Julia O'Malley

Julia O'Malley writes a general interest column about life and politics in Anchorage and around Alaska. She grew up in Anchorage and has worked at the ADN on and off as a columnist and reporter since 1996. She came back full time as a reporter in 2005.

As a reporter, she covered the court system and wrote extensively about life in Anchorage, including big changes in the city's ethnic and minority communities.

In 2008, she won the Scripps-Howard Foundation's Ernie Pyle award for the best human-interest writing in America. She has also written for the Oregonian, the Juneau Empire and the Anchorage Press.

E-mail her at jomalley@adn.com.

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Brother Francis is overflowing, what can you do?

OVERFLOW: The dormitories at the Brother Francis Shelter have been operating at full capacity. Sleeping mats are being used in other rooms at the facility and at neighboring Bean's Cafe to accommodate the overflow crowd.  (MARC LESTER / Anchorage Daily News)OVERFLOW: The dormitories at the Brother Francis Shelter have been operating at full capacity. Sleeping mats are being used in other rooms at the facility and at neighboring Bean's Cafe to accommodate the overflow crowd. (MARC LESTER / Anchorage Daily News)

Here's something you may not know: Tonight a record number of people, or close to it, will be sleeping on the concrete floors at Brother Francis Shelter and Bean's Cafe.

It's been like this for weeks now.

Brother Francis, the city's largest emergency homeless shelter, is set up to house about 150 people. On Monday night, 272 people slept there. Another 83 slept next door at Bean's Cafe. That's a total of 355 people with nowhere else to go -- almost twice what's normal this time of year.

Dewayne Harris, the shelter director, told me he's never seen anything like the most recent numbers in his 12 years on the job. The average daily count has been creeping up over the last few years, but the shelter has never been as crowded as it's been during the past month. They've been setting up beds everywhere: in the conference room, the laundry room, the dining area, Harris said.

"Picture your house in the holidays when all your friends and family visit, we move the coffee table and we move the dining room table. We use every inch of this shelter," he said.

When the shelter can hold no more, people are sent to Bean's. Once Bean's hits capacity at 124 people, then Harris will have to scramble to find more beds somewhere else. So far that hasn't happened, but it's looking like a possibility if the trend continues.

WAITING: Guests of the Brother Francis Shelter wait outside the entrance for more than an hour before the doors open Wednesday. From left are Daniel Garcia, Walter Egelak and Chris Buckley. (MARC LESTER / Anchorage Daily News)WAITING: Guests of the Brother Francis Shelter wait outside the entrance for more than an hour before the doors open Wednesday. From left are Daniel Garcia, Walter Egelak and Chris Buckley. (MARC LESTER / Anchorage Daily News)

Here's something else you probably don't know: Right now individual donations to Brother Francis are down 60 percent, or about $30,000 below what is usual this time of year. The shelter has a total budget of just over $1 million, most of it grants.

Susan Bomalaski, executive director of Catholic Social Services, which oversees the shelter, told me it's the economy. People's budgets are tight, she said, and that's why they aren't donating as much. The economy has also driven people from Outside to Alaska for seasonal work. Now the season is over, and they don't have the money to move on. And it's single-digits cold. People used to camping out are coming in.

Harris said many among the new homeless are working. But many are under-employed, working part time or less. They can't get enough hours to get a place.

"They are not folks who choose to be homeless," he said.

Harris met me at the shelter Tuesday night. In the dining area, every seat was taken. The news was on the television. People leaned against the walls or sat on the floor, waiting for an evening meal, he said.

A line of people stretched out the door. They were coming in too.

Everything at the shelter is set up to encourage people to get a plan to get into housing. People following their plans get to reserve beds and lockers. Some of them get into a transitional housing program that is built into the shelter.

But even people who are following their plans and working full-time can't get out of the shelter. They can't find affordable rentals, Harris said. The vacancy rate at the low end of the rental market is very low. And even then, rent is expensive. The average market rent for a one bedroom with utilities is around $800, he said. A minimum-wage worker, employed full time, brings in around $1,000 a month after taxes.

It doesn't help that the government low-income housing assistance program is maxed at the moment. New housing vouchers aren't being issued, he said. The list for housing assistance is more than 7,000 families long, he said. All of the city's shelters are feeling it.

Harris took me into the sleeping area, where rows or cots were covered with a mosaic of quilts and sleeping bags.

"Do you have enough blankets?" I asked.

"Never," he said.

DONATIONS: Susan Brewer, a volunteer and guest at Brother Francis Shelter, organizes items in the clothing donation room on Wednesday. Brewer says she notices a need for warm winter coats, boots and gloves. (MARC LESTER / Anchorage Daily News)DONATIONS: Susan Brewer, a volunteer and guest at Brother Francis Shelter, organizes items in the clothing donation room on Wednesday. Brewer says she notices a need for warm winter coats, boots and gloves. (MARC LESTER / Anchorage Daily News)

The shelter needs blankets, sheets, towels, clothes, and especially, cold-weather gear and boots. To save money right now they are parceling out the laundry detergent and the toilet paper.

"Most folks will tell you we can make a penny squeal," he said.

The shelter serves street alcoholics and it serves the working poor. As much as 40 percent of the people who stay there are estimated to have mental illness. These are the kind of people at risk of dying outside. In fact, during the previous week, medics found three people, hypothermic and in various states of consciousness, outside in the city. They were lucky that someone saw them and called 911.

NEVER ENOUGH: Thomas Green sits in a room at the Brother Francis Shelter next to stacks of sleeping mats. The mats will be used to accommodate the growing numbers of people who have been seeking a place to sleep at the shelter. (MARC LESTER / Anchorage Daily News)NEVER ENOUGH: Thomas Green sits in a room at the Brother Francis Shelter next to stacks of sleeping mats. The mats will be used to accommodate the growing numbers of people who have been seeking a place to sleep at the shelter. (MARC LESTER / Anchorage Daily News)

I spent a couple minutes watching people in the shelter. There was a rough-looking guy with a dog, and another guy who appeared to be blind, walking with a long cane. I saw a gray-haired woman in her 70s making a collage out of old newspapers on a coffee can. I wondered about a girl who looked about 20, camped out in a corner eating a sandwich from a plastic bag.

I walked out after my tour and the cold stung my face. A lot of people have been trying to solve the problem of homelessness in Anchorage. Meetings have been held and plans made. I can't tell you how many columns of newsprint have been spent on it. But the problem isn't going away. At the moment, it appears to be getting worse.

I sat in my car to let it warm up. I thought about our homeless problem. It's complicated, and as we've seen too often, deadly. I can't fix it. You can't fix it. But on Tuesday night, here's what I could do: Go home and gather up some blankets I wasn't using.

What about you? What can you do?

An earlier version of this column gave the wrong number of people sleeping at Brother Francis on Monday night

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