Years ago, an emergency room doctor in Spokane, Wash., offered an insight that resonated with me: “Housing is the first and most important prescription.” To this day, I see that connection between health and home as critically important. As I prepared to retire from my last job, as chief executive of Providence Alaska Medical Center, my plan for early retirement included volunteering at Brother Francis Shelter to expand on-site medical respite care. I imagined serving lunch across the parking lot at Bean’s Café with my wife, Ruth.

Instead, that passion led me to Rasmuson Foundation in 2018 to serve as its first senior fellow, with a focus on solving homelessness. I wanted to help but never expected to be part of a pivotal moment in a decades-long effort to address homelessness in Anchorage. Yet here we are.

The Municipality of Anchorage is considering a proposal to authorize the purchase of four buildings, each with a different purpose, and each intended to help the most vulnerable and hurting among us lead healthier lives. This is our chance to build on real momentum and leverage funds from a range of sources. Mayor Ethan Berkowitz is committed to bold steps. Key nonprofits serving people who experience homelessness have strong leaders and are committed to partnership with the Municipality in development of new and expanded services. Federal CARES Act money will provide the funds for purchase of the buildings. Rasmuson Foundation is committed to provide up to $3.5 million as part of the funding for initial operations of the proposed engagement centers.  These will be inviting places where agencies bring needed services to clients instead of waiting for clients to come to them.

Anchorage residents have testified in large numbers, some in support, but others with worry about what this will mean for their neighborhoods, their safety and their quality of life. While homelessness has many causes and affects many community members, including veterans, families and young people, the debate over these four buildings amplifies hopes, fears and prejudices. A recent op-ed by the Rev. Matt Schultz and Samuel Johns, an Athabascan activist and performer, described how “the evil of racism” has seeped into people’s comments in recent public hearings. The view from the streets is very different than the view from inside the safety of one’s home. Some of the individuals targeted by neighbors aren’t struggling because of their Alaska Native culture, but because of the loss of it. Racial injustice, historical trauma, mental illness, brain injury, substance misuse and, often, economic hardships all are underlying factors in homelessness. These four buildings won’t fix all that is wrong, but they represent a step toward a safer, healthier life, a step toward home for all of our neighbors and for all of us.

How would AO 2020-66, now before the Anchorage Assembly, change things?

  • Anchorage would get its first two engagement centers: at Bean’s Café across from Brother Francis Shelter, and at a proposed new night shelter and engagement center in the former Alaska Club on Tudor Road. Houston, Boston, Salt Lake City and Denver are among the cities that have developed such centers in recent years. Instead of offering prepackaged services, agencies work with individuals to shape a way out of homelessness that meets their needs and makes sense for them. We’ve tested the effectiveness of this strategy during the pandemic through a makeshift resource hub at the Sullivan Arena. In tents with laptops, workers from several agencies build relationships with individuals who are ready for a change. One couple long on the streets connected with Cook Inlet Tribal Council and found their way to treatment.
  • A new long-term residential substance misuse treatment center would be developed in the Best Western Golden Lion Hotel in Midtown Anchorage. Unlike what some are saying, this facility would not serve as a shelter. It would replace Clitheroe Center, an aged and worn-out treatment facility. This facility would be open to all, regardless of income or housing status. We all know people with substance misuse and addictions (whether a work colleague, a parent, a child or a friend).  Misuse of alcohol is a tremendous problem for us in Alaska and this facility will fill a critical gap in the continuum of treatment services.
  • Transitional or bridge housing would be developed in Americas Best Value Inn & Suites on Spenard Road. This would be a place for those who are experiencing homelessness and have a path to permanent housing. Without it, individuals could be discharged to the streets or will remain in shelters.

The proposal addresses key recommendations of Anchored Home, Anchorage’s three-year plan to solve homelessness. It recognizes the goal of Anchorage’s Homelessness Leadership Council to reduce unsheltered homelessness. It fills some of the gaps recently identified by the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness. It acknowledges that substance misuse treatment and provision of housing are closely connected. Development of day and night shelter services in the same facility will reduce pressure on businesses, the library and the streets for place to go during the day. Homelessness services would spread across town and not be concentrated in Fairview and downtown as they are now.

If the Assembly authorizes purchase of these properties, the Municipality will have laid out a path to leave the Sullivan Arena — and to develop new supports to help make homelessness rare, brief and one-time.

Private businesses and individuals and philanthropy organizations contribute a great deal of the funds for the continuum of services for people experiencing homelessness. If this proposal is approved, the Municipality will become a more deeply committed partner.

Throughout the debate over the last week, you may have come to see the acquisition of these four properties as a hindrance, or maybe a great help to serve those who need it most. We hope that neighbors will grow to see them as we do, not as a problem, but as part of Anchorage’s solution to homelessness.