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John Morris: Next steps in addressing homelessness in Alaska’s largest city

BY DR. JOHN MORRIS

Homelessness is the foundational problem of our city. Not because it stands in the way of downtown revitalization and economic development, adds to crime, or decreases property values, but because it cuts at the soul of our city. A community is a living thing and when a part of us is hurting and we don’t seem to be able to do anything about it, it hurts us like a wound that does not heal.  

It is expected that cities of our size provide professional fire, police, and ambulance services. Government, not just private charity, steps in when we are hurt, in danger, or threatened.  

Why doesn’t having a safe place to sleep at night make the list? By the best counts available, nearly a dozen of our neighbors die on the streets or in our woods each month in winter. Fires happen daily. Not to mention the crimes, the injuries, the assaults, the overdoses, the frost bite…

Mayor-elect Dave Bronson and I believe that this is wrong, that if one more person dies on our streets, and we could have prevented it, then we could have done better. For what is government then, if not to protect the weak?  

The strategy is simple: Build enough shelter capacity to provide a safe place for every one who needs it. Fast. Go out and find our homeless neighbors where they are, engage them with teams of people who can earn their trust, with lived experience and training, carrying the message that there is a better, safer place for them. Not everyone will come. But a safe place will be offered to all and, when accepted, provided.

This is not another three-year plan to end homelessness. It is emergency treatment to end the suffering.  We think of it as building an ambulance and an emergency room, as distinguished from building a whole hospital. The emergency room stabilizes you, treats your pain, gives breathing room and time to find permanent solutions, a diagnosis and a cure. A hospital does surgeries, gives antibiotics and therapy, the definitive treatment. The municipality will build the ‘ambulance’ and the ‘emergency room,’ we will rely on our partners to build the ‘hospital.’ 

Much has been made of the law enforcement component of our plan and it is true we will enforce our laws. Our public spaces will be restored to the use of us all and our streets will be made safe. But we promise you this – before the arm of the law extends to any of our poorest neighbors our city will first offer a helping hand.  Ideally more than once.  If you care about someone, you help them, this is understood. But we believe that when you truly care for another, you care enough to tell them no. 

We do not promise to solve homelessness, rather we act to address it. Compassionately, practically, and systematically. It is too big for any one charity or service provider or private group to handle alone, and the problems are perhaps too personal and individualized for government on its own. It takes all of us.  The municipality will provide emergency shelter, so not one of our neighbors must sleep out in the snow or under a plastic sheet.

Our city’s excellent private organizations are ideally suited to engage our homeless neighbors, learn their stories and help show them that there are other, better ways than a life on the streets. Anchorage’s businesses and charities have successfully built the various types of low cost or supportive housing people need, and can do so again. And our city as a whole, our people – all of us – must act together with both compassion and wisdom.

Understanding that giving to a panhandler on the street helps neither them nor their neighbors, but knowing instead that giving that money to a group that can help that same person find a solution can change a life.  

Mayor Elect Bronson has asked me to join his transition team as homeless coordinator. Not homeless guru, director, or czar. It might be better to call the job title ‘convener.’ Anchorage does not need another person claiming to have the solution to homelessness.

What we need is a team that brings together the great people we already have in this town, who are experts in the field and – I don’t know another word for it – coordinate with them. Take the next step. Unifying our efforts, measuring outcomes, and raising the bar on what we want to accomplish.  We aren’t inventing something new, we are taking the next step, building on our community’s successes.

Over the past weeks and months we have been meeting with homeless service providers and other stakeholders, first learning from them and then sharing our vision, building just such a team of people who agree and share that vision. Vision and team. That is what real leadership is and that is what Mayor Elect Bronson is bringing on July 1. 

Dr. John Morris, M.D., is a board-certified pediatric anesthesiologist and transition team leader for homelessness for Mayor-Elect Dave Bronson.

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  • Oh wow, seems simple. How come no one else thought of this before? Oh wait, this is basically the same exact set of ideas Berkowitz had.

    More of the same. Thanks.

  • I would rather give the money directly to a panhandler. That way I know that they got all the use of it and not another government sponsored, so called non-profit, which usually skims off the top, out of the middle, and from the bottom. Too much of the non-profit management getting rich.

  • If the outworking of “compassion” is services to prevent frostbite and death due to exposure, then a simpler, cheaper, and more compassionate answer is to buy them an airplane ticket to the city of Lost Angels. Give them $100 to start them on their feet and be done with it. The problem is very complex of course, but enabling bad behavior will never solve the issues – it won’t get many of them off the streets except on cold nights. Three times the number of police officers won’t solve the property crime either with the homeless present. If the homeless have no incentive to stay, guess what?… they won’t. Please forgive my cold-heartedness on this, but nothing seems to be having much effect. Some truly need help, and should get it. Some are on drugs and/or alcohol and need incentive to sober up – not a crash pad. Some are just down on their “luck” – and need a hand with training and getting a job. We can do better than buying older motels or contracting for newer ones for crash pads.

  • “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?” Then He (the King) will reply, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”
    We are called to do something, and it begins with compassion, but doesn’t end there. You can’t hold a job if you live on the street without clean clothes and a place to shower. You can’t get free of addiction without counseling and support. I am not in favor of crash pads to “make homelessness easier”, but I am in favor of real solutions that heal broken community members and, so doing , heal our communities. It will cost us some money. Anything worth having does. But there’s really no good alternative.

  • Stakeholders = People who collect a check off the problem.

  • In my experience there are 3 main categories of homeless. 1) those down on their luck and looking for a way back up, 2) the mentally ill and chemical dependent, and 3) those who do not want to fit in and are largely criminal. No.1 will respond to a helping hand. No.2 have always been wards of the state. The state just houses them on the street these days. No.3 have always been with us, and outside of an especially good economy and parents they never had, will likely remain so.

  • So we aren’t going to wad up and throw away the welcome mat, take away the various forms of bait which draw ever-increasing numbers of vagrants, and we’re going to stay the staggeringly costly and socially corrosive course laid out by Berkowitz et al?

    Huh.

  • JOSEPHDJ, giving to a panhandler may alleviate your conscience but only further prolongs the dysfunction. If you really want to help them, take an hour and take them to McDonalds for a good meal (and one to go), or buy an extra meal and share it with them where they stand. Don’t just give an extra dollar, give them an hour. Both you and they might become enlightened. Every time coming home from work I would bring a sack lunch, and if I didn’t eat it, on the way would share it at a common camp.
    Also realize that many of the homeless are mentally ill and dysfunctional, and do not want help. No matter how much services are available they will not be helped and will continuously try to destroy all the lives of those around themselves. Just accept that many cannot be helped and will likely die miserably no matter how much resources society expends.

  • JillC, I absolutely fully agree. but it says: “I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me”, not “did you forcibly take money from your fellow citizens so that you could feel good about yourself for doing something, even if it is destructive and enables the dysfunctional?” There is a huge difference and we should each, within our capabilities, do what we can: a meal here, clothes there, maybe offer a job. But realize that, as Frank B says, only a few of these people can likely be helped, and will never escape this lifestyle, many by choice.

  • There are a lot of broken people out on the streets, many with extensive criminal histories that no one, and I mean no one will hire. 10-20+ years ago it was a different story, today it is an extremely dangerous place to be, there are hard core addicts and folks who just have no value on human life, it isnt the same anymore, that being said , what worked 20 years ago will only work today with significant modification. You can extend that hand forever and its going to continue to be used and abused, sure its compassionate and the right thing to do but you’re going to need to get tough and make some very unpopular decisions to help these people out if its ever going to work. Liberal mentality does not work here, its why we are in this situation, remember that.

  • AK
    So right, so sad

  • AK: You missed the point, being that governments are the least able to help. Everything government does has a catch 22 built into it. The women’s shelter started with a few ladies setting up a temporary shelter. It worked, until they decided to get a non-profit permit and expand. Now it’s getting hammered by every politician’s whimsy.
    The city buying properties and creating “shelters” has all the earmarks of enriching a few, under the pretense of helping the homeless. What is needed is “Work-Fare” without the unions whining about whatever being their turf. Picking up trash for R&B plus a small stipend, would be a place to start.
    All but the most severely handicapped can do something, and they would want to do something, anything to help earn their keep.
    Allowing drug addicts and alcoholics to roam the streets all hours of the day and night is criminal against everyone. They steal everything they can, to sell or trade for drugs or a bottle.
    For the record, I don’t give to panhandlers. I have had people walk by and ask if there was any work they could do for a few bucks. I never turn them down, even if I’m short at the time and have to borrow 20 from a friend to pay them. It’s not “make-work” either. I usually can use the help.
    I still would rather give money to the panhandlers, than pay the taxes to support another failing homeless project.

  • JOSEPHDJ, you pretty much hit the nail on the head. Every human, with very few extreme exceptions, has a duty to be productive as a condition of their existence. Those who refuse to care for themselves have no claim upon the production of others. Two of my favorite people ever are young men with Down Syndrome, one of whom cleans at a fast food restaurant and the other who stocked shelves at a grocery store. Sadly, they will both pay into Social Security for decades but will likely not live long enough to collect due to the nature of the Syndrome.
    As to the government programs, they are nothing but another industry with all of the associated graft. There is a place for non-profits selectively researched and chosen.

  • Start with this:

    When the villages send their losers to Anchorage, send them right back.

    Follow with this:

    Enforce zoning and public health ordinances.

  • This all sounds reasonable, but I suspect that until we start asking ourselves, and seriously looking into, WHY the problem of homelessness continues to grow, we will never really get a handle on this sad situation.

  • This is disappointing.
    .
    Doing exactly what Seattle, San Fran, and Portland have done, and expecting different results. I voted for Bronson so that the wants of the homeless would no longer be put above the needs of the taxpayers. Yet, here we are, looking to implement a scheme that will increase the number of homeless, not actually address the root cause of the problem.
    .
    Name one city, at any time in history, that took these actions and did not get more people on the streets?

  • “…….. I suspect that until we start asking ourselves, and seriously looking into, WHY the problem of homelessness continues to grow, we will never really get a handle on this sad situation.”
    1) Mental health for ALL Americans is under increasing pressure. The world is going insane. I believe mass media is playing a big role in the fantasies people are creating in their minds.
    2) The Mental Health Systems Act of 1980 did away with government operated mental health facilities, putting them on the streets.
    3) We’ve always had drug and alcohol addicts on the street, but their numbers have increased. Homeless shelters cannot accept drunks due to increased violence, so during the summer, the drunks prefer living u der tarps because they can freely drink after JOSEPHDJ gives them money.
    4) The breakdown of the family, so key in all our social and cultural problems, is another big factor. After a divorce, many men simply can’t pay child support and finance a new life.

  • @Reggie Taylor:
    You are so close, so close to matching exactly what I am thinking. Please allow me to try and enhance your point.
    1. The issue is not so much mass media, it is the so-called “social” media that is the real culprit. A decade ago (OK, maybe two decades ago) no one was chasing “likes” or “retweets”, now they are. And, another aspect of the pre-facebook days was that your friends and family would let you know you are thinking like an idiot. Before social media, if you said something stupid, people you knew would talk you down. Now, if you say something stupid on social media, you are almost guaranteed to get thousands of likes. Net result, you will DO something stupid.
    2. Yep. Agree.
    3. Agree as well. However, the problem isn’t really the handouts, it is the bleeding heart do-gooders that will destroy the shelters that actually help the homeless because they turn away the drunks, in favor of government run facilities.
    4. Ahhh… the crux of my reply. The break down of the family. Realize this is not by accident. The goal of leftists is making your first, and most important, relationship with the Government, with the State. All other relationships are secondary. Destroying the relationship between parent and child (Federally funded day care?), and destroying the relationship between husband and wife (celebrating single women, and encouraging woman to pursue a career first), and even destroying the relationship you have with yourself (critical race theory, anyone>). It is all there. Leftists do not want you to place anyone or anything before the all encompassing State.
    .
    At their core, leftists are toddlers. They want, but do not want to earn what they desire. However, they know throwing a good tantrum has a high probability of getting them what they want. It is easier to petition the government to take money away from those that have earned it, than to go out and earn it themselves.

    Which brings me back to the point of this article. The leftists have a goal (realized or not) to destroy everything they see as imperfect. And, in the process, create a world where everyone is beholden to the State. A Conservative sees government as a necessary evil, the average leftists sees it as a goal. They imagine themselves standing on a balcony, waving at an adoring crowd.
    .
    And, using the homeless as a tool to achieve that goal is what they are doing. Helping the homeless is something that both sides of the political aisle want to do. But, when a conservative disagrees with the approach a “progressive” proposes, they are accused of wanting to “kill” the homeless. It really is a no-win situation.

  • Reggie T: I clearly stated that “For the record, I don’t give to panhandlers.” Learn to read.

  • CBMTTEK: I agree with everything you said, and I especially like this part … “They imagine themselves standing on a balcony, waving at an adoring crowd.” Many Leftists are narcissistic.

  • @JOSEPHDJ:
    Thanks, I wish I could take credit for that. I forget who I got that from, but it rings true.
    ,
    Leftists are really just children occupying adult bodies. They want adoration, but have little desire or drive to earn it. So, they get into politics (or they read the news, or act… I know, same thing.) and wish for adoration.
    .
    Look at the biggest names in tech, Gates, Zuckerberg, etc… Did they really earn it, or did they just get a lucky break and take advantage? (HINT: The second one.) Same thing across the board in any industry. Pride month exists so that people who would be otherwise completely unremarkable can occupy the spotlight for a short period of time. And, just to prove I am an equal opportunity discriminator, the same thing applies to Black History Month, and Asian American Heritage month, and every other special set aside. A simple, easy way to get the praise you want, without actually having to do anything to earn it.
    .
    Final note.
    Kamala Harris is proof that the leftists will value what you “are” over what you “do.”

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