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Friday, November 22, 2019
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Let’s get real about Anchorage homelessness

By PAUL FUHS

The issue has received a lot of attention lately.  Rightly so.  Across a wide spectrum of Anchorage residents, people have had enough of what they are seeing on our streets.  

Yet, the way homelessness is being discussed and written about will not result in turning back the degradation of our communities.

Homelessness is described as some generic condition in which all are the same and everything will be OK if we just give everyone a place to live. And indeed, for the majority of Anchorage’s 1,000 homeless, this is the solution that they need.   

These would include people who had lost work, had a catastrophic illness without medical coverage, were recently divorced without means, or on the run with their kids from a violent spouse.  A stable home as suggested by the recently announced Anchor Home program would give these homeless Alaskans a base to seek work and get their feet on the ground again.

However, they are not part of the approximately 300 street partiers that are openly drinking in public, vomiting, defecating and urinating on our private and public properties, accosting tourists for money, assaulting trail runners, and setting a horrible example for our children and people visiting from out of town.  

These people are not alcoholics and drug addicts because they are homeless, they are homeless because they are alcoholics and drug addicts. 

Some are being picked up as incapacitated up to 200 days a year.  Of our Fire Department callouts, the vast majority are drunk and drug calls.  And now a police unit must accompany them because the inebriates are attacking the people trying to help them.  

Until this fact is acknowledged we are not going to make any headway.

So what can be done about it?  A couple of years back, the Fairview Business Association, Fairview Community Council and 11 other community councils approached the Legislature with a proposal.  We had organized a comprehensive group of providers for outreach, detox, inpatient transition, job placement, transitional housing and case management to make sure people didn’t fall through the cracks.  This was a compassionate but effective approach.

We went to the Legislature to seek $5 million in alcohol tax funds to finance the program, supported by the liquor industry.  No one expected us to be successful but it surprised everyone when Senator Kevin Meyer led the way to put it through the Senate. We felt we were on our way to an effective program.  But when we got to the House Finance Committee, the Mental Health Trust Authority and the Department of Health and Social Services stepped in to sidetrack the funds into their own program.  

What happened?  First, they took half the money for a pet mental health program they were pushing and all the rest of the money went into drunk housing.  All of it.    

And not a single person ever went into treatment.

Now we are seeing more of the same and it’s even more ridiculous.  A former office building at 3rd and Cordova was remodeled into more wet housing at a cost of $6 million.  For 20 units – more than $300,000 each.  And still no one has gone to treatment.

The idea behind this housing is that you don’t expect any responsibility from the people you are housing.  No work, no treatment, no sobriety.  So it just ends up being a base of operations for their continued full-time street partying.

In my view this is an act of ultimate lack of respect and compassion for these folks, as if they are worthless and can never contribute anything. 

Our group also proposed to the Assembly Committee on Homelessness, creation of a social enterprise program to provide appropriate employment opportunities along with five other specific ideas to address the problem.  Although the Committee met for more than two years, none of these was ever adopted.

The Muni takes down the encampments but has nowhere to send people, so they just move around. We obviously need a managed tent community with bathrooms, washeteria and yes, even a liquor store.  Many of the problems we face are created by the activity of obtaining liquor. If we don’t seem to care if they drink, let’s make it easy where they don’t have to hang out in front of the stores in our communities to get it.

The Fire Department came up with the good idea of creating a no-buy list for people they had picked up more than six times, the ordinance was drafted but when the ACLU mentioned they didn’t like it, people put their tail between their legs and didn’t even try to get it passed.

If all else fails, we need to consider an involuntary treatment program at a facility such as we used to operate at Point Woronzof.  Such a program was proposed by Sen. Johnny Ellis a few years ago. I don’t think anyone could accuse him of being uncompassionate. My brother worked there and many people were cured.

Another issue is that when sex offenders are sent to Anchorage and given court ordered sex offender counseling, there are no such services in their home communities. Abandoned, stuck in Anchorage, with a sex offender record and unable to find employment, they end up joining the ranks of the street inebriates.  Look up the sex offender list and you will see what I mean. 

Certainly these services could be provided by Skype or some other internet based system so that they can be reintegrated back into their communities where they could have family support.  This is really the humane thing to do and perhaps some of the new federal funds for sexual assault can be used for this purpose.

So yes, there are solutions, but someone has to do something about it.  What we are doing now is not compassionate.  Free food, free housing, free medical, free Obama-phone, free everything so that they can put every single penny into the bottle: Is this helping them or is it a form of assisted suicide?

Are we willing to set some standards for our community and get some real help for our street people, or will we become Los Angeles or San Francisco? The choice is ours.

Paul Fuhs is former Mayor of Unalaska/Dutch Harbor and Commissioner of Commerce and Economic Development for Governor Wally Hickel.

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  • One of the best lines: “These people are not alcoholics and drug addicts because they are homeless, they are homeless because they are alcoholics and drug addicts.”
    We can’t just continue to say, “Give them all housing because they are down on their luck.” And enabling hasn’t worked so far. But at least we have San Francisco and Seattle to see where this road leads if we don’t do something.

  • Paul,

    Thanks for plugin in on this issue. I suspect you have not received the report and resolution approved this month by the Midtown Community Council. I recommend you read them because you will find much intel and many very specific recommendations – some rather controversial like the Homeless Business or otherwise referred to as the Homeless Industrial Complex. It helps understand where the billions of dollars have gone with little evident impact.

    Where do the vast majority of alcoholics and drug addicts’ live? They live at home. These are symptoms of much deeper problems which is one of the issues discussed in my report. In October every year lots of ‘homeless’ find a place to live because they have money to pay for a cheap motel often sharing with many others. The problem is they don’t have the money they need to secure a steady home. That requires work and the report goes into lots of detail about solutions and root causes here.

    I sent a copy to MRA, but yet have not seen it presented. Will try again.

    Looks like we will have an Anchorage legislative caucus work session on this issue before the end of this year. In addition we have asked for a joint House/Senate hearing on specific actions, other than money, they state can take to address some of these issues. Let me know and I’ll plug you in on the list.

    So, give me a call or email and I’ll send you a copy of these two documents. The report is getting lots of attention all the way to Wash DC. Why? Because it is an honest assessment of the problems at their route cause, not just the same old whine.

    Again, good to see you plug in to this issue.

    Ric Davidge, MPA/PM

  • In the Bible it say’s “No work, no eat.” In real life, the unions always complain if “Workfare” is suggested. “They’re taking our jobs!” Well, unions, get even. Take the panhandler’s jobs. Go panhandle.

  • Cheaper option: One way charter flight to Portland, Ore. It used to be called a “blue ticket” back before Statehood. Trouble makers and rascals were given their walking papers and told not to return.

  • Lots of housing on Adak Island.

  • Anchorage needs to fund a shelter to house the ones that can be saved. The rest? The drug abusers and rapists……they need counseling and help and to be locked up for habitual vagrancy, among other charges. Dry them out in jail. Some of the mentally ill can’t be helped or saved, sadly. You can’t go out and shoot them like a dog just to get rid of the ugly part of society. They need help, forcefully if needed.

  • Insightful and right on. Needs to be sent to every assembly member. And then we need to follow up with questions. The gov also needs to read to be aware of the state depts. inadequacy.

  • Spot On!

  • There are choices in life. When you make the wrong ones, all sorts of bad things can happen. If you allow it. No one wakes up one day and declares they are going to be homeless or an addict. That happens you when you give up. Then you begin expecting help from everyone else because they feel sorry for you.

    The homeless issue in Anchorage has made the place a hole no one wishes to be around. Bums hanging around, drunk off their butts panhandling on the street. It’s disgusting. They have allowed this to get worse, thinking sheltering them is the answer.

    They wake up every day, and seem to have money for drugs or booze and we’re supposed to feel sorry for them? When you see a homeless guy around a restaurant, and you come out with extras in a container, he asks you if you have a dollar or food. You say no to the dollar but you have food for him. You give it to him, only to turn around and see him dumping it in the garbage can next to the door. That was the last time I helped anyone in Anchorage.

    They want money to continue their addictions. Real help they will not take. You cannot save people like that. They don’t want to be saved. If they did, things would change.

  • I have several addicted family members. You can not help these people unless they want to end their addictions by themselves. All the counseling and free housing will not stop their addictive behavior. I have spent thousands of dollars of my own money helping my relatives to no avail. I finally stopped helping them. I myself ended up sleeping in my car for 6 months due to a divorce but did not drink or do drugs. I dug my way way out myself and now own my own home…. if nobody is going to the free housing that should tell you something, they don’t want your help.

  • I have worked 8 years in a maximum security prison and about 5 more years in a residential treatment center for people with disabilities. I feel that rather then treating each symptom separately, the money should go into a one”stop”. When intoxicated people are picked up by the police, because it’s against the law to be intoxicated in public, give them a choice to be sentenced to rehabilitate or jail.

    I believe they can be given up to 30 days the first offense. Then second offense is up to 2 years. This would need to be in a compound similar to corrections. When they enter they first go to detox.Then they can opt for a “career” and choose to attend training, such as one of the crafts (mason, plumbing, etc), or even barber, hair dressing, cooking, etc.

    These work/apprentice/ training would give them a certification so they would be able to be productive in society. They would also attend groups and alcohol/drug/anger management courses.When they have completed the housing in a group-type home, assistance finding employment could be given. This is a one time shot. If they choose to go back to being intoxicated in public, then they should do the time in prison separated from society. This work/training/rehabilitation facility would be ran on a schedule, it is important for some people to have a structured environment.

    • The vacant prison out at Sutton would the perfect location.

  • Some good suggestions above, especially some good, ol’ “work for your supper.” Getting violent or otherwise being a public nuisance? Jail or the nuthouse.

    Only so much time and money. Identify those who can and can’t be helped, and act accordingly.

  • This article is right on point. Everyone who has an interest or opinion on the homeless should read this article.

  • Great op-ed.

    The Red Nose Inn at Karluk & 5th/6th was controversial but is benign compared to alternatives. If you replicated it to address the 300 or so partiers, then you would probably have to upsize 2-3x, because demand would increase. Most likely a couple of hundred million.

    So sad what has happened to our city. Hard not to be cynical about MOA response. Bottomline, Anchorage used to be a pretty safe city for those not directly involved in street level substance abuse. Now you can’t even leave your tires in the bed of your truck.

  • Time to bring back “the farm” they can be sentenced to 6 months of growing vegetables and flowers. Upon release, they can sell vegetables and flowers as their transition jobs.

  • Pooping in the street, ……happens!

  • Cut to the chase… what’s the end-state? A “bum utility”, like the “stormwater utility”?
    .
    Another burgeoning bureaucracy, accountable to nobody, forced on taxpayers, not to fix anything but to get more money, with ACLU approval of course?
    .
    Or is the reality about:
    .
    Villages and Native Corporations contributing money, talent, and housing to solve the problem and keep it solved,
    .
    Villages which choose to dump their cast-out residents in Anchorage paying the Municipality for cast-outs’ care and maintenance,
    .
    Anchorage taxpayers not subsidizing housing for bums,
    .
    Drug pushers facing preemptive asset forfeiture and mandatory prison terms,
    .
    Municipality summarily demolishing “known crack houses”, clearing properties known for illicit drug activity, and billing the owners,
    .
    Municipality selling public property infested with bum camps, and offering tax incentives to buyers who agree to clean out the property,
    .
    Advising the American Civil Liberties Union that ACLU is not an arm of government, not an arbiter of municipal policy,
    .
    Annually auditing mail-in voter rolls and ballots to verify the Great Alaska LeDoux Vote Experiment is not happening again in bum housing…
    .
    “Real” enough, at least for starters?

  • It would help you to read the report. If you don’t have access, just ask pm@cyalaska.com and I’ll send one to you.

    Vice Pres, Midtown CC

  • Cut to the chase… what’s the end-state? A “bum utility”, like the “stormwater utility”?
    .
    What’s in the works, another burgeoning bureaucracy, accountable to nobody, forced on taxpayers, not to fix anything but to get more money, with ACLU approval of course?
    .
    Or is the reality about:
    .
    Villages and Native Corporations contributing money, talent, and housing to solve the problem and keep it solved,
    .
    Villages which choose to dump their cast-out residents in Anchorage paying the Municipality for cast-outs’ care and maintenance,
    .
    Anchorage taxpayers not subsidizing housing for bums,
    .
    Drug pushers facing preemptive asset forfeiture and mandatory prison terms,
    .
    Municipality summarily demolishing “known crack houses”, clearing properties known for illicit drug activity, and billing the owners,
    .
    Municipality selling public property infested with bum camps, and offering tax incentives to buyers who agree to clean out the property,
    .
    Advising the American Civil Liberties Union that ACLU is not an arm of government, not an arbiter of municipal policy,
    .
    Annually auditing mail-in voter rolls and ballots to verify the Great Alaska LeDoux Vote Experiment is not happening again in bum housing…
    .
    “Real” enough, at least for starters?

  • Morrigan,

    it would really help you learn some facts. Based on your comments you wrongly assume that the majority of our homeless are Alaska Natives. They are not. Only about 40% are Alaska Natives, the majority are white with a few black and brown sprinkled in.

    I’ve given you the way to get the new paper on the so called homeless problems. I think you will find it very revealing and helpful.

    Ric Davidge, MPA/PM Vice President, Midtown Community Council

    • Ric D., forgive the double posting… unintentional… pilot error, no offense intended.
      .
      Figured yours and Paul’s facts and the environment in which they exist should be sufficiently robust to withstand first-principles challenges.
      .
      A briefing, a short mission statement, without preaching to the choir, simply what you and Paul want to do, what’ll happen to Anchorage if you don’t do it, what it’ll cost taxpayers, this would have been helpful.
      .
      Primary concern is not demographics. Seems reasonable to expect if forty percent are indigenous folk, at least proportionate assistance should be forthcoming from multibillion-dollar Native corporations and villages who dump their cast-outs in Anchorage? Maybe it’s happening, but grossly underreported.
      .
      So, why the questions?
      .
      Primary concern is the “environment” in which your facts emerged is harshly contaminated with a city fuel tax, plastic-bag ban (from which bums are apparently exempt), a brand-new storm-water utility, a municipal “homeless coordinator”, bum camps infesting public land, an increasing bum population, plus a fraud-vulnerable mail-in ballot system seemingly structured to assure Deplorables don’t accidentally delete these blessings.
      .
      The “environment” is sustained by a city government which can’t seem to manage even the basics: law enforcement, fire protection, sanitation, education, or snow removal, but is amazingly adept at finding ways to get more money and waste it while leading Anchorage down a path well-worn by the likes of Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, et al.
      .
      The “environment” includes a startling factoid you shared some time ago: Productive Anchorage residents who want to build a new house face one of the highest municipally imposed regulatory costs of homebuilding in America.
      .
      Into this morass, some of us want to do what for bums? Maybe this doesn’t apply to Section 8 housing?
      .
      Hence the questions… Public trust in city institutions seems eroded for good reason, supplanted by cynicism: forget rhetoric, skip to what it’ll cost. More to the point, what’ll happen to your well-intentioned work when the city takes control? Remember how the “storm water utility” was birthed. It won’t fix much, but it will get money and that’s what matters to Anchorage’s Ruling Class, of which this writer knows you’re not one.
      .
      So from you… a briefing… then a run for Mayor.
      .
      This could work.

  • Bureaucracy for the win!… not.

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