As a kid growing up in Anchorage, one of the first sights from the train as it headed north out of town along Ship Creek was a large homeless camp at the base of the bluff near the old Alaska Native Medical Center. Today ANMC is located on Tudor Road near Campbell Creek and that homeless camp location is an RV park – still transient housing, just more expensive.
Then as now, homeless camps tended to cluster near needed services and, since Native Alaskans represent a significant segment of Anchorage’s homeless population, it should not surprise anyone that camps are migrating to areas closer to the new ANMC. Homelessness, and particularly the chronic inebriates that are the most visible components of this tragedy, is a subject that cries out for our attention and compassion. While it may be tempting to dismiss the homeless as “street drunks” or some other pejorative term we need to remember they are people whose misfortunes, given slightly different circumstances, could just as easily be our own. I am told that, due to the many homeless families in Anchorage, the average age of a homeless person is nine years old. Thus was my mindset when I read a commentary by Karl Hulse and a response by Mike Abbott, Anchorage’s City Manager, in the local paper.
My reaction was two-fold. First, while I’m saddened that Mr. Hulse and his family are negatively affected by their homeless neighbors, it’s about time that the entire community understands that this an issue we all need to address, not just those of us who live in northwest Anchorage. And second, with all due respect, Mr. Hulse doesn’t understand the depth of this issue – more policing won’t solve the problem, only housing and substance abuse treatment can make a real difference. Mr. Abbott addresses part, but not all, of the solution.
To understand why a more robust police presence wouldn’t address the root cause of Mr. Hulse’s complaint one needs to understand how the problem arrived in his neighborhood. He cites the Anchorage Rescue Mission, Campbell Creek salmon and the greenbelt as contributing factors, but that’s only part of the story. Historically the homeless have clustered in the Downtown and Fairview neighborhoods because they had access to Bean’s Cafe for food, the Brother Francis Shelter for shelter, the aforementioned ANMC for medical care and, for those with substance abuse problems, numerous locations to procure alcohol. But things have changed.
In addition to the new location for ANMC, it’s a lot harder to find cheap liquor in northwest Anchorage. Most of the package stores have closed and those that remain downtown are strictly regulated. The local grocery store now keeps mouthwash, which has high alcohol content, locked behind a counter. And, as Mr. Abbott notes, police patrols downtown have successfully encouraged the homeless to spend their time elsewhere. So if you’re homeless and addicted to alcohol the reasonable decision is to move to an area where liquor and grocery stores haven’t learned these lessons, and to spend your time where it’s harder for police to find you. Indeed, a recent liquor license application for a package store on West Dimond Boulevard induced some neighbors to register complaints about public inebriates along a nearby stretch of the Campbell Creek trail. In short, Mr. Hulse’s solution - more cops - treats a symptom but not the underlying causes of homelessness.
So what is the solution? Again, the two most important aspects are additional low-income housing units and vastly increased access to substance abuse treatment. It’s worth noting that in 2002 then-Rep. Lisa Murkowski successfully championed legislation increasing alcohol taxes with the ostensible purpose of providing revenue to augment alcohol treatment programs in Alaska. But those were the days of fiscal deficits and, since Alaska’s constitution includes a prohibition on dedicated funds, legislative budget writers instead used the increased alcohol tax revenues to fund other government services. Worse yet, Governor Frank Murkowski later cut substance abuse treatment funding during his administration. But what do we do about this?
Here’s my plan. First, I’m going to continue donating my time and money to the United Way of Anchorage, which partners with a variety of non-profit and governmental agencies to help those in need. Second, since I have the privilege of serving as the co-chair of the Assembly’s legislative committee, this fall I intend to develop a legislative program that goes beyond capital requests and addresses some policy issues, especially funding for low-income housing and substance abuse treatment. Then I’ll head to Juneau to make the case for that funding and that’s where you, Mr. Hulse and all our neighbors come in – without broad public support for treating the root causes of homelessness future columns in the local paper will reflect the continued migration of homeless Alaskans to neighborhoods throughout Anchorage.
Copyright - Patrick Flynn, All Rights Reserved