly shelter next door to St. Vincent’s Teal Street Campus, Ringle said. The Glory Hall provided private spaces of 150 square feet per person for 42 people.

“Housing the homeless is not an exact science,” Ringle said. “Some are chronic, but for a variety of reasons. Some are there a night, or a couple of days, or a couple weeks, then leave. They find services and they’re out. A big problem is we thought 42 rooms plus beds for overflow would be enough.”

Then the federal eviction moratorium lifted, and homelessness shot up from a more diverse variety of individuals, Ringle said.

“Shelters of all kinds filled up. Campgrounds filled up,” he added.

Juneau’s nonprofits worked together to serve the increasingly large number of individuals and families who suddenly no longer had homes.

Ringle, a retired middle school teacher, said they see people from all walks of life. He’s seen people with full-time jobs evicted from their apartments after the federal eviction moratorium was lifted; they were unable to find another place. He’s also seen the medical vulnerabilities, such as terminally ill individuals who spent their last months of life in a St. Vincent facility. St. Vincent de Paul was able to house vulnerable seniors with the Alaska Housing Finance Corp. grant at hotels until they could find more effective and affordable senior housing.

“We kept them out of the homeless shelter as best we could,” Ringle said.

St Vincent de Paul House also provides 26 rooms for families and vulnerable seniors, as well as people with disabilities. Families were helped through the Family Promise program, all of which have full waiting lists.

The transitions are changing the traditional role of St. Vincent de Paul, which formerly served families more than those seeking emergency shelter. A critical need is more housing like the 75 rental units that St. Vincent de Paul operates. He’s seen people who transition from homeless to becoming stabilized and now staffing the St. Vincent facilities. Over a third of his employees are housed within St. Vincent de Paul low-income housing, he said.

“At St. Vincent’s, we’re seeing the faces of Christ in those we serve,” Ringle said. “The social safety net is being rebuilt here in Juneau as COVID ends and we see the needs, and we’re getting different parishioners to join our team. It’s different now how we serve people in housing and our shelter.”

It also changes the people who work with the homeless, he said.

“It’s a struggle, it’s frustrating, and then at the end of the day, a few say ‘thank you.’ I receive as many blessings in this job as I have challenges,” Ringle said. “One of the side effects is an increased prayer life to handle those challenges.”

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