At a crowded City Hall meeting one recent Friday, an out-of-state consultant offered a few words of advice for local leaders looking to build permanent supportive housing (PSH) in Anchorage communities.
“You just have to know that you are going to have people that get upset,” said Zoe LeBeau, president of Duluth-based LeBeau Development, LLC. “And then at some point you just have to tell them to go away.”
LeBeau’s in-your-face approach hints at the ongoing tensions between some service providers and the neighborhoods in which they operate.
While Alaska agencies have identified a strong need for increased permanent supportive housing throughout the state, they face two major hurdles: money, and opposition from neighbors working to steer their communities in a different direction.
Gov. Bill Walker’s proposed 2016 capital budget axes the funding that pays for permanent supportive housing statewide. Without that money, dozens of units face closure. And even given sufficient funding, PSH faces another challenge.
Housing First projects, widely touted as effective ways to alleviate chronic homelessness, have yet to gain widespread neighborhood support in Anchorage.
LeBeau, whose firm specializes in developing supportive housing in communities across the country, spoke before the Anchorage Assembly’s Ad Hoc Committee on Alcohol and Drug Abuse on Feb. 13. The committee has spent the last several months gathering information on substance abuse, homelessness and mental health-related issues in Anchorage; meeting with community social service providers, public safety organizations and neighborhood business groups.
At its most recent meeting, the committee also heard from Nancy Burke of the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, which works to fund a statewide, integrated mental health program. Burke said her organization has found a “severe lack” of intensive housing for Alaska’s most vulnerable residents.
“So we really started focusing on Housing First as a strategy,” Burke told the Assembly committee.
Housing First, according to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, is an approach that involves providing long-term, affordable supportive housing for people experiencing chronic homelessness and health problems.
In Anchorage, the model is put into practice at Karluk Manor, operated by the nonprofit Rural Alaska Community Action Program (RurAL CAP) and opened in 2011. The two-story Fairview facility is home to several dozen Alaskans battling chronic alcoholism, and it’s working—in some ways.
Research by the Institute for Circumpolar Health Studies at the University of Alaska Anchorage showed more than 40 percent of Karluk Manor residents reported drinking less alcohol, less often after moving in. Annual per-person costs associated with EMS and police responses, Anchorage Safety Patrol pickups and emergency room care plummeted.
But problems with the neighbors persist.
Christopher Constant, president of the Fairview Community Council (FVCC), said the Council’s feelings haven’t changed since it passed a resolution opposing Karluk Manor about five years ago. The Housing First model works, he said, but in Fairview the approach has been all wrong.
In Constant’s view, the 46-room Karluk Manor facility is too big for the neighborhood. While it helps enable some to drink less, data shows other residents report drinking more, more often. There are already a high concentration of addiction-based programs in the area, and social services ranging from the Brother Francis Shelter and Bean’s Café to the Anchorage Safety Center and a variety of mental health-related programs.
Five years ago, the FVCC resolution protesting the Karluk Manor project cited “well-intentioned but poorly designed approaches that perpetuate a negative image of the Fairview community as a de facto social services ghetto.”
Today, Constant calls it a self-fulfilling prophecy. While a program like Karluk Manor may improve the quality of life for its residents, the current situation seems to do the opposite for the neighborhood at large.
“From a quality of life perspective, there are still people dying on the streets,” Constant said.
He sees a need for a more multifaceted approach to the issue; one involving both housing and treatment. He believes a scattered-site Housing First model might work better within a neighborhood setting. And it should be somewhere outside Fairview.
“Anywhere with a bus stop and a grocery store” could work, he said.
The consultants speaking before the Assembly’s ad hoc committee disagreed on the location. According to LeBeau Development, permanent supportive housing works best when it’s located near the places its residents frequent to begin with. In Anchorage, that would be Downtown. LeBeau said she’s no stranger to neighborhood pushback.
“You would be hard-pressed to find any community around the country that would welcome [supportive housing] with open arms, and quite honestly you just have to get thick skin about it,” she told the roomful of elected officials on Feb. 13.
If a community is persistent in its opposition, she said, program developers shouldn’t shy away from a more forceful approach.
“We will also use fair housing laws if we have to,” LeBeau said. “If we have cities that deny zoning based on ‘housing these crazies’—which is what we hear from the neighbors at neighborhood meetings—the attorney general will come in and tell the city that they cannot discriminate based on disabilities.”
Fairview isn’t the only Anchorage neighborhood with concerns about the municipality’s inaugural Housing First facility. When there was talk of moving Karluk Manor to a property off of Commercial Drive two years ago, the Mountain View Community Council (MVCC) rallied against the idea.
Like Fairview, Mountain View is already home to a number of social service programs, including a 25-bed transitional living facility serving chronic homeless alcoholics. Like Fairview, Mountain View has had its own problems with public inebriation and the stigmas that come with it.
The neighborhood put up a united front against the proposed Karluk Manor move.
Clark Middle School passed a resolution claiming the move would undermine new growth and beautification efforts in Mountain View. The community council asked RurAL CAP to postpone the relocation based on a complete lack of neighborhood input. The process was too hasty, MVCC said. Karluk Manor might help a troubled sliver of the population, but at what cost to the neighborhood?
As Assembly members consider the problem of homelessness and addiction in Anchorage, permanent supportive housing remains a contentious issue.
LeBeau offered one method for dealing with it.
“It really comes down to just making this a priority and being willing to deal with a little bit of the fallout,” she told Assembly members and social service providers Friday.
In Fairview, Constant and others are still hoping for a better way. If Fairview is the default home for addiction-based services in Anchorage, he said, “then that will always be the nature of the neighborhood.”
“This is by design and not by accident,” the community council president said. “The future will be exactly the same if we don’t change anything.”