John Martin has his own problems, a large one being that he's a registered sex offender, but for four days before anyone reported that fact, he put on a one-man public demonstration about homelessness at the corner of Lake Otis Parkway and Abbott Road.
He fasted, prayed and slept under a blue tarp while traffic rushed by. He told people, including a television news crew, that he wanted to bring attention to people camping in city parks. Motorists honked and church people read him the Bible and left folded blankets on the curb.
I went to see him on Monday. Despite a pouring rain, he was deep in conversation with a woman in an orange raincoat who'd pulled over to talk. She told me she was one of the organizers of the Alaska Jubilee Festival, a Christian homeless outreach program that happened at the end of September under a big white tent on the Delaney Park Strip.
She said she didn't think the city was doing enough for the homeless. Martin said he'd been in the camps and felt the city needed an alternative to the Brother Francis and Rescue Mission shelters, a new program that would give chronic inebriates housing even if they didn't want to get sober. Maybe it would be a big tent city or a shelter where they could be safe without having to give up alcohol. The woman said she heard about something like that, called "Housing First," in Seattle.
"People shouldn't have to choose between housing and their addiction," Martin told me.
That night the news reported that Martin had done time in prison for sex abuse of a minor. He packed up his protest and disappeared, but I was still thinking about the homeless. Thirteen people, most of them alcoholics living in homeless camps, had been found dead over the summer. Winter was coming. Did the city have a new plan? I wondered about Housing First.
I know substance abuse is a big piece of chronic homelessness. The hardest people to get off the streets, those at the biggest risk of dying outside because they don't go to shelters, often have problems with drugs and alcohol, sometimes in combination with mental illness or brain injuries. There are only a few hundred people like that in Anchorage, but they use way more than their share of services like the sleep-off shelter, police, ambulance, court system and emergency room.
I called Darrel Hess, who for the last three weeks has been the city's homeless coordinator. He said he'd been visiting shelters and de-tox centers. He'd sent out surveys to see what agencies needed. The city was having its first meeting on the topic this Thursday.
I asked what he'd been hearing. He said people were talking about ways to bring social services into the homeless camps. There was also a lot of enthusiasm for Housing First. He thought it was clear the city needed a lot of options to deal with the problem.
Seattle had just completed a big study of a program that provided permanent housing for homeless alcoholics without requiring them to quit drinking. They found it reduced ambulance rides, jail stays, sleep-off shelter use and emergency room visits, saving taxpayers money overall. Alcoholics in the housing also drank less.
It turns out there is one small Housing First pilot program in Anchorage. RurAl CAP operates it. Catholic Social Services is in the process of starting another. The RurAl CAP program is run out of the Homeward Bound office in Mountain View. I drove over on Wednesday.
Melinda Freemon, the director, said the program began in 2007. Only about 15 clients at a time can participate. Most of them have mental illness along with substance abuse problems.
They are taken from camps and placed in apartments. Their income, mainly from disability or social security checks, is managed by someone else called a "payee." Most contributed to their rent. Residents have to follow the rules of their leases and meet with a case manager, but they don't have to stop drinking or using. Some have failed and gone back to the streets. Some went through an eviction before settling down. Some have been in housing for years after spending decades on the street. Most drink less; some have gone into treatment.
Freemon introduced me to Ginny Randall, 47, who used to live in a tent in the woods along Chester Creek a few blocks from my neighborhood. She'd been in the program for about two years. Randall is bipolar and recently started treatment for a longtime substance abuse problem. She estimated she'd been on and off the streets for most of her adult life.
"I liked stability, but I hadn't acquired it because of drinking and drugging," she said.
The program wouldn't work for everybody, Randall told me. Some people she knew from the camps would get into housing and treat it like a camp, not following the rules. People had to be ready to make a change, even if they weren't ready to get sober, she said.
That made sense. So did Housing First. It wasn't a magic fix for all of Anchorage's homeless. But from the corner of Abbott and Lake Otis, to the big white tent on the Park Strip, to City Hall, everyone seems to think we need to try new things to deal with an old problem. I hope Housing First will be a big part of the discussion next week.