Philip Mangano, appointed by President George W. Bush to address homelessness across the nation, set what many consider an ambitious goal: End chronic homelessness in 10 years.
"We need to change the verb of homelessness," said Mangano, who was in Juneau on Wednesday to attend the inaugural meeting of the Alaska Interagency Council on Homelessness. "For the past 20 years, we have been managing homelessness. Instead of managing the crisis, we should end the national disgrace."
Many providers of homeless services in Juneau are not as optimistic as Mangano that the problem can be eliminated in 10 years.
"I don't think you can end homelessness because there are some people who will always choose to live a marginal life. But I do believe it is possible to reduce homelessness," said Lee Ann See, manager of a homeless clinic, sponsored by SouthEast Alaska Regional Health Consortium, on Front Street. She has worked with homeless people for 40 years. "However, it is not going to happen unless you talk your talk and walk your walk."
Mangano, who considers homelessness a form of social injustice like slavery, said the only way to end homelessness is to have all levels of governments, faith organizations, private and nonprofit sectors work together to address the problem.
Gov. Frank Murkowski appointed the Alaska Interagency Council on Homelessness in April and charged it with developing a statewide plan with short-term and long-term strategies to address the challenge of homelessness.
Although many presenters at the council meeting said substance abuse and domestic violence are the main two reasons for homelessness, a quick visit to Juneau's Glory Hole shelter shows that the issue can be more complex.
There are those like Brody Flint, a 19-year-old man who basically lives out of his backpack and said he doesn't need a job because God will provide for him. There are people such as Michelle Kitchen, a 36-year-old woman who had never been to Alaska and just packed up all of her belongings and came to Juneau after a divorce. There are also homeless people such as James Cole, a Juneau Alliance for Mental Health Inc. client who lost his subsidized housing because of his drinking problem and has trouble renting a new apartment.
A visit to the St. Vincent de Paul shelter will find homeless families with children. The shelter serves 70 to 100 families a year, according to its general manager and director, Dan Austin. Many of the families work in service industries and earn minimum wages.
Beverly James, 30, has stayed at St. Vincent de Paul for a month with her four children. She works full-time for Catholic Community Service, but had to move to the shelter after her husband went to jail.
"I don't like living in a shelter but it is nice that I can put my children in their day care center. The health clinic is nice, too," she said.
Although the interagency council will focus on cooperation among various agencies, it might have to do a better job in communication. Many local leaders were not invited to the meeting. Mayor Bruce Botelho said he was unaware of the conference at the Goldbelt Building. Jetta Whittaker, executive director of the Glory Hole homeless shelter, said she didn't know about the meeting until she heard Mangano being interviewed on the radio. Her agency on South Franklin Street serves 300 to 500 people a year.
Whittaker expressed reservations about being able to end homelessness in Mangano's timeframe.
"When you talk about bringing different agencies together, does it mean that some providers have to give up some of their funding?" asked Whittaker. "If that happens, there will be opposition from the service providers because many of us are already operating on a tight budget."
There are no statewide or citywide data available on the extent of homelessness. The Alaska Housing Finance Corp. estimates 2,000 people live homeless in Alaska. Other agencies say the actual number is 11,000 or higher.
At the Wednesday meeting, one homeless woman challenged the 2,000 estimate.
"You got the number from the service providers. You don't get the number from us, the consumers," she said.
In Juneau, Whittaker estimates there are 300 homeless people at any given time. They stay in shelters, camp in the woods or sleep in their cars.
Austin, of St. Vincent de Paul, said he doesn't think homelessness can be ended, but in some ways, he is more ambitious than Mangano.
"Cooperation among agencies is not enough," Austin said. "To really address homelessness, every common man and woman has to reach out and think of homeless people as our brothers and sisters."
I-Chun Che can be reached at email@example.com.