Juneau now has the highest rate of homelessness in the state, according to a new report.
Data released April 14 shows that at least 215 people are sleeping on the street and in shelters in Juneau. This represents the number of people volunteers were able to count in a three-hour period on Jan. 24.
The data comes out of an annual report called Point in Time Count. It’s conducted statewide in 12 statistical areas. Though the data is not perfect — weather, reporting constraints and volunteer-dependence make it challenging — it provides a snapshot of what homelessness looks like across the state at a single moment.
This year, the Juneau statistical area ranked highest in the state for per-capita homelessness. For every 1,000 Juneau residents, around 6.6 people are homeless.
That number is high compared to the rest of the state: Anchorage, with a population roughly 10 times larger than Juneau’s, counted 1,128 homeless individuals (3.7 per 1,000). Fairbanks counted 243 homeless (2.5 per 1,000).
This means that Juneau’s homeless population is nearly double Anchorage’s per capita, and three times as many as Kodiak’s, the fourth-largest by this measure. (At the bottom of the list is Sitka, with only one person out of roughly 3,000 experiencing homelessness).
Statewide numbers of homeless individuals have gone up recently after a significant reduction from 2009-2014, according to a 2015 report from the Alaska Council on Homelessness. Point in Time Count data shows a 56 percent decrease in unsheltered homeless persons over that time frame and a 44 percent decrease in persons experiencing chronic homelessness.
But, anomalously, since 2014 the number of homeless in Alaska since has increased despite national numbers trending downward.
Looking at Alaska’s three-year trend, Point in Time data shows an 8.7 percent increase in homelessness compared to a nationwide decrease of 4.6 percent over the same timeframe.
Demographic data from the 2017 Point in Time Count isn’t yet available, but based on the 2016 numbers, there are some general patterns to Juneau’s homeless. According to last year’s numbers, Alaska Natives make up around 65 percent of the demographic; whites, nearly 20 percent.
Last year’s data also indicates that around two-thirds have a physical or mental disability or suffer from addiction to drugs or alcohol. Two-thirds are male.
The average age of an unsheltered person in Juneau is 42.49, according to data collected at Project Homeless Connect, an annual Juneau outreach event.
Bryan Butcher, CEO of Alaska Housing Finance Corporation, said it’s easy to stereotype the homeless population. Even though the data indicates some patterns, those patterns can be misleading.
“One of the challenges we’ve had, in trying to define homelessness for folks … is understanding that it’s very easy to stereotype a homeless person in our state as a chronic inebriate or serious mental health problems,” Butcher said. “Certainly, that’s part of the population, but it’s estimated that up to a third of the population are children or people who have become newly homeless.”
Falling between the cracks
Brian Wilson, the director of the Alaska Coalition on Housing and Homelessness, is familiar with these numbers. The ACHH is a statewide organization which develops strategies to increase the availability of affordable housing and homelessness.
There are two such entities in the state: one for Anchorage and one for the rest of the state. HUD grants require rigorous data collection, so as part of his duties, Wilson helps communities outside of Anchorage conduct the Point in Time Count.
During a March visit to his Juneau office, he pulled up a chart which shows the number of shelter beds available in different statistical areas around the state.
“Red is bad and green is good. We’re up in the lead,” he said, pointing to a bright hue of green around the Juneau area. That color represents 8.28 shelter beds per 1,000 residents in Juneau, which was cataloged in the 2016 Point in Time Count. (The shelter bed numbers from 2017 aren’t yet available.)
This number should be enough to cover Juneau’s more than 215 homeless; it represents the 302 shelter beds that are available in the capital city. The count of shelter beds comes from the 2016 Point in Time Count as the numbers for the 2017 shelter bed count won’t come out until May.
The Glory Hole, Juneau’s soup kitchen and shelter, has 40 emergency shelter beds for adults without children. Juneau Youth Services has 10 emergency shelter beds.
Eighty-four of these available beds are low-income housing from the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation. These are what’s called “permanent supportive housing,” units, which often require months on a wait list and criminal background.
St. Vincent de Paul and Juneau Mental Health Alliance provide 39 more of these beds.
Aiding Women in Abuse and Rape Emergencies has 32 beds for domestic violence survivors.
St. Vincent, JYS and Gastineau Human Services provide the remaining 97 shelter beds in a “transitional housing” model, which allows up to a two-year stay after months on a wait list.
Many of these beds have tough-to-meet requirements or serve only specific populations, which can complicate things for those who fall in the main demographic of Juneau’s homeless — Alaska Native males, and those in their 40s.
For instance, Wilson explained, the state has a domestic violence sheltering system, such as AWARE (Aiding Women in Abuse and Rape Emergencies) in Juneau, but that only houses women and not men.
Without domestic violence shelter beds in the statistical picture, Juneau has about 7.26 beds per 1,000 people — enough, on face value, to account for the city’s 215 unsheltered people. Those beds fall into three categories, roughly based on the length of stay: emergency shelter, transitional housing and permanent supportive housing.
“Emergency shelters are not housing,” Wilson stressed. They are meant simply as a last resort for those who have nowhere else to go, not as a long-term option designed to help homeless get back on their feet.
Many who end up in emergency housing in Juneau are “chronically homeless,” which housing officials define as those who have a disabling condition and have either been continuously homeless for a year or more or have had at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years.
Living this long on the streets can take its toll. Many chronically homeless are not able to keep a job or an apartment due to mental health issues, or other medical issues, that oftimes go untreated that make it challenging to function at that level.
“The level of functioning to be able to navigate the existing (social services) system,” Wilson said of the chronically homeless, is often “not where it needs to be.”
The Glory Hole has 40 beds available to those who can pass a breathalyzer test. It has a zero-tolerance policy for alcohol use, which leaves many without a shelter.
It was operating at 118 percent capacity during the 2016 Point in Time Count. That night, some Glory Hole patrons slept on the ground. (Numbers on that from the 2017 Point in Time have not yet been released).
Obstacles to housing
Transitional housing, a model more or less in between emergency shelters and permanent supportive housing, aims to help residents find a job and housing, as well as develop skills to be a good tenant.
The three local organizations that offer this type of housing for the homeless are Juneau Youth Services, Gastineau Human Services and St. Vincent de Paul Society. Tenants can stay at these places up to two years.
St. Vincent de Paul and Gastineau Human Services, the only organizations offering transitional housing to adults, both can take weeks or months to get into.
The average stay at GHS is four months; program fees are $375 a month. WIth a high rate of failure, GHS Clinical Programs Director Michele Federico said many of her clients end up back out on the street.
GHS tries to prevent that, and tries not to kick anyone out who’s willing to work with them. The result is that those program fees often go unpaid.
“Unfortunately, there is a small group of people who really, really have trouble finding work,” she said. “Somebody gets three months behind in their program fees, they just never get out of it and it is usually either they don’t want to work or have more problems than they anticipated in terms of mental health.”
GHS doesn’t allow drinking on its property, and those who can’t pass a breathalyzer test are asked to come back when they can.
The wait list for consideration for Section 8 housing in Juneau is currently 10-15 months, according to the Juneau office of the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation. This isn’t unique to Juneau: Anchorage has such a backup for Section 8 housing for single males, it closed their wait list until later this year, according to the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation.
After waiting for a Section 8 voucher to open up, applicants must then pass a screening process, which weeds out felons and sexual assault perpetrators. Then they conduct an interview and take a renters class before getting a voucher.
The vouchers are good for up to three months of a “shopping period” when holders can find an apartment.
The lack of one-bedroom apartments in Juneau makes this especially tricky, as landlords are not required to prioritize Section 8 voucher holders. Often lacking housing references, homeless voucher holders need a service provider to advocate for them extensively before landlords will take a tenant off the streets.
Permanent supportive housing, which offers some amount of trained support on site, make up the remaining 123 beds available to homeless in Juneau. None of these programs allow drinking on site.
A better model
“Many of my friends drink quickly to get rid of the evidence,” Mark, a local homeless man, said. “If I got into Housing First, I would slow down. Take a sip from my bottle, put it back in the fridge, watch TV, make a cup of tea, then maybe an hour later, take another sip.”
Research from the University of Washington shows that Mark isn’t unique. In a 2012 study published in the American Journal of Public Health, psychiatry and behavioral health professor Susan Collins and her UW team found that people with severe alcohol problems cut their drinking by 35 percent once given housing.
The study was conducted on a controversial Seattle housing project called 1811 Eastlake, a permanent supportive shelter which allows its residents to drink on premises.
1811 Eastlake and Juneau Housing First are “low-barrier” models will take clients as they are, even if they are drinking. Services are typically all voluntary at such a place, meaning patients don’t have to commit to training or classes, which can often be overwhelming for those coming off the street.
Karluk Manor, in Anchorage, is the first of two such institutions in the state.
“We say that the work doesn’t end, but just begins when we get somebody housing,” said Corrine O’Neill, Supportive Housing Division Director at Karluk Manor.
O’Neill said there was significant pushback from locals in opening up Karluk Manor, but once she could make the economic argument for the project, Anchorage residents came around to the idea.
Working with the University of Alaska’s Institute of Social and Economic Research, RurAL CAP, Karluk Manor’s parent organization, found that the cost for medical, criminal justice, emergency and social services for the most frequent users of emergency services in Anchorage prior to entering housing was more than $60,000. RurAL CAP was able to house members of this population for less than half of that.
The Anchorage supportive housing facility, which will turn five years old this year, is one of two existing housing first facilities in the state, the other being in Tanana, near Fairbanks. O’Neill said she has an 86 percent retention rate at Karluk Manor.
Local service providers are looking forward to a housing first-modeled facility opening up in Juneau. It’s just a start, and that other types of housing are still needed, but Juneau Housing First Inc.’s 32 beds should cover a significant portion of the population.
“Just knowing this summer that there is going to be 32 new units is really going to help the homeless problem that Juneau sees,” Butcher said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Gastineau Human Services has an 18-month wait list for men. The wait list is actually only a few weeks at this time. The Empire regrets the error.