To many people, the face of homelessness is that of a 40–55 year old male who has experienced years of addiction or mental illness. But in reality, that face is only nine years old.

The sound of Christmas carols in public places is a sure sign that the holiday season has arrived. As I left the office building for a long Thanksgiving weekend, I heard the refrain “oh, tidings of comfort and joy” from a speaker in the lobby. For the rest of the night, I caught myself humming the familiar tune.

Just as familiar is the notion that comfort and joy are automatically part of a homespun holiday season. Unfortunately, for a growing number of Alaskans, the comforts of home are in jeopardy or simply out of reach. The past year’s economic downturn has had a powerful impact on housing, not just market values and mortgage foreclosures but also the ability of families to remain in their homes when job hours are reduced or eliminated.

Homelessness results from a complex set of circumstances that often require families to choose between food, shelter, and other basic needs. Contributing factors include income, inadequate supply of affordable housing, and catastrophic events such as illness or injury.

Today in Alaska, a person needs to earn $17.05 per hour to afford a modest two-bedroom apartment at the average fair market rent of $905. The waiting list for publicly financed housing is nearly 4,000 households.

Each January, housing agencies and social service providers in Anchorage participate in a point-in-time count of homeless individuals, as directed by the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development. This resource provides the most up-to-date information on homelessness in Anchorage. The count includes people in shelters, motels, emergency housing, temporarily staying with friends/family, and in situations not appropriate for human habitation (cars, tents, or on the street).

In 2009, the number of homeless people living in Alaska was 4,583 persons – the majority of whom are households with children. Anchorage alone topped 3,000 individuals, with the largest segment of the homeless population being children under 18 (1,602 or 53%).

These numbers contrast sharply with common perceptions of homelessness. To many people, the face of homelessness is that of a 40 to 55 year old male who has experienced years of addiction or mental illness. These are the faces we pass on street corners, read about in headlines, and see on the nightly news. Indeed, the roughly 250 individuals who fit this description and are living on the streets of Anchorage do represent a portion of the homeless count. Rasmuson Foundation staff has recently participated in meetings of the Municipality of Anchorage Homeless Leadership Team, convened by Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan to immediately improve the well being of these citizens and address corresponding public safety and health concerns of the community. There has been a great deal of attention focused on this segment of the homeless population – and rightly so. However, it is a misperception to assume that these are the only faces of homelessness in our state.

The average age of a homeless person in Alaska is nine years old. Families with children represent the fastest growing segment of the homeless population, which is why Rasmuson Foundation supports programs like K.I.D.S. (Kids in Distressed Situations). K.I.D.S. is a national charity working directly with manufacturers and retailers of children’s products to receive donations of new apparel, shoes, toys, diapers, and other soft goods. Truckloads of donated items are delivered through community agencies to children who are ill, living in poverty, shelters, foster homes, or are victims of natural disasters. The statewide partners include Catholic Community Services (Juneau); Kawerak, Inc. (Nome); Fairbanks Community Food Bank (Fairbanks); Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation (Bethel); Cook Inlet Tribal Council (Anchorage); Abbott Loop Community Services (Anchorage); and New Hope on the Last Frontier (Anchorage). Since its introduction to Alaska four years ago, the K.I.D.S. program has distributed clothing and children’s products worth over $1.8M to low-income children. Especially during these difficult economic times, there is some comfort and joy in that.

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