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Survey dispels some myths about Juneau's homeless population

Posted: April 5, 2012 - 12:10am

The recently concluded survey of Juneau’s homeless community provided some startling insight into that population through the use of numbers, and the trials many of its members face on a daily basis.

The first figure that jumped off the page is 74. That’s the percentage of Juneau’s homeless population the study identified as vulnerable — that is, having a high likelihood of premature death.

Twenty is the average number of fewer years of life a homeless person will have compared to someone with a home, according to a release from the Juneau Homeless Coalition. The diseases that lead to so much premature death are numerous, the release states, but include mental health issues, substance abuse, diabetes, heart disease and brain injury. Twenty-three percent visited the emergency room three or more times in a three-month span.

More than half — 55 percent — of Juneau’s homeless are Alaska Native. That figure grows to 60 percent when looking at the 3 out of 4 Juneauites considered part of the vulnerable homeless subgroup. Nearly 90 percent of respondents have a history of substance abuse and 55 percent have a history of mental illness.

Taken together, those first six numbers reveal the extent to which this issue reaches far beyond advocacy and care groups for the homeless. First responders, mental health professionals, health care providers and Native groups — tribes, corporations and alliances — are all directly involved with addressing this community’s concerns. Among those that work with this concern on a daily basis are the Juneau Police Department, Capital City Fire and Rescue, Bartlett Regional Hospital, SEARHC and Rainforest Recovery Center. In short, this isn’t just the Glory Hole’s problem or the Juneau Homeless Coalition’s problem. This touches everyone —including the taxpayers that fund some of the above concerns — and everyone will need to be part of the solution.

Other numbers reveal there are conditions and circumstances outside a person’s control that lead to homelessness. Forty-nine percent of respondents have suffered a head or brain trauma. One serious traumatic brain injury, or a series of lesser ones, can lead to increased risk for memory loss, a diminished ability to reason, communication difficulty and emotional disorders including depression, aggression and social inappropriateness, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. To be sure, not every person who suffers a TBI has all, or even any of those symptoms. But those that do have those problems caused by a history of head injury would have obvious problems in obtaining and holding a job, participating in help programs or possibly even expressing a need for aid. This difficulty functioning would present problems for anyone, but for a person living paycheck-to-paycheck, or without a large network of family and friends, it can be the difference between a roof or rain over a man or woman’s head at night.

Finally, perhaps the most eye-opening number is 32. That’s the percentage of Juneau’s homeless people who are veterans. That’s compared to national veteran population of a bit more than 9 percent. When just looking at Juneau’s vulnerable homeless, that figure jumps to 37 percent. These figures show how society has a long way to go to make good on the implicit promise we make to our servicemen and women — you lay your life on the line for us, and, along with our gratitude, we’ll compensate you for your service while you wear the uniform and after you take it off for the last time. As a military town, Juneau simply must do a better job of ensuring our men and women in uniform don’t go from the deck to destitution.

Solutions to the problems presented and pointed out by the survey will come in time. But the numbers do show this issue is one that affects us all, and is not one we can make disappear by telling our most vulnerable citizens to “get a job” or by blaming them for events that very likely were beyond their control. Part of the answer will be realizing there are things that can be done to alleviate the problem, but blaming people for being homeless isn’t one of them.

• Ward is deputy managing editor of the Juneau Empire. The views he expresses are his alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Empire’s editorial board.

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