Note: This was first published July 22, 2021, in Anchorage Daily News.
By Diane Kaplan , Sophie Minich, president and CEO of Cook Inlet Region, Inc., and Dean Weidner, chairman and founder of Weidner Apartment Homes
Homelessness is not a new challenge in Anchorage. But never before has solving it had as high a priority among elected officials, the business community, philanthropy and the public. This is a moment when civic leadership, good will and common sense must take precedence over politics. Because whether you are a Republican or a Democrat, conservative or liberal or somewhere between, putting a roof over the head of every Anchorage resident is a priority both to be the humane people that we are and to propel our community toward recovery and vitality. This is too big for us to fail. And we cannot allow politics to stand in our way.
There are many different views and opinions about homelessness. Suffice it to say, there’s a sad story behind every unhoused person. A lost job, a tragic occurrence, a traumatic brain injury, addiction, family trauma, mental illness, and sometimes just plain bad luck.
Similarly, there are many different views and opinions on the various tactics to be deployed to address homelessness. There is no single magic solution and we have long seen here and elsewhere that it is only collaboratively built strategies that make progress.
This is a moment that we can’t let pass without action. In years past, the private sector has borne the responsibility for emergency shelter and transition to housing without direct financial support of the municipality. Anchorage residents indicated their agreement that new resources were needed by passing an alcohol tax with revenues dedicated in part to homelessness services. The Anchorage Assembly has creatively prioritized homelessness in its budget deliberations. The public-private partnership called the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness has mapped out a data-driven path to what will effectively be zero homelessness, learning from many other communities and colleagues in other cities, and succeeding at housing more than 120 previously homeless people each month, ahead of goals and projections. The Anchorage Homelessness Leadership Council, a business-oriented community effort, has raised tens of millions of dollars to support data systems, specific interventions, communication to the community and permanent housing solutions.
An anesthesiologist new on the scene, John Morris, representing our new mayor, has put forth a single-site large shelter plan. While that plan was rejected unanimously by a bipartisan Assembly, it should be viewed not as the end of the discussion, but the beginning of a new collaborative process among the administration, Assembly and private sector to make homelessness in Anchorage a rare, brief and one-time event.
We stand ready to work with all parties to develop — together — a path forward that is respectful of the decades of intelligence gathered by those working in the trenches every day at Catholic Social Services, RuralCAP, The Salvation Army, Cook Inlet Tribal Council, Cook Inlet Housing Authority, Covenant House, Southcentral Foundation, Bean’s Cafe and others; addresses the dignity of individuals — whether people experiencing homelessness, business owners or residents; leverages the financial muscle of private philanthropy; and holds players accountable for meeting agreed-upon goals.
This effort will require critical business acumen in determining costs and benefits, transparency in all efforts, and a cohesive plan that not only provides shelter but permanent housing — supported by services as needed.
This is not an impossible dream. It is an essential undertaking and must be successful. This is our moment to act. What is needed is a commitment to success, an agreement to put politics aside, and a recognition that everyone wins when we solve homelessness.