Local homeless population doesn't fit the stereotypes

Posted: Sunday, December 02, 2001

Most people wouldn't know a homeless person if they walked past him, says a Juneau advocate for the homeless.

People do walk past the homeless, and over their dwellings in drain pipes, under bridges and under local institutions such as the downtown library. But people who have not been homeless may not understand who the homeless are and how they got there.

"Someone wandering around Juneau is not going to see any homeless," said Joan Decker, director of the Glory Hole, the South Franklin Street shelter and dining hall.

"They don't wander around muttering to themselves; they don't have market baskets with all their belongings in it. Juneau's homeless population doesn't match the national stereotypes," she said.

The homeless may not be visible, but the homeless in Juneau are acutely aware of how people see them.

A man staying at the Glory Hole who would not give his name said when he had a home he held a very different opinion of the homeless.

"Everybody thinks, 'drunk, bum.' When they see a homeless person, there's a lot of negative stereotypes to choose from. And sometimes that's true," he said. "But being in here you let some of that fall by the wayside and realize they are mostly good people."

The look of homelessness

Bruce Owens, 47, is a squatter in Juneau. He lives in a contraption of four tents fastened together and heated with a homemade alcohol-fueled torch, which keeps him warm for four hours at a time.

When he spoke with the Empire recently, he had a full beard and he wore a flannel shirt tucked into some camouflage pants. But his teeth and clothes aren't what they used to be, he said.

Owens said he doesn't drink or take drugs and he does want to work. But living the rough-and-tumble squatter life has affected his ability to get a job.

"I can't take a shower, I can't wash my clothes as much as I need to," Owens said. "You walk into an employer's office looking like this and he'll be polite, but he won't hire you. You'll barely get through the interview."

 

The homeless ethic

Though many of the homeless have been disenfranchised by society and family, they have managed to create their own culture with a strict set of ethics, Decker said.

In April, Donald Seaman, 46, a homeless man, was accused of repeatedly raping and beating a homeless woman in an abandoned house on Gastineau Avenue.

This was so abhorrent to the rest of the homeless community that they banded together to seek justice for the woman who allegedly was attacked and to give her comfort, Decker said.

"As soon as they caught wind of what happened and who did it they found him and turned him in to the police," she said. "It was like they split into two groups: One went to find the guy and the other collected money for a card for the woman and went to visit her in the hospital."

They ostracized anyone in the homeless community who didn't sympathize with the woman and told prosecutors what they knew about the alleged assailant, Decker said. Seaman is scheduled for a change of plea hearing Monday in Juneau Superior Court.

"If someone does something that bad, they will turn them in," she said. "If they don't, it rips at the fabric of their community and their ethics."

Mental illness and the homeless

Steve Albright, 30, lives at the Glory Hole. He says he's lived in New York, been in the military and seen the world. He moved to Juneau to make a fresh start but found nowhere to call home when he arrived.

Albright said he is a manic depressive who finds it difficult to maintain a job. The medication he is on makes him tired, so he goes off the medication. Then it's his attitude that, at times, keeps him from working.

"Some people see me as a little off, a little hyper, weird," Albright said. "I can't help it. I lack a chemical you have. ... People look at me as this big, strong man that can handle everything, but I can't. When a boss yells at me or treats me like I have a tail, I react."

Nate, a homeless youth who wouldn't give his last name, also is mentally impaired, Decker said. Like the older men at the shelter, he said, he looks for work, but has yet to find any.

Nate said he can't go home, can't live on his own and doesn't have the money to get someplace where he can be taken care of.

There isn't much available for those who are mentally ill and also poor, Decker said. Services of the Juneau Alliance for Mental Health Inc., a nonprofit organization, cost money, even on a sliding scale, Decker said.

Brenda Knapp, executive director of JAMHI, said case workers will assess those who don't have insurance to see if they qualify for Medicare or other subsidized insurance. If they are not eligible, JAMHI will arrange payment based on the client's income, Knapp said.

"It's our philosophy that a patient will be more committed to treatment if they pay something, even if it is a small amount," Knapp said.

Knapp said there are many resources available to the mentally ill including low-income housing. Rents range from $450 to $700 per month, depending on the number of bedrooms, but rent may be as low as $150 to $200 a month if a person qualifies for a federal housing subsidy, she said.

Knapp said there generally isn't a waiting list to get into low-income housing. Currently there is one vacancy and two people waiting for apartments, she said. Often those who can't get into low-income housing are those that were difficult tenants in the past, she said.

Hard to count the homeless

It's hard to say how many homeless people there are in Juneau. It varies by the season, and people pass in and out of being homeless as they get jobs or are taken in by friends or family.

The Glory Hole said it housed 100 women and 250 men last year.

A 1998 a Juneau Youth Streets Survey by a consulting firm found there were an estimated 200 homeless youths between ages 12 and 19.

Dan Austin, executive director for the St. Vincent de Paul Society, said its shelter houses 20-30 homeless families a month.

Homeless people sometimes live under the downtown library, in places such as drainage ditches, and in their vehicles in parking lots, but the numbers are unknown, said Glory Hole Executive Director Joan Decker.

To volunteer at the St. Vincent de Paul Society, call (907) 789-5535 ext. 14. To volunteer at the Glory Hole dining hall and shelter call (907) 586-4159.

Alcoholism and the homeless

Neither the Glory Hole nor the St. Vincent de Paul Society, a nonprofit organization that runs a temporary-stay shelter for families, allows alcohol or other drugs on its site.

But having a place to stay isn't always a strong enough incentive not to drink. Decker said the Glory Hole recently "lost" one of "our guys" to drinking. He had been sober for almost three months and was working, she said.

"One night he was walking down the street and smelled some liquor on someone's breath," she said. "And that was all it took. He went right into a bar. His addiction is such, he couldn't have just one."

She said he barely woke up for work the next day. And the next day he skipped it altogether. The following Monday he turned in his keys to his room at the Glory Hole, she said. At one point he holed up in a hotel with a bottle, she said. The last she heard he was trying to get treatment in Seattle.

"It's just so frustrating to lose one," she said. "It's depressing. We lost this really good guy. I called hotels; I sent people to find him, to get him to come back. I talked to the board members (of the Glory Hole). It's times like those I just run around in a frenzy trying to get to them - all I can do is do what I can do."

She said people who are trying to get their lives together pose the biggest challenge because long-term services to treat substance abuse in Juneau are limited.

Juneau Recovery Hospital offers up to six months of inpatient treatment, she said. Decker said most of the addicts know they need longer programs, but they aren't available in Juneau.

"It gets to be stressful and you feel the loss," she said. "But you just tell them to hang on and do the best you can and get them together with as many resources as are available."

There is another group of homeless addicts who don't live at the shelter and who are lifers in a sense when it comes to addiction. Decker said.

"They are the ones who are determined to drink. They defy the world and say, 'This is how I'm going to live,' and are just as defiant as you please," she said. "They come here to eat and for the most part don't cause trouble and then they go stand on their bus stop scuffling over pennies and who bought the last bottle.

"What's going to happen to them is they are going to die out there," Decker said. "They won't get into treatment programs. They know they are cutting their life-spans short. And my fear, my greatest fear, is that I will walk up on them frozen to death on the sidewalk one day."

Homeless and unemployment

Another Glory Hole resident who declined to give his age or name said he is educated, wants to work and is disabled from an on-the-job injury. His savings were exhausted by medical bills.

"I'm not used to asking for help. I'm a very skilled tradesman and I want to work. I expect to be back to work very soon," he said. "I'm only here because I absolutely need to be."

The man said he tries not to dwell on what other people think of him because it "hinders my comeback."

Owens' friend Jason Layton, 30, who also was a squatter at one time, lives in a travel trailer near the city-owned Thane campground. Layton said most homeless people, especially those who come here looking for work, are hindered by low wages and high rents.

"You know they come here to seek their fortune and find something of their own," he said. "They don't envision the reality of how they end up.

"Nobody wants to pay $800 a month for an efficiency," Layton said. "You end up working all the time just to pay the rent. You don't have anything left for anything else and nothing to look forward to."

Dan Austin, executive director for the St. Vincent de Paul Society, said business owners need to revisit wages to see if the people at the lower end of the pay scale reasonably can support a family on what they are making.

Further, he said business owners need to look at the type of medical coverage they are offering employees. Though federal and state insurance programs may pay for those under 18 and over 65, it is generally the single males in the middle that bear the brunt of no medical coverage, Austin said.

A day in the life

Albright wakes up each day to mandatory chores and breakfast at the Glory Hole. He waits for day-labor offers to come in, walks around looking for work and waits to hear if his low-income housing is ready.

"Their schedules are busier than mine," said Greg Pease, founder of a local homeless coalition. "Most have no transportation. So they have to walk or gather the $1.25 for a bus ride. After that they have to go here for their welfare check, then they have to cross town and go there for their meds, go back across town for supplies. It gets to be a long day."

Albright tries to make the hours a little shorter by reading. He's an avid reader and Albright finds the library quiet and comforting. So comforting he's been known to nap there, he said, which eats up another few hours.

But the main thing the homeless do is walk. Decker said they wear circles around town just to keep moving. Then they eat, go to sleep, wake up and do it all over again.

The realities of homelessness

"It's very lonely and boring," Layton said of his friend Owens' life. "You know most of his day is spent going all over town getting supplies and when he gets back then the boredom sets in. Basically he reads and goes for walks and visits me every now and again."

 

Being homeless is a lonely life, Albright said. It's hard to meet and make friends outside of other homeless when a 9-by-11 room is home, hopes for the future are scarce and life is precarious, Albright said. But someday he said he'd like to find some peace.

"It's hard to meet a nice woman and bring her home to a shelter," he said. "You know I'd like to go to church and meet somebody that will be positive in my life. ... But nobody wants to be involved with someone who's homeless. You can't take them no place.

"I just would like to live peacefully and calmly and have a nice life."

Who's responsible for the homeless

Nonprofit agencies such as Gastineau Human Services, the Glory Hole, the St. Vincent de Paul Society and JAMHI are funded mostly by private donations and small state and federal grants. Each is eligible to apply for grants from the city. Each institution requires several hundred thousand dollars to scrape by each year.

Decker of the Glory Hole said funds this year from the United Way, which pay for many services, were half of last year's total primarily because of the amount of money sent in response to the Sept. 11 tragedies.

Other nonprofit representatives, such as Andy Swanston from Gastineau Human Services, said it would be a great help if the city would share some of the financial responsibility for the homeless problem as well as offer staff to oversee the nonprofit groups. He said this would eliminate duplication of services and ensure that the needs of the community are being met.

Steve Gilbertson, with the city's Lands and Resources Department said the city offers grants to nonprofits on an as-needed basis. He said it offers low-interest loans to developers looking to build low-income housing and offers land on occasion for free or at a low lease.

Almost all of the services offered by nonprofit groups used to be funded by the city under the Health and Social Services Department, Pease said. However, since that was disbanded more than a year ago the city has only the Juneau Recovery Unit to do short-term substance abuse treatment.

"The nonprofits are struggling," Pease said. "The city needs to bear some responsibility in this."

He also said often the city and the nonprofits are vying for the same money from state and federal grants.

Deputy City Manager Donna Pierce said the city helps the homeless by financially assisting the nonprofit organizations.

Caring for the mentally ill and addicted "takes an expertise that doesn't reside with the city, that resides with the nonprofits who are experts in this area," she said. "The city's appropriate role is to help support these agencies. And if they identify a need that isn't being met I would hope they would present an analysis of that need to the Assembly for consideration."

But Austin of St. Vincent de Paul said people in the community are the only permanent solution to homelessness. He said the responsibility falls on the shoulders of local business owners in charge of wages and those people in the community who could serve as potential volunteers.

Austin said the society appreciates donations, but nothing compares to time spent with people in need.

"You could never write me a check that equaled the value of an hour a week or an hour a year of your time," he said. "It is not the responsibility of the government or charities; it is up to individuals to solve this problem. It is the one-on-one relationship with a person in need whose compensation is not negotiable that means so much."

Melanie Plenda can be reached at mplenda@juneauempire.com.



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