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.