Home Culture Homeless in Anchorage: Brother Francis Shelter Hosts Town Hall

Homeless in Anchorage: Brother Francis Shelter Hosts Town Hall

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It took me a while to find the Brother Francis Shelter in order to attend the town hall style meeting. I passed by two gentlemen who were rolling cigarettes by the roadside and asked them where the Brother Francis Shelter was. One angrily told me that “It’s right there!” as though I were the most clueless idiot on the planet, and I cannot hold that against him; I had walked right by it. I came up to the shelter the same time an ambulance pulled up.
The meeting was held to inform the public how “to be safe and warm” over the winter, and to update the community on the new changes coming to the shelter. These changes include an 11:00 p.m. curfew and a 30-day-in, 30-day-out policy. This means that when someone arrives at the shelter after 11:00 p.m., they will not be given entrance but they will be allowed to sleep in the buildings entryway. It also means that after inhabiting the shelter for 30 days, participants will be expected to find somewhere else to live for the following 30 days.
The Brother Francis Shelter has seen a 20 percent increase in population over the past several years. These changes are meant to help reinforce the fact that the shelter is not designed to be permanent housing. Far from intending to be cruel, the shelter uses case workers to help at-need individuals move their lives in the right direction. Moving people out of the shelter is an eventual necessity, as the shelter, Bean’s Cafe, and Karluk Manor exist in constant overflow condition, housing a combined 240 people every night of the year. Catholic Social Services can only afford two staff members for all 240 individuals and letting people live indefinitely at the shelters constitutes an enormous strain.
Mark Hernandez, an employee of the in-house program at the shelter, suggested that the abandoned buildings throughout Anchorage could be used for homeless services. He also seconded the motion, heard throughout community councils, to deal with the “Spice” problem more directly.
People high on spice are known to behave erratically and violently, and that behavior can be brought into the shelter.
The event was an eye opening experience. Seeing the homeless around town is one thing. Entering the beating heart of the building trying to help was quite another. It is easy to disassociate from the issue when we can avoid it.
The people in these shelters can’t avoid it.
As one man put it, “my 30 days is up, and I’m living right there,” he said motioning to the window behind him towards the lightly forested area by the building. “I’m probably going to be a dead body somewhere. They’re gonna find me under four feet of snow this year with this 30-in, 30-out rule.”
A University of Alaska Anchorage student informed us of a study she had conducted of the people who live at the shelter. Of the 179 interviewed, just one actually wanted to be homeless. That makes sense. I have spent years studying human rights issues; combing through endless photos of refugee camps. One universal feature of the camps are the looks in peoples eyes; the look of someone who would love to be somewhere else and can’t yet see what it would take to get there.
That was the same look I saw in the eyes of many living at the shelter.
The people at the town hall event were the same people I see at all of these meetings, which is both good and troubling. The discussion being had was an important community conversation that should include everyone in town; not just the regular activists and community participants.
Anchorage has a lack of affordable housing. Homelessness and alcoholism are problems as old as statehood. We all need to help find solutions, and if you are interested or would like to know more, you can find information here and here.
Alaska has no shortage of challenges, but I can think of none that are more pressing. It is the one most likely to leave people dead in the streets. And if that doesn’t affect us all, than I don’t know what could.

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