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For many of us, the winter solstice is the day when we can say that every day after this will be brighter. But for the 3,500 Alaskans who are homeless on any given night, the winter solstice brings only the cold darkness of the longest night of the year.
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Homelessness is not just a problem in big cities like New York and Chicago. Thousands of people in Alaska are homeless, and another 20,000 of our neighbors who live in poverty are at risk of homelessness. In Juneau, we expect that more than 100 people will be homeless tonight. As many as 20 of those will be children. If they are lucky, they will find a warm and safe place to stay at the Glory Hole or AWARE or on a friend's living room floor. If they aren't, they'll be spending the night in a car, a tent, or outside in the snow.
Living homeless means living with hunger, sickness, injury and death. Living homeless means living without adequate shelter, food, clothing and medical care. Homeless children experience such instability that it is very hard for them to do well at school. They are at greater risk for physical and mental illnesses. Homeless adults have difficulty finding jobs (with no address to put on a job application) and when they are employed, must work very hard to maintain their employment and overcome the obstacles homelessness creates. They, too, are at greater risk for physical and mental illnesses.
I am proud of the work being done by the Glory Hole, St. Vincent de Paul, Front Street Clinic, the Food Bank, and others to help people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. Having a safe place to sleep, a place to get a hot meal or food for their families, being treated with respect and compassion - all of these are essential to the health and safety of our neighbors who are without a place to live.
I am also proud of the strong and consistent efforts being made by the City and Borough of Juneau and its partners to address the need for affordable housing in Juneau. Expanding affordable housing is an important part of keeping our community strong. Unfortunately, the definition of "affordable" - approximately $200,000 for a house - still excludes many of our neighbors from finding housing.
And that exclusion can have dire consequences. In Juneau and in many of our communities this year, we have experienced the loss of neighbors who were homeless, but for whom a safe place to live might have made all the difference in the world. Each day this winter that is a little brighter for us is also a day to remember the homeless men, women, and children in our community for whom this time of year is just cold and dark - and to rededicate ourselves to ending homelessness in Alaska.
J. Kate Burkhart is the Executive Director of the Alaska Mental Health Board and the Advisory Board on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse in Juneau.