My Turn: Housing is a 'who,' not a 'what'

Whether you are safe and snug in your own home or sleeping on the floor of the Glory Hole tonight, you are part of the housing market of this community.


The difference is about a whole lot of things, some of them under your control, some of them not. The important thing is that the need and desire for shelter is universal. I know some will say a person chooses to be homeless because of various factors. In my 18 years working with the homeless, I have yet to meet the individual they describe; at least not when he or she is sober or coherent.

There is so much diversity among the 500 estimated homeless individuals in Juneau. It is a wide spectrum that includes the stereotypical single street person suffering substance abuse or mental illness, as well as the widowed grandmother trying to survive on $650 a month in social security benefits. The first category actually only comprises about 15 percent of the whole. The second category, extremely low-income seniors, is the fastest growing segment of the homeless population and in 10 years it will comprise 40 percent Juneau’s homeless. I should also point out that at least half of those currently homeless are children. That is the saddest part of this work — watching children being born and growing up in a homeless shelter.

Yet, I am more encouraged today than I have been in almost 20 years.

Lisle Hebert and Bruce Denton have independently produced two provocative documentaries that look at Juneau’s homeless street population from completely different, but equally compelling viewpoints. I implore you to view these two important works. Soon, there will be a stage play that will illuminate and entertain, inspire and help create solutions.

There is irrationality in the way we approach this problem and there is cold indifference. It will take both heart and head to effectively end homelessness here.

The fact that Juneau, on a per capita basis, is Alaska’s most homeless city is finally being acknowledged by politicians and citizens alike. We have come to realize that this is our issue, and it will not be resolved by the state or federal government. It will need real contributions from trade unions, architects, engineers, developers, bankers, general contractors and sub-contractors, retailers, volunteers, and, oh yes, the homeless themselves.

• Dan Austin is general manager for St. Vincent de Paul Society of Juneau.


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