Few things shake a person’s feeling of self-worth and stability as much homelessness. Pope Francis, during Advent last year, spoke about the great difficulties faced by families without a fixed place to live, and compared their situation to that of the Holy Family facing the birth of Jesus in a stable.
“Family and home go together,” said the pope, who has frequently highlighted the issue, inviting 200 homeless people who would normally find dinner in a shelter to be Vatican guests, with a meal prepared by chefs and a farewell gift of pastries and fresh fruits.
Clearly, the pope wants Catholics to consider the homeless a high priority, and the U.S. Catholic bishops have addressed the issue as well, urging both public and private responses to the issue.
A report issued in June by the Homelessness Research Institute showed a slight decrease in overall homelessness in the U.S. as the economy recovers from the 2008 recession. However, 20 states in the report showed an increase in chronic homeless, including Alaska.
Tom Mulloy, a policy adviser to the U.S. bishops, told Catholic News Agency, “There’s a long way to go still, especially for those who are most vulnerable.”
THE ROOT CAUSES
According to those who work with agencies serving the homeless in Alaska, the problem is largely caused by economic concerns, particularly low wages and the lack of affordable housing.
Laurie Kari founded Family Promise Mat-Su, a chapter of the national program that enlists local churches to help low income families achieve independence.
“From my knowledge, there is a lack of affordable housing in the Valley, and it’s not getting better,” Kari told the Catholic Anchor. “There’s none on the horizon as there’s no profit it in.”
Other problems contributing to homelessness are a lack of jobs, increase in family troubles, medical problems that force people into poverty, and substance abuse issues.
Susan Bomalaski, executive director of Catholic Social Services in Anchorage, has witnessed for years the plight of the poor served by three programs of her agency that deal with homelessness: Brother Francis Shelter, a shelter for adults; Clare House, a program for women and their children; and Homeless Family Services, which works with families through a case management system to help them gain housing and financial independence.
“Our numbers are high right now,” Bomalaski said. “Clare House has doubled in size but we have a long waiting list.” The new facility has both shelter space as well as progressive, long-term housing where people pay rent as they slowly work to get back on their feet.
“As the price of housing continues to go up in Anchorage, wages don’t,” Bomalaski said. “People start to double up. We’ve seen a real problem with seniors who are forced to double up, because they have flat incomes but their rent climbs.”
Government “safety nets” don’t always hold. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) vouchers a federal program that assists very low income families, the elderly and the disabled to afford housing, now uses a lottery system and the vouchers are increasingly difficult to obtain as demand increases.
WHAT CONSTITUTES ‘HOMELESSNESS’
At the heart of the issue is the very definition of homelessness. Is it, as Bomalaski mentioned, about people who have to “double up” or find themselves couch surfing from night to night? Or is it the most extreme cases of those on the streets with nowhere to turn but a doorway, or if they’re lucky, a charitable shelter?
Bomalaski said HUD defines homelessness as not having a place fit for habitation, as someone who must sleep outdoors or has to find a public shelter. The Department of Education, however, looks at kids who are compelled to couch surf with their parents, sleep in a cheap motel, or find floor space at Auntie’s house and calls these families homeless.
Family Promise serves the immediate needs of families and also helps them become independent. In the Valley, 14 congregations, including Sacred Heart Church in Wasilla and St. Michael Church in Palmer, provide temporary shelter for families.
St. Michael is able to sleep a limited number of families on their campus. Sacred Heart plays host, but does so at the Family Promise Center.
Guests are limited to 120 days, during which they must be actively seeking work and shelter. The average length of a family stay is 30 days.
A staff member at Family Promise told the Catholic Anchor, “There really is no slow season. There are only two shelters in the Valley — us, and a domestic violence shelter.” Since Family Promise does not house single men, they are provided with bus tickets to Anchorage to find shelter there.
Which brings in Brother Francis Shelter — founded after then Anchorage Archbishop Francis Hurley, Holy Family Cathedral parishioners and then Mayor Tony Knowles felt they must do something for street people who have long been an Anchorage constant.
With the help of two religious brothers invited from Portland by Archbishop Hurley, a shelter was established in an old warehouse. With the help of the city, a new shelter replaced the old facility several years ago.
Originally conceived as a place to prevent people from freezing to death, the shelter’s mission has grown to provide individualized help through case management. The shelter has a long list of success stories, but it continues to serve the poorest of the poor — the chronic homeless who are often chronic inebriates and often suffer from mental health problems, both a cause and a result of life on the streets.
WHOSE PROBLEM IS IT?
Over the years the shelter has been an object of both enormous community support, but also criticism from those who see it as a magnet for society’s undesirables.
In reality the homeless population is reflective of a larger social problem. Bomalaski said the causes of homelessness are largely economic. To pay rent and live independently, $20 per hour might be a livable wage here, she said, a figure many don’t make.
“And landlords here can be very picky,” she added. “We have under a three percent vacancy rate.”
DANGERS ARE LEGION
The dangers and difficulties of homelessness are legion, be they the lack of self-dignity for a wage-earner or the rootlessness of a small child.
“It’s very traumatic for kids,” Bomalaski said.
Then there are the evils of traffickers who seek out adolescents and women on the street, deaths of those in homeless camps or the mental instability caused by just a short time alone on the street.
Anchorage, according to an Oct. 6, 2013, Alaska Dispatch story, has 65 percent of Alaska’s homeless population, or about 6,700 people. Over the years, the municipality has come up with various 10-year plans and homelessness task forces. But problems persist.
CALL TO ACTION
Family Promise and Catholic Social Services both provide area Catholics and others with opportunities to help through charitable giving and volunteering, actions Pope Francis continues to urge the faithful to embrace.
This past winter the pope decried society’s complacent attitude about human life when he wrote, “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?”