Mu Turn: Juneau: Alaska's most homeless city

Posted: Friday, November 26, 2010

Most Juneauites are shocked by the fact that our town has the highest percentage of homeless households of any city in Alaska. Yes, more than Anchorage. Yes, more than Fairbanks. About 1.3 percent of Juneau households meet the stringent U.S. Housing and Urban Development definition of "homeless". That is almost 400 households, most with children. And the percentage grows year after year.

A tight housing market and the scarcity of "affordable" housing has been a fact of life in Juneau for most of our history. The Gold Rush, the War, the flush of oil dollars (and the ensuing state government boom) kept housing at a premium and access to decent rental housing limited. Good for landlords, bad for people, especially low and fixed-income families.

Of course, we are not unique. In some ways we are typical of the change that has come to our country in the last 35 years. A generation ago, homelessness was a condition that applied to a tiny fraction of the urban population - usually transient and almost always single males presenting substance abuse and mental illness issues. Every city had its "skid row," an ugly fact of American life, but rarely noticed and not particularly disturbing to the other 99.9 percent of us pursuing the American Dream.

Then things began to change. The minimum wage fell way behind the cost of living. Thirty-five years ago, a low-income family could purchase fairly decent housing and the other necessities of life with the income of just one minimum wage earner. Today, in Juneau, that entire monthly salary would be insufficient to rent adequate housing. In fact, at today's minimum wage, a person would have to work 134 hours per week to rent that apartment and support their family. That is why so many "working poor" families are homeless.

This will be the second year in a row that Social Security beneficiaries (the elderly and the disabled) will not see a modest cost of living increase in their meager incomes. The government rationalizes this with the fact that the Consumer Price Index has been flat for a couple of years. They ignore the fact that the average Social Security monthly stipend is only around a thousand dollars. That is why so many low-income seniors and disabled are homeless.

A similar litany can be recited for homeless veterans and for homeless children in foster care.

The simple truth is that the American Working Class has been replaced with the American Working Poor. Contributions from tax dollars, donations, and private foundation grants combined are unable to patch the holes in the social safety net for the elderly, the disabled and throw-away children and youth. That is why homelessness continues to grow throughout our country and here in Juneau.

The record is clear. Neither the federal government (U.S. Housing and Urban Development) nor state government (Alaska Housing Finance Corporation) will end homelessness. They've been trying for decades. They lack the resources and they lack the local knowledge and commitment it takes to end homelessness in Juneau.

You can end homelessness in Juneau. First, continue as you have done for many years - give to your favorite Juneau Homeless Coalition agency. This holiday season, help us feed the hungry and brighten Christmas morning for poor children. You will also have an opportunity to purchase the "Out of the Rain" calendar. This calendar will bring hope and inspiration to your home or office for all 12 months of 2011. Be sure to see it at from 4:30 p.m. until 6:30 p.m. Dec. 3 at the KTOO studios

Second, think about our community's priorities. Sometimes it seems like Juneau is a "two of everything" community. Maybe we finally have enough parking garages, swimming pools, ski lifts and high schools.

Maybe now we can think about being the first capital city in America to end homelessness.

Over the next several months, the Juneau Homeless Coalition will publish a series of articles describing homelessness in our town and ways to implement viable, permanent solutions.

You will decide what can be done and when Juneau is ready to act.

• Austin is the General Manager of the St. Vincent de Paul Society. He and his wife Annie are 20-year residents of Juneau.

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