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House strips homeless trust proposal from bill

Posted: Sunday, April 13, 2008

The state House has voted not to pursue Gov. Sarah Palin's proposal to set up a 10-year trust that would deal with the homeless problem in Alaska - a problem that state officials say affects some 3,500 Alaskans every day.

Chris Miller / The Associated Press
Chris Miller / The Associated Press

The bill, which passed the Senate unanimously on Tuesday, was stripped in the House Finance Committee Friday morning.

A new version of the bill instead gives the state authority to expand its existing homeless programs. Lawmakers also provided some additional funding for the programs in the mental health trust budget, though less than was proposed in the trust.

In debate on the House floor later that day, Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, tried to resuscitate the original proposal. He said the new version was sprung on lawmakers without warning.

The trust would tackle the problem over the long term, he said. It would provide $10 million a year to set up transitional housing where people could receive job training and counseling.

"It's more of a baking bowl to create a solution than a sieve that you have to keep filling up," Gara said.

But Rep. Mike Hawker, R-Anchorage, said he was not convinced that the state's Alaska Housing Finance Corporation and the Mental Health Trust Authority were ready to move forward with the idea. He said he wanted to see existing programs bolstered and commitments obtained from AHFC, the trust authority, other state agencies and communities to sustain the trust over the long term.

He countered Gara's metaphor with one of his own.

"Before we build new wings on the building, we need to make sure we've shored up the foundation," he said.

Hawker said he was committed to continuing to work on the matter next year.

Rep. Mike Kelly, R-North Pole, said he could not support either concept, adding that he believes too many people cash in on the homeless programs.

"I've seen too much abuse of the programs - 50-inch TVs and a Lexus in the driveway with some folks that are just staying low enough to get in on some of the programs," Kelly said.

Jeff Jessee, chief executive officer of the Mental Health Trust Authority, said while most people generally think of the homeless as the chronic inebriate panhandling on the street corner, "in fact the average age of a homeless person in Alaska is 9 years old. And the fastest growing segment of the homeless are families with children."

Contrary to Hawker's assertion, Jessee said his organization is "definitely ready" to set up and manage the trust.

The Legislature authorized a total of $8 million in spending for homeless programs next year. But $2.5 million of that amount is simply the authority to seek outside funding.



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