Juneau developing strategy to face homelessness, addiction, crime

City officials unveil new plan

Rorie Watt, City Manager for the City and Borough of Juneau, speaks to the Juneau Chamber of Commerce at the Hangar Ballroom on Thursday. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

City Hall is striving to face the problems of homelessness, addiction, crime and housing head-on. This week officials unveiled a draft they’re calling a “Community Wellness Strategy.”

 

“We are in a transformative time,” City Manager Rorie Watt said when speaking to the Chamber of Commerce about the new plan, “where as a city, we’re grappling with issues that we didn’t have to grapple with 20 years ago."

The rising homelessness was among the biggest factors spurring the plan's creation, Watt noted. He began drafting it after the contentious approval of the “anti-camping” ordinance in January, which bans the homeless from sleeping in entryways to businesses downtown.

Watt explained the new strategy is meant to get people to look at the major problems the city faces and how they’re connected, and focuses on three areas where the city can take action:

  • Homelessness
  • Public and nonprofit facility planning 
  • Housing projects and public funds

There are five proposed ideas to attack each of these focus areas. With the plan being merely a rough draft, the specific points and solutions might change as more feedback comes in.

Watt said he wants to start a conversation and get feedback from the community. “I would love to get 100 emails from people with really detailed comments,” he said. “I think that would be fantastic.”

He also hopes to get more done than merely get people talking, however. This version of the plan is looking to discern exactly what the city’s role is in solving these problems, and though the city can help with coordinating action, communicating with the public and collecting data, there is one larger part the city plays in this.

“I think the city’s best role is, we’re a granting agency, so we give grants out,” Watt said, “and I think that’s good, because I think the nonprofits can run those services better than the city can.”

In terms of nonprofits and facility planning, the plan discusses adding 20 additional beds to the Housing First, a $7 million project which aims to provide 32 beds to those in need. Construction is set to be finished in June, so Chief Housing Officer Scott Ciambor said that adding more beds would be a longer-term project.

A part of the plan that would provide a more immediate impact, Ciambor said, would be a Rapid Re-Housing program. This would have multiple components to it, including an outreach team that could help homeless either find local housing through agreements with landlords or would provide them funds to relocate to family in surrounding areas. Ciambor said that if the city wanted to allocate funds there, that could get underway in a matter of months.

The plan also mentions the consideration of a new sobering center and a facility that could assist those with opioid addiction. The opioid epidemic in recent years has been a major concern, Watt said, and providing services to that population will be a priority in the plan. Monday’s Assembly meeting will also include a joint session with the Bartlett Hospital Board to discuss a Child Adolescent Mental Health Unit (CAMHU), which is another possible component to the Wellness Strategy.

Most of the suggestions in the current draft of the Wellness Strategy are just that — suggestions — at this point, but with a dialogue now beginning, those in the City and Borough of Juneau offices are looking forward to seeing how the city can take on a new importance in finding solutions.

“I think it’s really positive that this looks at it in total or wholistically and says, ‘What is the city’s role in some of these areas where it’s traditionally not the key player or have the most expertise?’” Ciambor said. “I’m kind of interested in the conversation to see where they direct us.”

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