Brother Francis Shelter opened its doors 32 years ago. Prior to that a small group of dedicated Alaskans served Anchorage adults living in homelessness by providing food and warm clothing.
In the winter of 1982, Bob Eaton and Dave Sifferman, Brothers of the Order of Servants of Christ, came to Anchorage at the invitation of Archbishop Francis Hurley. Having already done wonderful work in Washington State, their mission was to get to know the plight of homeless people in Anchorage.
Joining equally dedicated citizens in Anchorage, they immediately saw the need for a homeless shelter and brought that concern to the archdiocese and to the Municipality of Anchorage.
Together the city and the archdiocese created the Brother Francis Shelter. The city provided the space and Catholic Social Services provided the service. It was, and is, an example of Alaskans bringing their ingenuity and compassion to the table in order to help others.
Since it opened much has been done to keep the Brother Francis Shelter operating as a safe place for those suffering homelessness. The condemned warehouse space was initially refurbished and then in 2005 the shelter was rebuilt with the additional aid of the Cook Inlet Housing Authority. Working together all the partners have maintained a safe facility.
This last summer, spice-related issues hit an all-time high in Anchorage, targeting those in homelessness. Our staff noticed increased challenges generally. We wanted to define the issues we saw and we found shocking numbers in our review.
The annual number of guests staying at the shelter has increased by 30 percent over the past 10 years. The population age 65 and older has increased by over 250 percent — from 44 to 166 people. The average length of stay has increased by over 50 percent. Ten percent of the population at the shelter is staying for longer than six months. This is largely because that population is too vulnerable to mental health issues, substance-abuse issues and physical health issues to find permanent housing.
On any given shift between 4 p.m. and 8 a.m. there are only two staff members to operate the shelter for 240 guests. This winter, we opened an adjacent space for cold weather overflow, so we can provide shelter for a total of 324 guests. We will be able to add only one staff member for the overflow, giving us a ratio of one staff to 124 guests on some nights. Historically staff members, trained in the variety of methodologies, were able to maintain safety while our case managers work diligently with guests on permanent housing plans.
Our number of vulnerable clients has grown though, and many require individual attention for specific, complex problems. This makes it difficult to maintain basic safety for our staff and guests. We are working to find solutions to increase staff in order to take all guests who want to come in, and not limit the number of people because of safety concerns. We will need the help and support of partners.
Just as when Brother Francis Shelter opened, we are in a perfect storm. We have a faltering economy, homelessness on the rise, increasing numbers of vulnerable citizens without shelter, and safety is an issue. Working in close partnership with government agencies, businesses and committed individuals, Catholic Social Services is striving to achieve short and long-term solutions.
No single agency, group or individual can provide a fix to the issue of homelessness alone. I am confident, though, that with the ingenuity and creativity of Alaskans, and by studying solutions from other communities, we can continue to serve those burdened by homelessness. To do this, we must continue to work for more permanent housing solutions and at the same time find shelter for those with no place to sleep tonight.
This holiday season please join us in ensuring that Brother Francis Shelter can run at full capacity. All of you make Brother Francis possible. I know together we can make it through this winter.
God bless all of you! I pray we continue to have compassion for each other in these difficult times. Peace and love this Christmas.
The writer is executive director of Catholic Social Services in Alaska. For more information about CSS, call 276-5590 or visit cssalaska.org.