ANCHORAGE — It’s 14 degrees in Anchorage and afternoon winter darkness is falling. You have nowhere to stay.
Where will you spend the night?
There are four basic answers for a single adult, according to professionals who serve the city’s homeless population: a shelter, the sleep-off center, an emergency room or jail.
Otherwise, people sleep in tents and cars, even in frigid temperatures.
Last month, two women died doing just that.
Elaine Cleveland was 34, a mother of four who became homeless after losing her job. Her body was found in a van parked near downtown the morning after Christmas.
Phyllis Ayaprun was 57, a mother and grandmother. She was found two days later inside a tent in a snow-covered stand of trees in the Mountain View neighborhood.
It’s not yet known to what extent the two women who died utilized the sheltering system, or if either tried to seek indoor shelter on the nights they died. The stories of what drew them to the cold places they last slept rest with them.
But the deaths have refocused attention on the complex problems that Anchorage faces in sheltering a growing homeless population whose members often carry the additional burdens of alcoholism and mental illness.
The deaths have officials like Susan Bomalaski, the woman in charge of the city’s biggest shelter, haunted by questions: Is there more that could have been done? By whom? And just where does the community’s responsibility to its homeless people begin and end?
In the background of the recent deaths is a change at the Brother Francis Shelter, which has been at or over capacity on every cold night in recent years.
In October, Brother Francis, which is run by Catholic Social Services, brought back a policy requiring people to work on a plan to get permanent housing or leave the shelter after 30 days.
The “30-in-30-out” policy had been the standard at the city’s main shelter until two years ago.
The limits were relaxed after an epidemic of homeless people’s deaths in 2009 and 2010, when nearly two dozen died outdoors in Anchorage.
As part of a response to the deaths, the city in 2011 raised the temperature of its “cold alert” status from 32 to 45 degrees.
At the same time, Brother Francis canceled its 11 p.m. curfew and relaxed its longtime “30-in-30-out” rule, meant to keep an emergency shelter from functioning as a long-term residence for the homeless, whenever the “cold alert” was in effect.
The thought was that it might save lives, Bomalaski said.
It also introduced a new set of problems: constant overcrowding and people who stayed for nine or 10 months at a time, all winter long, with no real imperative to change their lifestyles, she said. People can stay at Brother Francis if they’ve been drinking but cannot consume alcohol on the premises.
Last winter, without a time limit or curfew, the shelter was so far over capacity that the designated overflow shelter, next door at Bean’s Cafe, maxed out too.
A handful of people were even sent to the city’s sleep-off center at the jail, which is supposed to be solely for the dangerously intoxicated.
By the spring of 2013, the shelter was in chaos. Police were called there 1,305 times in 2012 for assaults, disorderly conduct and theft. Staff and residents alike said they no longer felt safe, Bomalaski said.
So the shelter’s leaders decided, after what Bomalaski describes as a soul-searching series of conversations, to bring back the 30-in-30-out rule starting in October.
The biggest worry was that people not allowed at the shelter would end up on the streets and freeze to death, she said.
So the rule is fuzzy: There’s a “vulnerable” list of people who can always stay because of mental illness or other factors that increase their vulnerability.
There’s even a “free pass” system, in which a Brother Francis employee can allow someone in just past curfew or someone who is supposed to be on 30-days-out if it is cold outside.
Since the rule change, police visits are down. People have been turned away but in modest numbers, Bomalaski said.
Brother Francis needs help, Bomalaski said. In August, the shelter told the city that other plans needed to be in place for people the shelter can’t take.
“We’ve never said that before.”
The other emergency shelter option is the Anchorage Gospel Rescue Mission, on Tudor Road. It has about 30 beds available. A new dorm set to open in January is expected to house an additional 30 to 40 people. To get in you have to be sober enough to pass a Breathalyzer test.
“Our main objective is to try and win people to the Lord,” said Don Bettis, the mission’s executive director.
The shelter is at capacity just about every night from September to April, he said.
For their part, the city officials say plenty of options are available to people who need shelter.
“The Municipality and social service agencies offer a myriad of homeless services which act as a safety net to individuals and families who experience homelessness within Anchorage,” the city’s Department of Health and Human Services wrote in a statement distributed to news media on Monday.
The women who died outside didn’t take advantage of the safety net, said Britteny Matero, who works on homeless issues for the city.
“They had shelter options and they chose not to use those shelter options,” she said.
People can’t be forced into shelter, said Janet Vietmeier, the head of Health and Human Services for the city.
“Individuals have choices on where they want to be and what they want to do with their lives,” she said.
The Anchorage Safety Patrol and Anchorage Safety Center are the city’s biggest contribution to the sheltering system.
The Safety Center, operating under “Title 47” law, involuntarily holds people so drunk that they are dangerous to themselves or others for 12 hours, until they sober up.
The facility, a big, open room at the Anchorage Jail, is used mainly by chronic street alcoholics, who represent a fraction of the city’s homeless population: The same 200 people make up most of the center’s visitors.
There’s only so much the city is set up to do, Matero said: The Safety Patrol, which scoops intoxicated people off the streets in vans and takes them to what’s informally known as the “sleep-off center,” can only help someone if they can be seen.
“If we can’t see them, we can’t help them,” she said.
Matero and Bomalaski agree that what’s missing from Anchorage’s sheltering system is accessible substance abuse treatment.
A handful of detox programs have long waiting lists. Sometimes local emergency rooms end up functioning as de facto detox centers.
“There’s definitely a need for treatment and access to treatment,” Matero said. “But really, that is a state function. They handle all of the funding for substance abuse treatment in Alaska.”
The question remains, said Bomalaski: If night is falling, where do you go?
The other warm place to spend the night is somewhere even the desperate try to avoid: jail.