The boarded up house on Anchorage’s East Third Avenue was too wretched to imagine people ever living there, people who kept the lawn mowed and put out the trash every week. Walls stripped and weeping moisture, it emitted a rot that burned the nose and turned the stomach. But it still had a roof, floors and lots of dark corners. And that’s why we were there.
Like the wind that enters without knocking, we passed through a gaping hole where the front door used to be and stepped inside.
“Hello? Anybody home?”
A man named Dennis from Metlakatla, who’d once been homeless, took me there, wanting me to see the place. He knew I’d slept on a mat at the Brother Frances Shelter once. He also knew I got to go home to my real bed the following night. He took me to that house so I could see the kinds of places his friends sleep when they can’t, or won’t, go to a shelter and have no other options. He took me to abandoned cars, littered stairwells and other concrete-cold caverns of the city that made my sensibilities crawl.
I went home and laid awake the rest of the night. Now when I hear the word “homeless,” I have a fuller sense of what that means.
Nobody should have to sleep out in the cold, Dennis told me. Not one single person. Not for any reason.
Lynne Ballew, founder of Bean’s Cafe, does all she can to make that true. With a Ph.D in Greek philosophy, she’s committed her life to making things better for those who have nothing. When people ask about the connection, she tells them the Greeks believed homeless people and strangers were from Zeus, and should be treated with respect.
She’s all about respect and dignity. Because that’s what works.
The vast majority of those without homes, she’ll tell you, aren’t the ones you’d think. They’re families, something like 80 percent in Anchorage. People end up on the streets for many reasons. Dennis was trying to dodge grief and guilt after losing his wife in an alcohol-related boating accident. He drank until he ran out of money and self respect, and had to work hard to get his life back. Others are one paycheck away from losing their homes and apartments—or one accident or illness or breakup or breakdown or act of domestic violence.
In 1978, Ballew spent her savings on the lease for the original Bean’s Café- named for her oldest daughter whose nickname is “Bean.” She stayed two years, left to teach and raise her girls, then returned to Anchorage 10 years ago to pick up where she left off.
This time she focused her energy on housing, helping found Anchor Arms, Inc., the nonprofit that owns and operates a sanctuary called Safe Harbor Inn, Alaska’s only nonprofit motel.
Safe Harbor opened in a refurbished motel in November of 2001 with 22 rooms. After the addition of a lovely new building, it now has 55. About 125 adults and children live there at any given time.
Those who check in must be referred by social service agencies. Even so, they’re “guests” not “clients.” They even arrive to find chocolates on their pillows.
Either they or their sponsoring agencies pay $380 a month for a clean, nicely furnished room and a community of others going through similar struggles. Rules are simple: No drugs, no alcohol. Be reasonably tidy and kind. And work on your program, whatever it may be. Guests can stay as long as they need, but the goal is to eventually move into a place of their own.
The list of partner agencies making Safe Harbor work is huge. But Ballew is the heartbeat. She lives in one of the rooms there with her elderly dog, and is on call 24-7. She doesn’t get paid. She doesn’t want to be.
She has a nice room, like everybody else. She has community and meaningful work. What else would she need?