Homeless definition may grow

City wants to add couch-surfers

Posted: Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Juneau advocates hope a recent city resolution expanding the definition of homelessness will lead to increased awareness and potential benefits for hundreds falling between the cracks.

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The Juneau Assembly resolution expresses support for expanding the homelessness definition used by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to include people who are temporarily living with friends or family members, or in motels frequently and moving between locations.

"These are the invisible homeless who are couch-surfing," said Dan Austin, general manager of St. Vincent de Paul. "There are twice as many in this category as there was 15 years ago when we built the shelter."

"This resolution is important in terms of HUD's application process for public housing," said Jetta Whittaker, executive director of The Glory Hole, Juneau's homeless shelter downtown. "If HUD changes the policy it could mean the difference in procuring public housing."

Those staying at The Glory Hole meet the definition of homeless, Whittaker said. The HUD definition of homelessness includes those on the streets or who are staying in shelters.

The St. Vincent de Paul Society shelters homeless families, in addition to providing 25 apartments that serve 75 people, Austin said. Last year 149 children were at the homeless shelter, he said.

"The issue is made worse when companies like Diamonds International house seasonal workers for three months here in affordable housing, which is then left vacant for the remaining nine months when they leave," Austin said. "We are losing the vital affordable housing that we have."

The current definition excludes many families, children, and youths living on their own, said Daniel Ungier, staff member with United Way of Southeast Alaska.

"We need a range of services that recognize a pretty diverse group in Juneau," Ungier said. "Children really can be left out without a stable home and the emotional effects can be damaging."

In its resolution, the city requests that HUD include within its definition of homelessness those who are sharing others' housing due to the loss of their own home, economic hardship or similar reasons, and those who are staying in motels because of lack of adequate alternatives.

The resolution will not change any city policies, Assembly member Jeff Bush said.

"We are focusing our energy on the affordable housing issue," Assembly member Jeff Bush said. "This is where the energy has to be directed so we as a city can be proactive about the homeless problem."

The homeless range from young people staying at friends' homes to single parents living in temporary units. According to the Juneau School District, 169 homeless children were enrolled in the 2004-2005 school year.

The United Way and about 20 other organizations in the Juneau Homeless Coalition spent several months assembling a wish list of related measures for city officials to approve. They want more affordable homes built for homeless people and more jobs paying livable wages.

Some actions the coalition would like the city to implement over the next five years include providing transportation assistance to the homeless; developing a program in which developers would contribute $10,000 to a trust fund for every $1 million spent on conventional housing; making city property available to developers for low-income housing; and donating at least one lot per year, zoned for high-density housing, for low-income housing projects to be built by charitable groups.

Over five years they would like to see 300 units of low-income permanent housing, 50 units of transitional housing for homeless youth and 40 units of supported housing for chronically homeless.

According to the coalition's figures, the average studio apartment rent in Juneau is $648, and to pay that plus other basic living expenses, one needs a job that pays $12.79 an hour. The average two-bedroom apartment goes for $1,053 and a resident would need to make $19.71 per hour. Alaska's minimum wage is $7.15 an hour.

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