Emergency situation: How 911 fees fuel housing problems for Anchorage’s mentally ill

The gray multiplexes on North Bunn Street look like most other apartment buildings in Mountain View.

On a warm weekend morning, a handful of residents mill around out front, smoking cigarettes or relaxing on benches while a chocolate lab named Buddy sunbathes in the parking lot. Every half hour or so, a People Mover bus drives by on Parsons Avenue, and kids from neighboring duplexes ride bikes in the street outside.

While the two buildings may look like most other neighborhood apartments, they face an expensive problem their owner says plays a direct role in the lives of some of Anchorage’s most vulnerable residents.

New Concept II and III, which sit adjacent each other on the east Mountain View street corner, are privately owned, 16-bed assisted living homes that provide housing for several dozen Alaskans with mental illnesses. The people who call New Concepts home are referred through the Department of Corrections, Alaska Psychiatric Institute and other state institutions and programs. They face illnesses ranging from schizophrenia to bipolar disorder. Many struggle with substance abuse issues.

Lori Arnold, who’s worked in the homes for more than 20 years and now owns the business, said she’s seen the toll mental illness coupled with addiction can take. New Concept’s residents range in age from young 20-somethings to the elderly, Arnold said, and some of them are what she calls “lifers.” Living in the home year in and year out, she said they become like family. Sometimes it’s the only one they have.

But, she said, a municipal ordinance that levies fines on “excessive” 911 calls has prompted her — and other private homes — to draw a hard line when it comes to accepting and keeping residents.

“We have to pick and choose who we bring into our homes now, because I can’t afford any more $500 fees,” Arnold said.

Under current municipal code section 8.80, residential units are charged $500 per call after the first eight calls. There are a number of exemptions, and the code states property owners can avoid the fees by taking “appropriate corrective action.” So after amassing thousands of dollars in fees, that’s exactly what Arnold did.

She said the steep fees have forced her to evict residents with severe mental illnesses and nowhere else to go.

“Every person we’ve received a 911 charge for are no longer in our home,” said Arnold, who ultimately owed $32,000 in connection to excessive police calls.

Julie Berryman, president of Personalized Assisted Living, said her homes have racked up $45,000 in fees for 911 calls. She, too, has evicted residents after one too many run-ins with police.

“We have a lot of people on the street because people won’t take them,” Berryman said. “We won’t take them back.”

When administrators from both New Concept and Personalized Assisted Living petitioned members of the Assembly’s Public Safety Committee for a revamped fee structure more than two months ago, Anchorage Police Department Chief Mark Mew told Assembly members the excessive use fees impacted a relatively small number of local assisted living homes. Of the hundreds in Anchorage, Mew said only about a dozen received regular fines.

The chief of police said most assisted living homes found ways to work within the ordinance and avoid the $500 fees.

But homes like New Concept and Personalized Assisted Living are not like most other assisted living facilities. Arnold said caring for the mentally ill involves a plethora of rules and regulations and situations that require an immediate police response. Once, it was a suicidal resident wielding a razor blade. Another time, it was a man bent on attacking a staff member with an ice pick. The list goes on and on: Arnold said emergency situations are a fact of life when it comes to caring for those with severe mental illnesses.

And according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, there’s a large need for that care. NAMI data shows nearly 24,000 Alaska adults live with a serious mental illness, and the state’s public mental health system serves less than 40 percent of them.

Arnold said the state pays businesses like hers $70 per day, per client; money intended to cover food, rent, staffing and anything the home’s residents might need. She said some people are happy to have a home and home-cooked meals, others would rather spend time drinking in Louis G. Mizelle Memorial Park. While New Concept forbids alcohol in the home, Arnold said there’s generally nothing stopping its adult residents from drinking off the premises.

Except the problem with alcohol, Arnold said, is that it doesn’t usually mix well with medications for mental illness.

She said that’s where the trouble begins.

“They want to go drink, they want to live in the camps” said Arnold, who sees the number of residents decrease every year when the weather warms up. “They get in trouble, they get hurt, they end up in jail or they end up in API and they end up with us. It’s like a chain reaction.”

When residents drink, have problems with their medication and prompt a call the police, Arnold said the cycle continues.

“They come out of API, they come into our home, they go back out on the street again because they can’t maintain the rules and regulations of our house,” she said.

At Personalized Assisted Living, just down the street from New Concepts, Berryman said her business has been forced to take the same approach. When residents fighting severe mental illness cause too many calls to 911, she said it becomes too expensive to let them stay.

“What we have now, on the streets, are some very aggressive people,” Berryman said.

As community leaders face a citywide housing shortage and Mountain View residents continue to grapple with neighborhood homelessness, housing for those with severe mental illnesses remains an important piece of the puzzle. Those who work to provide that housing say Anchorage’s current fee for excessive 911 calls is an expensive challenge that only exacerbates the issue.

Berryman said she thinks a community forum between assisted living home providers, police, mental health care providers and municipal leaders would shed light on the situation and help work towards a solution. In Arnold’s opinion, a little leeway from local lawmakers when it comes to 911 fees would go a long way towards supporting sustainable housing for Alaska’s mentally ill.

“It’s a revolving door,” Arnold said. “If all of us come together and communicate with each other, we wouldn’t have the problems that we do.”

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