Portraits of homelessness

Posted: Thursday, December 02, 2010

Homelessness is such a familiar and persistent problem it can be difficult to gain fresh perspective. It's too easy to gloss over facts and figures, however surprising or shocking they may be. The Juneau Homeless Coalition has taken a creative approach to addressing the issue in our community with their "Out of the Rain" calendar, a collection of personal portraits and narratives that allow for a more complete and realistic grasp of the issue on a local level.

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Photo By Marilyn Holmes
Photo By Marilyn Holmes

With photos by well-known local photographer Marilyn Holmes and design work by Laura Lucas, the JHC calendar is a collaborative effort involving more than 20 local agencies, and has been produced for the last several years. In addition to being a work of art, the calendar helps break down some of the common misconceptions about homelessness, such as the idea that the homeless population is all of a type.

"We wanted to get as much of a cross-section as possible just to demonstrate the fact that it's not a problem that [is] isolated to one demographic group or another - its pretty much across the board," said Ray, a coalition member as well as a calendar subject. "It affects individuals and families, and for such a variety of reasons. The old stereotype of the 'homeless wino' is not really valid."

Scott Ciambor, a coalition member and the Juneau Economic Development Council's affordable housing coordinator, agreed.

"What we hear all the time is, 'What is the root cause of homelessness?' as if there is (only) one," he said. "And then, 'Who are homeless?' as if it's one profile. Obviously it's very diverse."

Jorden Nigro, also a coalition member and the director of SAIL (Southeast Alaska Independent Living), said the flip side of this is the realization that homelessness can affect any of our friends and neighbors.

"This was the first year I've really been involved with the calendar, and I worked on putting together the bios for each person. It was really striking how you read each story and realize that it looks different for everybody, but it could also happen to anyone," she said.

'One medical mishap away'

Ciambor said many in Juneau are just "one medical mishap away" from homelessness themselves.

Such was Ray's experience. Ray, 60, drove a cab in Juneau for more than 12 years before experiencing a variety of medical issues such as emphysema that kept him from going to work. His small savings was soon used up, and he found himself out on the street. He went to the Glory Hole, reluctantly, and soon was able to start turning things around. He received free medical care at the Front Street Clinic, a facility that serves the homeless population, and began taking an active interest in helping others deal with homelessness through administrative work at the Glory Hole. He now works at the shelter in a variety of roles, helping to steer people toward the services they need. He says it is very rewarding, and has been an eye-opening experience.

"When I was driving taxi the last thing I wanted was a call at the Glory Hole," he said. "My perspective has certainly altered radically in the last couple years."

Ray said the stereotype of the unmotivated alcoholic looking for a hand-out is far from the norm.

"Really, the majority of the people are victims of circumstance, or have medical issues, mental health issues, substance abuse issues, all kinds of everything right down to good old fashioned hard luck," he said. "The majority of the people are really into improving their situation."

Cold nights in the car

There are others who never make it in to the Glory Hole, for various reasons. Some couch-surf, some sleep in the cars, others camp. Julie, a lifelong Juneau resident who raised four children here, said when she became homeless, she pretty much kept to herself, sleeping in her car and staying with friends.

She'd become homeless after her landlord raised the $700 rent of her mouse-infested apartment to $1000, a price she couldn't afford. She moved in with her daughter, but a few months later her daughter decided to move to Nevada, where housing was cheaper. Julie went along.

"I said, 'OK.' I was ready to try anything," she said.

But Nevada wasn't the place for her - too many snakes, for one thing, and insane drivers on the highways for another - so after a few months at her cousin's in California, she hopped on the ferry back to Juneau.

Although thrilled to be back, Julie, 66, had no place to stay. She listed her name with several local agencies and waited to hear back. In the meantime she moved from place to place with her dog, Panda. Though having a dog limited some of Julie's options, giving her up was not an option. She even got a letter from her doctor attesting to the fact that she couldn't be without her.

"We couch-surfed all over, but most places couldn't take the dog and I didn't want her to be in the car by herself."

So Julie slept in the car with her, but the November nights were cold, and the local neighborhood watch systems and police forced her to keep moving. One night she slept under Brotherhood Bridge.

"A couple times I really wished there was a cave I knew about," she said, laughing.

She said she never expected being homeless could happen to her, and hopes her appearance in the calendar might help people understand that generalizations about homelessness are often wrong.

"You never know when you're going to be in that situation. And then when you're categorized, you're thinking, 'Gosh, that's not me.' I never ever thought I'd be homeless - ever. When you're in it, it's completely different than you'd expect it would be."

Finally, after four months, her number came up and she moved in to Smith Hall, senior housing run by the St. Vincent de Paul Society. She is thrilled to be there, with Panda, in a clean, well-maintained and stable environment.

Struggles with substance abuse

Mike, another calendar subject, had a completely different experience with homelessness, one that was longer and darker than Julie's. A Vietnam vet, Mike has struggled with substance abuse issues his whole life. He managed to stay clean for 27-year stretch but fell back into alcohol and drugs four years ago while living in Wrangell. In between logging jobs that took him all over Southeast, he lived on the streets in Ketchikan. But he felt a growing need to make a change, and realized the change was going to have to start with him.

"(I thought) I've still got some years left in me, I'm not ready to just give it up," he said.

He decided on a whim to move to Juneau to make a fresh start, and, after a brief adjustment period, reached out to take the help that was offered to him.

"I'd been wanting to (quit) for awhile," he said. "And I had a lot of support here."

Some of that support came from the house monitors at Polaris house, workers at JAMHI and at St. Vincent's, and staff at the Front Street Clinic, who all worked together to provide a network for him to rely on.

He now lives in a stable apartment with his girlfriend and is completing training thorough the MASST Program (Mature Alaskans Seeking Skills Training) that will allow him to get a job in the mines. Now substance-free for seven weeks, he hopes sharing his story might help somebody in a similar situation.

"There's people to help you, but if you don't want help you're not going to take it," he said. "You have to want it."

Eliminating homelessness

The Juneau Homeless Coalition, which formed in 1997, is working not just to alleviate immediate needs, but to lay the groundwork for a long-range and lasting solution to homelessness in Juneau. This effort is partly based around a national model, the Ten-Year-Plan to End Homelessness, backed by President Obama and members of his cabinet. The coalition is currently working to put that plan in place, drawing on the expertise of local agencies to have a full picture of where the holes are and generate ideas about how to fill them.

"It's really a collaborative effort among those agencies to identify needs that perhaps aren't being met and come up with more creative community solutions," Ciambor said.

In addition to putting out the calendar every year, the JHC organizes an annual Point-in-Time Homeless Count in January, and the annual Juneau Homeless Connect event held around the same time. The point-in-time count has not been that accurate in years past, Ciambor said, because it took awhile for all the agencies to begin working together effectively. Last year's count was 403, but he believes the figure is much higher.

Juneau is the most homeless city in Alaska per capita, according to a recent Housing Needs Assessment Study released by the JEDC. Several factors contribute to this. For one, the cost of living is very high, and there is a dearth of affordable rentals and homes. Housing prices have continued to rise, but wages have not kept pace. The situation is exacerbated by issues such as geography - those who come to town have trouble leaving - and topography - there's a shortage of buildable land for new housing. What's more, we have a mobile population that includes many seasonal nonresident workers who temporarily occupy available housing.

Ciambor said the JEDC report found immediate need for housing is 300 units - a number that threatens to be demoralizing to those working for change, but one that is not impossible to reach. One of the keys to getting housing built is making it profitable to contractors, land-owners and others, he said. An Affordable Housing Trust Fund has been set up for this purpose, but funding sources are still being researched.

Ray said money itself isn't always the problem. Federal funds for certain projects are available, but accessing those funds and getting them to the right people is a tough process that involves lots of red tape. And money to build new low-income housing is more likely to come from closer to home - from the city and possibly the state level.

Ciambor said affordable housing isn't just an issue for those who are currently or were formerly homeless. According to the Housing Needs Assessment Study, households are considered "cost-burdened" if they spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing and certain utilities. Currently, 38 percent of renters and 39 percent of homeowners in Juneau fall into that category, meaning they don't have affordable housing.

"There are so many people here in town that are just right on the edge," Ray said, citing the increased need for Thanksgiving boxes this year.

Beyond four walls and a roof

Solving homelessness goes beyond meeting concrete housing needs; sustainable change also involves addressing mental health problems, substance abuse issues, domestic violence, lack of professional training and existing medical problems, among other issues. The complex process of figuring out who needs what is part of the JHC's mission.

"Everybody who comes through the door has a different story, has different needs, and all the agencies work together - it's a filtering process - getting people to the people they need to see to deal with the problems they have," Ray said.

The calendar's emphasis on those who have emerged from homelessness shows that the network is working, albeit more slowly than most would like. In addition to cooperation between agencies, community awareness and involvement is central to continued progress. The calendar, produced through volunteer time and effort, is one of the major ways the JHC gets the word out.

"I think Juneau has a great heart and there are a lot of people that care about the issue, but I don't think that people necessarily understand how big of an issue it is," Nigro said. "I think that's a big part of why we do all the things that the coalition does, to help our community understand what's going on."

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