In 2009 and 2010, an epidemic of outdoor homeless deaths gripped the city's attention. The cause wasn't easy to pinpoint. Alcohol, weather, mental illness were all factors. Over the last few years, as the pace of outdoor deaths has slowed, it's been just as hard to say definitively why.
But Mayor Dan Sullivan would like some of the credit.
"I challenge people to look at my record," he said in a recent release defending his position supporting a controversial ordinance that prevents people from loitering on sidewalks.
"Deaths of homeless people have dropped dramatically under my administration, and resources available to them have climbed."
Sullivan hasn't solved the homeless problem, but his administration may deserve kudos when it comes to slowing outdoor deaths. Susan Bomalaski, executive director of Catholic Social Services, said a series of recent initiatives either spurred or supported by Sullivan's office may have pushed more chronic homeless off the streets and into the shelter system. Some of these initiatives pre-date the mayor and were part of a longterm homeless plan, but his administration has embraced them.
These changes include easing restrictions on shelter stays after the temperature falls to 45 degrees, providing housing for the city's highest-risk street alcoholics at Karluk Manor, cleaning out homeless camps and cracking down on panhandling. Getting homeless people into the shelter system is the key to keeping them from dying on the streets, Bomalaski said.
Homelessness has many causes and it's impossible to point to just one thing that's working to keep people from dying, she said. But the city's approach has been positive.
The Sullivan administration had a key employee focused on the issue, homeless coordinator Darrel Hess. Homeless advocates say that role has been essential.
"The homeless coordinator position has been a vital element in addressing chronic homelessness and homelessness in Anchorage," said Melinda Freemon, Supportive Housing Division Director for the Rural Alaska Community Action Program that runs Karluk Manor and other homeless programs.
"The individual and the position have been very, very effective."
Here's the bad news: Hess recently left the position to become the city ombudsman. In both versions of the mayor's proposed budget for next year, the homeless coordinator position has been eliminated.
Sullivan made important progress on the homeless issue in his first term. Now the administration could continue to focus on the homeless problem or merely hold the line. Shelters around the city are more crowded than ever. The Sullivan administration supported expanding the number of shelter beds by paying some utility costs at Beans Cafe, allowing it to take overflow from Brother Francis Shelter, and with an initiative that opened churches as temporary shelters. But those are stopgap measures. The city needs permanent low-cost housing, at least some of it targeted at people with addiction and mental illness. That would be a real start when it comes to getting people off the streets for good.
"People are still dying in our communities. We may intervene earlier so we can get them in a hospital," Freemon said. "We haven't solved the chronic homelessness problem."
I went to City Hall this week to ask Sullivan about the administration's plans. My first question: What happens without a homeless coordinator?
Sullivan assured me that the focus on homelessness would continue. The initiatives Hess worked on will continue, he said.
"We like to think that some of these (programs) will maintain their consistency," he said.
Could the administration build on its success? It could, Sullivan said. His next priority is to look at ways to build more housing that people can afford, he said. Lack of affordable housing, social service providers across Anchorage say, is one of the largest hurdles they face when helping clients get back on their feet.
Sullivan said he'd like to get help from the Anchorage Community Development Authority with building more housing. The development authority runs EasyPark, the city parking authority. It's also been involved in several high-profile development projects, including the Glenn Square Mall in Mountain View and North Pointe Bluff on Government Hill. Both those projects, which paired public land with private developers, have been dogged by problems. Sullivan wants to refocus the group on building affordable housing, he said.
"Quite frankly, in areas of community development, I don't think they have enough to do right now, so we would like to re-engage them, re-energize them on the issue of housing."
That sounds like a fantastic idea. But the question, as we slip into another long, cold winter with our shelters full, is whether the administration can keep its focus and momentum on homelessness without a staff person dedicated to the issue.