The number of deaths among Anchorage’s homeless population is unacceptable. No fewer than 23 homeless people have been found dead in our parks, forested areas, private lawns, and various other urban locations in just over a year. Anchorage residents, public officials, and social service professionals are debating whether and where to introduce a Housing First facility in Anchorage. Our view is that this is a debate worth having. We as a community need to find a workable solution. It is both the right and fiscally prudent thing to do.

The number of deaths among Anchorage’s homeless population is unacceptable. No fewer than 23 homeless people have been found dead in our parks, forested areas, private lawns, and various other urban locations in just over a year. The vast majority of these incidents involved alcohol.

Anchorage residents, public officials, and social service professionals are debating whether and where to introduce a Housing First facility in Anchorage. Our view is that this is a debate worth having. We as a community need to find a workable solution. It is both the right and fiscally prudent thing to do.

Homelessness in Anchorage is not new. The Foundation partners with a number of shelters, soup kitchens, and related services that respond to the need, including for those individuals who suffer from alcoholism. But options are scarce for people who suffer from a combination of chronic homelessness and substance abuse.

The approximately 400 chronically homeless, substance abusing individuals are less than 15 percent of Anchorage’s homeless – which includes couples and parents with children — who lack a fixed, regular, adequate nighttime residence. Not only do they find themselves in dangerous, unhealthy and violent situations, but they disproportionately burden our emergency resources.

The potential clients of a Housing First facility are the 200 or so “frequent flyers” at the city’s Community Service Patrol & Sleep-Off Center who make up 81 percent of the 20,000 annual CSP intakes. According to the 2007 white paper, “A Place to Live Not a Place to Go: Solutions for Ending Chronic Homelessness in Anchorage,” written by RurAL CAP in collaboration with the Anchorage Coalition on Homelessness, “the Housing First model has been shown to reduce the chronic homeless alcoholics’ use of emergency services from police and fire departments to transfer stations and community service patrols by 60 – 80%.”

Read another way, the Municipality of Anchorage is currently shouldering most the financial burden, and the nonprofit sector stands ready to provide some assistance.

Most housing options require that the homeless person be sober to receive services. Housing First, in contrast, does not put limitations on whether residents consume alcohol; instead, it assumes alcohol is a root cause of homelessness. For a limited proportion of our population the issues seem to be inseparable.

Housing First is based on the idea that individuals can achieve a greater level of self-sufficiency when they obtain permanent housing first rather than receiving housing as a condition of successfully completing an array of treatment programs. As a result of being permanently housed, the homeless can begin to access medical, mental health, substance abuse treatment, employment and vocational training, and life-skill resources. But let’s be honest, experience in other communities shows that not all residents will take advantage of the services provided to improve their lives, and some will continue to self-destruct. For them, Housing First is a kinder option than a park bench.

Over the years, the city has convened multiple taskforces with nonprofit stakeholders, private businesses, advocates for the homeless and others to address the issues of homelessness and alcohol abuse. Most recently on May 4, 2010, the Mayor’s Homeless Leadership Team (HLT), which focuses exclusively on that small number of citizens who are homeless and have chronic substance abuse and/or mental health issues, unanimously agreed to recommend the Karluk Manor Housing First project to address the problems of Anchorage’s chronic inebriates and related issues of homelessness. Rasmuson Foundation is a member of the HLT. (Find a wealth of information gathered by this group here)

Thankfully, the debate appears to be shifting away from “whether” housing is integral to addressing the problem. Discussions now focus mostly on “where” a Housing First facility should be located.

The idea is to convert a former motel property in eastern downtown Anchorage into a 48-unit housing residence for the chronically homeless who abuse alcohol. RurAL CAP, a nonprofit organization working to improve the quality of life for low-income Alaskans, has taken the lead, secured project partners, closed on the property, and advocated for community support at public forums for the past two months, including at the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission meeting July 20, 2010. RurAL CAP should be commended for bringing a solution to the community for debate, but will likely be swimming against the tide until the political will demands a humane response.

The gravity of the problem requires swift action and yet, in the debate over this or that location, Anchorage must not allow the perfect to override the good. Doing nothing is not an option.