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Outdoor deaths refocus attention on homeless

Posted: January 1, 2014 - 1:00am

ANCHORAGE — The recent deaths of two women in makeshift shelters have refocused attention on the problems Anchorage faces in sheltering a growing homeless population in winter.

Phyllis Ayaprun was found dead Saturday inside a tent in a wooded part of town. Two days earlier, Elaine Cleveland was found dead in a van parked near downtown.

It’s not clear to what extent the women utilized the city’s sheltering system or if either tried to seek indoor shelter before they died. But their deaths have been noted by people who work with the homeless.

The Brother Francis shelter brought back an old rule in October that requires people to work on a plan to get permanent housing or leave the shelter after 30 days, the Anchorage Daily News reported. The “30-in 30-out” policy had been standard at the shelter until two years ago, when the limits were relaxed after an epidemic of homeless people’s deaths in 2009 and 2010.

Susan Bomalaski with Catholic Social Services, the shelter operator, said people have been turned away since the rule change, but in modest numbers. She won’t say whether Ayaprun or Cleveland were among those turned away, citing a privacy policy of the shelter.

When the rules were relaxed, Brother Francis also canceled its 11 p.m. curfew as well as relaxing the “30-in-30-out” policy. That brought constant overcrowding and people who stayed all winter long, with no real imperative to change their lifestyles, according to Bomalaski. People can stay at the shelter if they have been drinking, but alcohol is prohibited on the premises.

Without a curfew or time limit, Brother Francis was so far over capacity last winter that the designated overflow shelter, Bean’s Cafe next door, also went over capacity.

The Brother Francis shelter was in chaos by last spring. Police were called there more than 1,300 times in 2012 for theft, assaults and disorderly conduct. People no longer felt safe there, according to Bomalaski. She said shelter leaders decided to bring back the 30-in 30-out rule after a soul-searching series of conversations.

Police visits are down since the rule change. The shelter needs help, however, and in August told the city that other plans need to be in place to shelter people Brother Francis can’t take.

“We’ve never said that before,” Bomalaski said.

Another local emergency shelter is the Anchorage Gospel Rescue Mission, which is at capacity every night from September to April, according to executive director Don Bettis. A new dorm with more space is set to open in January, providing housing for an additional 40 people.

People who stay there must have their blood alcohol level tested.

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