‘We’re gonna be out on the streets’: Anchorage, Alaska readies for a homeless crisis

Galen Huntsman and Arianne Swihart with their three children, Tobie, Azriel, and Aurora, in the one-room apartment the family shares at Safe Harbor, a supportive housing facility for families transitioning out of homelessness in Anchorage, Alaska. (Zachariah Hughes/Alaska Public Media)
The mayor of Anchorage declared a civil emergency Wednesday over concerns that the state’s fiscal crisis will cause hundreds of residents to lose access to basic shelter. If Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s budget vetoes stand, the next 30 to 90 days will determine whether hundreds more people have to move out of housing. That’s left some families in Anchorage worried they could soon be living on the streets.

Arianne Swihart and Galen Huntsman live in a single room with their two young boys, Azriel, 4, and Tobie, nearly 3, along with Aurura, their two-month-old daughter.

“We now have a family of five living in essentially a hotel room,” Arianne said on a recent morning.

They’re staying at a facility called Safe Harbor on the east side of Anchorage. It’s temporary, families generally live there for up to six months as they try to transition out of homelessness into into more stable permanent housing. Both parents say this is a big improvement. Prior to moving in here in April, the family was in crisis. There were problems with jobs, with the Office of Child Services, and medical care. At one point in the saga, Swihart was several months pregnant with nowhere to go, staying in an overnight shelter.

“Being pregnant and homeless is…well I don’t imagine I’d ever want to do it again,” Swihart said with a long pause.

The medium-sized room where Swihart and Huntsman live has a microwave and refrigerator, but no stove or sink for washing dishes. (Zachariah Hughes/Alaska Public Media)

This room at Safe Harbor is far from ideal. The two boys sleep on mattresses on the floor. There’s no stove or kitchen for them to use, so dishes have to be washed in the bathroom sink or tub. But the situation is manageable. The family pays $550 dollars a month in rent. And they are all together. They’re also plugged into a network of social services and counselors that is helping connect them with resources.

“It’s been a stable platform for us to work at getting back on our feet and getting our lives back together,” Huntsman said.

But now, the couple is worried that budget vetoes and gridlock in Juneau will upend that stability. Safe Harbor is one of four large facilities run by the Rural Alaska Community Action Program (RurAL CAP). The three others are permanent housing designed for people with substance abuse disorders, as well as severe mental and physical disabilities. Some of the funding sources that help subsidize the costs for those facilities were vetoed by the governor in June. That means Swihart and Huntsman, along with dozens of families like them, may lose housing and programming they rely on.

Galen “Tobie” Tobias, left, is almost three years old, his brother Azriel just turned four. (Photo: Zachariah Hughes/Alaska Public Media)

RurAL Cap is working to prepare contingency plans for state funds falling through.

“It scares me where those families are going to be in the city,” said Barry Andres, who directs RurAL CAP’s supportive housing program.

Right now, the organization is in a holding pattern. People won’t be evicted in the “immediate future,” according to Andres. But in the 30- to 60-day range, the organization will have to make hard decisions about what to do. The uncertainty and anxiety are taking a toll on staff and residents. Andres also worries that the issues involved with sheltering families and the disabled are different than managing chronically homeless individuals in the city’s shelters and camps.

“The most vulnerable are going to be put into situations where they’re not going to be able to easily find a way to manage keeping safe,” Andres said.

City officials expect that displacement will affect residential life and emergency services in stages over the coming year.

On Friday, the Anchorage Assembly voted nine to zero to extend a civil emergency declared earlier in the week by mayor Ethan Berkowitz. The move gives city officials the flexibility to quickly redirect money from other budget needs to instead cover lost state dollars to keep the city’s largest overnight shelter from closing this week.

The Brother Francis Shelter, a downtown facility with a capacity of 240 beds, told the city that because of a lack of funds it would have to completely close on August 1 for several days, and operate at a reduced capacity of 100 beds going forward. The Berkowitz Administration weighed several options for handling that scenario, including the stress and financial pressure it would put on emergency services, hospitals and police.

At the Friday meeting, the administration asked assembly members to extend a state of civil emergency through August 6th. That will be enough time to work out an agreement to avert any immediate closure or drop in overnight bed capacity. Catholic Social Services, which operates the shelter, says it needs $400,000 to maintain basic staffing levels and continue overnight service for a full year. That money does not restore day-service or the support resources that help get people out of homelessness.

Members of the Anchorage Assembly’s homelessness committee listen to recommendations from residents about how to handle the anticipated surge in homelessness at a Thursday meeting (Zachariah Hughes/Alaska Public Media)

Social service providers, Assembly members and the administration all said there will have to be many more measures enacted to deal with the anticipated increase in homelessness stemming from state budget cuts. They are considering a broad range of options, including the possibility of semi-permanent sanctioned camps within the municipality.

The civil emergency order gives the mayor’s office the ability to bypass some normal rules for staffing, procurement and zoning. It does not bring in new funding, nor does it have any bearing on the city’s tax cap.

The Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness predicts that in the next several months, 561 housing slots could be eliminated because of the lack of funding. Those are separate from overnight shelter beds, and include the kind of temporary and supported permanent housing at facilities like Safe Harbor, Karluk Manor and Sitka Place.

According to Jasmine Boyle, the coalition’s executive director, these potential reductions are direct impacts from the governor’s line-item vetoes. But her organization believes indirect effects from other cuts will push more people into homelessness as the shifted expenses ripple outward.

“If energy bills skyrocket, if people lose jobs at the scale that is currently being projected by economists, we know that there will be a rapid influx of people entering into homelessness into a system that is already not going to be able to manage our existing clients,” Boyle said.

Providers in Anchorage say that even if funding were to be immediately restored, there’s already been severe damage to the safety net from uncertainty, staff reductions and lost opportunities to secure outside funds.

Arianne Swihart doesn’t know what she would have done without assistance from Safe Harbor, or where the family will go if the facility shuts down.

“What are we going to do when those resources are no longer available? We’re gonna be out on the streets,” she said.

Galen Huntsman feeding his two-month old daughter Aurora at the family’s apartment in Safe Harbor. (Photo: Zachariah Hughes/Alaska Public Media)

The family is trying to figure out if the five of them might be able to move into a room at a relative’s house, or possibly stay in a camper until it gets too cold come the fall. They say they aren’t as bad off as some of the other families at Safe Harbor. But the disagreements over the budget and Permanent Fund Dividend don’t seem worth the uncertainty to them.

“If they want a $3,000 PFD they can have it,” Swihart said. “But it’ll be at the expense of people like me, and my husband and our kids being put on the streets.”

The governor’s office did not return multiple messages requesting comment. Earlier this month, a spokesperson responded to questions about cuts to homeless assistance by saying, “The governor in his office had to make tough decisions based on the fiscal reality that we have today.”

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Conservative Party leader travels to Yukon, outlines vision for Northern Canada, CBC News

Finland: Finland’s new gov breezes through no-confidence vote over its agenda, Yle News

Sweden: Swedish Centre Party promises tax break for rural northerners, Radio Sweden

United States: Anchorage, Alaska declares a civil emergency over looming cuts, Alaska Public Media

Zachariah Hughes, Alaska Public Media

For more news from Alaska visit Alaska Public Media.

One thought on “‘We’re gonna be out on the streets’: Anchorage, Alaska readies for a homeless crisis

  • Tuesday, July 30, 2019 at 09:32

    Why do you have 3 kids including a new one when you can’t afford housing?
    Why do people think it’s a right to have kids.

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