August 10, 2009

As homeless tolls rise, so does the need for a solution

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Nine bodies of homeless men have been found outdoors in and around Anchorage since May of this year, with the latest discovered this weekend, reports Kyle Hopkins in one of a series of stories in the Anchorage Daily News. The most recent man had been dead for several days before discovery. Police report no signs of foul play, but don’t yet know his cause of death.

Four of the previous deaths were alcohol-related, but no other links between all the bodies are apparent. Four of the men were Native Alaskans, spurring talk that the deaths were racially-motivated killings, but so far no evidence has been released to back this up. One man was robbed and beaten to death in Centennial Park by two 18-year-olds who stole a duffel bag, $7 and beer. They have been charged with second-degree murder. Police say at least one of the teenagers was living at a camp in the park as well.

The cluster of deaths highlights a growing problem. Following recession and “gentrification” of downtown Anchorage, the number of homeless people in the city increased 35 percent from last year to almost 3000. Only about 13 percent are substance abusers or chronic inebriates. And with shelters overflowing, the question now is, where are these people going to go?

The police say they would like to get homeless people out of camps and into a centralized location, perhaps a tent city, similar to what Seattle did with their “housing first” plan where they set people up with housing without requiring them to halt substance abuse first. This idea comes after the police made camping on public lands illegal and decreased the amount of time homeless people had to gather their belongings before police broke up camps, as InvW reported one month ago.

Others would rather get homeless people cleaned up first before setting them up with housing, as indicated by increasing numbers of involuntary detox centers throughout Anchorage. Some would like to see more educational outreach and programs, especially those targeted at helping children.

It’s interesting we talk about this issue the same way we look at stray domestic animals: How do we deal with this situation, and who is responsible for managing it? Police are tired of watching large parts of their budgets and time go toward repeated dealings with the homeless, and social services and other community programs are tired of the homeless being treated as statistics rather than people (and homeless people probably are as well). Meanwhile, many homeless people don’t receive needed medical treatment and might still be on the street for the upcoming winter.

This problem isn’t new. Portland has been giving homes to the homeless with rent-assistance programs for 10 years, and Vancouver is looking at Portland’s bottom-up model as it prepares to tackle its own homeless issue before next year’s Olympic Games, reports Christine McLaren in The Tyee.

These people are not all products of bad choices and substance abuse – everyone is suffering from hard economic times. Dealing with these issues proactively saves lives and taxpayer money. If nonprofit, state and municipal groups pooled resources, and if money from Obama’s stimulus plan could be used to create programs unique to different places and situations, perhaps we could get people off the streets and back on track.

– Emily Linroth

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