Homelessness and substance abuse panel held at bookstore

It’s a dark, cold winter night in Anchorage, but luckily you’re lounging on a sofa with a knitted blanket draped around your body. A few blocks away, one of Anchorage’s homeless is attempting to stay warm with newspapers and recycled cardboard.

On a single night in January 2009, Alaska’s homeless reached 4,583 persons, according to a study conducted by the UAA Justice Center.

The University Bookstore and the Human Services Department hosted a panel titled “Housing First or Sober First: Services for Homeless Alcoholics” on Oct. 28. The upper deck of the University’s bookstore was packed with over 60 people gathered to listen to four speakers.

The panelists consisted of the director of a statewide community action program, an attorney who specializes in public interest law, the coordinator of a statewide finance corporation and the senior pastor of a local church. All of the panelists agreed that housing first was the best route to take when addressing the difficult social issue of homelessness and substance abuse.

Financially comfortable citizens tend to buffer themselves from the reality of poverty and the ultimate toll it takes on individuals, families and particularly children. Often we need to distance ourselves from the suffering of other people without a safe place to sleep who may remind us of just how vulnerable we all are or could be to poverty, stated the director of Homeward Bound, Melinda Freeman.

“People don’t tend to see addiction as an illness, but rather as a voluntary kind of recreational alcohol or drug use gone awry,” Freeman said. “There is a punitive and moralistic societal value applied to people who are homeless and in desperate need.”

Substance abuse is a major contributing factor to chronic homelessness, as 37 percent of persons without a home suffer from substance abuse issues, according the Justice Center.

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Homeward Bound is in its eleventh year of rebuilding lives with their alcohol management program for chronically homeless individuals. The program is a 25-bed transitional living facility located in Mountain View.

“It is simple wisdom to provide people with housing first, so that they can begin to rebuild their lives,” Freeman said. “We can remind them they are worth a safe and secure home.”

A handful of New Life Development program participants were present at the panel.

Wearing a yellow shirt with the words “Your history is not your destiny,” Earl Bell comfortably sipped a cup of coffee and politely introduced himself to those around him. Bell had been on and off the street of Anchorage before joining New Life, an Anchorage-based nonprofit organization, in December of 2009.

“They gave me the hope and inspiration to keep going,” Bell said. “They’ve been telling me ‘keep going, because there is a place somewhere for you to belong.’ I had to take that approach if I was to survive.”

A lack of low income housing for special populations keeps the homeless camps and shelters of Anchorage full, the judicial system overwhelmed and the jails overcrowded.

Panelist Jim Davis, co-founder of the Northern Justice Project, began his career as a corporate lawyer with a nice office overlooking San Francisco Bay. He spent a year representing corporate interests. The short amount of time spent doing so made him want to “jump out of a window.” He quit and has been pursuing public interest work since.

Speaking adamantly about defending the homeless from unfair practices by the state and corporations, Davis highlighted the merits of Housing First, a program started by the non-profit organization Beyond Shelter.

“It saves money and it saves lives. That’s the empirical evidence,” Davis said. “It’s not a wish list, it’s not hopeful thinking. Study after study shows that (Housing First) works. Thus, the opposition to it is always irrational… (The opposition) is either based on NIBY-ism (Not In My Back Yard) or with how certain ordinances are crafted.”

The issue can be looked at from a financial viewpoint as well, as brought up by state homeless coordinator of Alaska Housing Finance Corporation Kris Duncan.

“When I contemplate ‘sober first,’ I think that actually means treatment first. Do you know what treatment costs, and have you thought about what these people you want out of sight can actually pay?” Duncan asked. “There’s a differential there.”

Affordable and accessible treatment methods are not available. If the public wants the balance of treatment first in order to deserve housing then they’ve got to be willing to pay for it, stated Duncan.

In 2004, Anchorage joined cities around the nation in taking a major step toward addressing the issues and impacts of homelessness by developing a 10-year plan. Among the plan’s top priorities is increasing affordable and permanent transitional housing.

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