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Anchorage

Dunleavy budget vetoes will mean a sharp increase in people living in camps and cars, service providers say

Robert Lindell stands outside his home at Sitka Place on Thursday, July 18, 2019. "I was on the streets for 12 years, and it was a really bad time," said Lindell, who says he used to get drunk every night and spent many nights at the sleep-off center in the Anchorage Jail. He is hoping to land a job soon, and is worried about being able to keep it if he loses his housing. "I'd try hard, but it would be a lot more difficult," he said. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s vetoes to homeless services funding will increase the number of people in Anchorage living outside from between 100 and 300 to between 800 and 1,000 over the next 12 months, service providers said this week. The cuts will also dramatically reshape what homelessness in the city looks like, they said, with more children, pregnant women, elderly, sick, disabled and seriously mentally ill people on the street.

“The number of people that are unsheltered is going to grow fast over the next few months,” said Dick Mandsager, an Anchorage physician and former hospital administrator who has been working with the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness. “It’s going to be in people’s face, there are going to be more camps, people sleeping outside and in cars.”

Mayor Ethan Berkowitz said the city is scrambling to find any building that might meet the requirements for an emergency shelter. The cuts are so significant and sudden, they largely dismantle the city’s system for caring for its homeless population, he said.

“There’s a brutality to these cuts. ... It is absolutely massive, what it does. (The Dunleavy administration) are pushing the domino here,” he said. “They did it without talking to anybody or analyzing what the consequences would be.”

Homeless service providers met in recent days to come up with a response, but there isn’t enough time to prevent people from losing shelter, they said. Organizations are already laying off staff and are having tough conversations about which clients they will need to turn away, said Jasmine Boyle, executive director of the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness, which represents service providers.

“It is literally a five-alarm fire,” she said. “When we say the phrase ‘public health emergency,’ I cannot think of a better phrase for what we’re entering into in the next few weeks."

Aside from immediately putting hundreds of people on the street, the secondary problems caused by the cuts have not been calculated. Police, hospitals and jails will likely bear the weight, which is expensive to the public, said Mandsager, who is the former head of Providence Alaska Medical Center and the Alaska Native Medical Center. The city has worked for years to shrink those costs, and was making progress, he said. The lack of beds at the Alaska Psychiatric Institute is an additional stressor. Homeless advocates have been meeting with business and tourism organizations this week to prepare them for what’s ahead, Boyle said.

Many Dunleavy supporters have applauded the budget vetoes, arguing they are needed to downsize government and bring spending in line with revenue while preserving Permanent Fund payments to Alaskans. Others, including a number of Alaska business groups, argued the cuts were too severe and urged lawmakers to override the vetoes. A majority in the Legislature voted to do so last week, but fell short of three-fourths needed. The Legislature continues to meet in special session in Juneau.

Asked about the cuts to homelessness programs Monday, Dunleavy said that raising money to fill the gap should be done by the city. He also suggested private donors could step in. Charitable giving experts later countered that it wouldn’t be possible to raise enough to cover the shortfall, especially so quickly. Provided with some of the specific, immediate impacts of the cuts Friday, Matt Shuckerow, the governor’s spokesman, said that governor addressed the issue at a press conference Monday and offered no more specific response.

When Dunleavy vetoed $444 million from the state operating budget at the end of June, the cuts reduced total state support for homeless programs in state by 85%, from $14.1 million to $2.6 million. With state funding, organizations have been able to leverage other funding, so losing state support now means losing other support as well, Boyle said. The funding has been steady for at least a decade. Organizations were blindsided, she said.

The four line items that were vetoed are the Homeless Assistance Program, which was reduced from $8.2 million to $950,000; the Special Needs Housing Grant, which was reduced from $3.7 million to $1.7 million; the Human Services Community Matching Grant, which had been $1.4 million but was zeroed out; and the Community Initiative Matching Grant Program, which had been $861,700 but was zeroed. Anchorage organizations lost roughly $5.3 million.

Sitka Place, photographed on Thursday, July 18, 2019, provides permanent supportive housing for homeless individuals with serious mental illness. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

The organizations that receive funding from those grants include Catholic Social Services, Bean’s Cafe, RurAL CAP, Covenant House, Lutheran Social Services, Alzheimer’s Resource of Alaska, Abused Women’s Aid in Crisis, Partners for Progress, Shiloh Community Housing, and Anchorage Community Mental Health, among others, Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness said.

How the city’s visible homeless population will change

Most of the city’s homeless population has been housed in various types of shelter until now. The number of homeless overall has been relatively steady for the last five years, according to federal statistics, even as other cities on the West Coast have seen an increase. The percentage of people who are not in shelters has been relatively steady, according to annual homeless counts. People living outside have been mainly single, more than half of them men, ages 25 to 64, most suffering from mental illness and addiction, according to demographic numbers.

More often than not, there has been room for those people in shelters, but they lived outside for their own reasons, homeless experts say. The city has been hyper-focused on getting that population out of camps in the city’s parks and greenbelts, and has had some success, though that effort has pushed homeless people out into public view. Over the last year, public outcry over camps and visible homelessness has grown.

But now, what the city calls “camp abatement” will end because there is nowhere for people in the camps to go, the mayor said. The immediate loss of subsidies and other supports for apartments, transitional housing units and shelter beds means single mothers, pregnant women, children, severely mentally ill people, disabled people, people with serious illnesses and people over 65 will be without shelter. Aside from limited space in churches and some beds in shelters that were not impacted by the vetoes, there is nowhere for them, Boyle said.

“Life in our community is going to look radically different,” Boyle said. “There will be very fragile young and old people who will need our compassion and our kindness.”

Organizations are still quantifying losses, but some include:

• By August, women and children, about 80 in total, will have to leave Clare House during the day. Women living at the shelter have had child care, which allows them to work, but that option will no longer exist.

• The number of people housed at Brother Francis Shelter will drop by 60%, from 240 to 100.

• More than 550 year-round slots for housing those who have been recently homeless will be eliminated in Anchorage. This includes Safe Harbor, a 50-unit transitional housing facility for homeless families operated by RurAL CAP, which will not have the staff necessary to continue to operate. There are currently 88 children living in the facility. Without a safe place to live, children risk being separated from their families and placed in state care, according to CEO Patrick Anderson. It also includes Sitka Place — a 55-unit housing facility for people who were formerly homeless who have serious mental health and physical disabilities — which will not have the staff necessary to operate.

• Housing for 150 people who have recently been released from jail or prison will cease, according to Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness.

• Mail service at Bean’s Cafe will end. It serves as the mailing address for 1,200 people.

• Case management services for the homeless will shrink across the board. Case managers help homeless people find and stay in housing. Catholic services alone estimated that between 120 and 300 people who are presently in housing would not be able to continue because of the loss of case managers.

Carrie Kelekolio, with five of her six children, in a studio apartment she rents with her husband at Safe Harbor, a transitional housing facility in Muldoon that will cease operations if Governor Mike Dunleavy's budget vetoes stand. From left is KJ Tuu, 9, Canaan Tuu, 4, Tina Tuu, 3, Kelekolio, Izzabelle Tuu, 1, and sleeping behind is Dallas Tuu, 1 week old. (Loren Holmes / ADN)
Tai Afe, an operation technician at Sitka Place, serves soup provided by the Downtown Soup Kitchen to resident Trish Sabon on Thursday, July 18, 2019. Sitka Place, which is operated by RurAL Cap, provides permanent supportive housing for homeless individuals with serious mental illness. ’I like it here, ’ said Sabon. ’It's safe here. ’ She is worried about where she would go if Sitka Place were to close. ’The shelter is turning away people, ’ she said. ’Now we don't have that option either. ’ Sabon pays $50 a month for her apartment. (Loren Holmes / ADN)
Galen G. Huntsman and Arianne Swihart with their three children, Azriel Huntsman, 4, Galen T. Huntsman, 3, and Aurora Huntsman, 2 months, in a studio apartment they rent at Safe Harbor in Muldoon on Thursday, July 18, 2019. The family signed a lease in late April and pay $550 per month. ’Now we can start rebuilding our family, ’ said Galen, who was granted custody of his older children in early July. Previously the family was living with Arianne's grandmother in a room smaller than their studio. The family has been following the state budget issues and is concerned for the future of their housing situation, which is supported with state money that was vetoed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy. ’I feel like I'm having the carpet pulled out from underneath me, ’ said Galen. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

Will the cuts stand?

There are many unknowns about the statewide impacts, Boyle said, but there are more than 17,000 low-income families in Alaska at risk of homelessness who rely on food pantries, early childhood education and Medicaid, all of which have been cut. There are also unknowns for low-income seniors who have lost senior benefits, she said.

State Rep. Lance Pruitt, a Republican from East Anchorage, is the leader of the House minority, which has been generally aligned with Dunleavy’s priorities. A majority in the Legislature, lacking votes from the minority caucus, failed to override Dunleavy’s vetoes last week. He said that he and his colleagues in the minority are aware of the issues with homeless services.

“There is a recognition of these challenges and there is absolute concern for these people and what they’re going through,” he said.

Pruitt said the local community needs to have a conversation about how to fund homelessness programs.

“Is the state still at the place that it can support, not just the homeless, but multiple things?” he said. “If the state doesn’t have the revenue to be able to fund it but we value these items, should we be talking about it?”

Pruitt has worked on homelessness with his church, he said. Though some people may take advantage of the system, he said, the issues people on the street face are complicated and social services help. The problem with the veto override vote was that it was all or nothing, he said. As the legislators continue to negotiate, he’s hoping they may be able to find a compromise.

“In some cases we’ll probably find that some of these things might be restored,” he said. “I’m not making any guarantees.”

There has been little communication from the governor’s office since the news of the cuts, providers said. Leaders at organizations are trying to understand the logic behind them, they said. Mandsager said there is a misconception among some in the budget debate that homeless programs might enable people to continue living on the streets. Some have also suggested withdrawing government support might encourage people to change their lives and behaviors. He’s found no research to support that idea, he said.

“The consensus from study after study is that people, if housed stably, the majority work on their issues and they become more integrated in society,” he said. “Without having a home, the chances that tough love will shock people into change, it doesn’t exist, so far as I can find in the literature."

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