The many faces of Anchorage’s homeless population

Determining who is homeless and what lead them to become displaced may depend upon who you ask
The many faces of Anchorage’s homeless population
Published: Oct. 21, 2022 at 11:57 AM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - An in-depth look into the homeless situation in Anchorage found that tracking their numbers and determining where they came from can be a complex task. While some people are placed in temporary shelters, others are experiencing homelessness on street corners and in tents. In many cases, who these people are and what led them to become displaced can be difficult to determine. The answers to those questions may also depend on who you ask.

In the shadow of the Chugach mountains, beneath the canopy of the Anchorage skyline, lies another city filled with tarps and makeshift shelters. Some shelters are more elaborate, equipped with small stoves inside pup tents with tin smokestacks that poke out of the seams. Other people can be seen wrapped tightly in blankets along sidewalks or near treelines as the cold mist of morning begins to lift. This is a place where people get beaten down by rain and desperation; it’s a place that most people don’t see.

“Those that are experiencing homelessness are many not seen and will never be seen by someone just driving through our city,” said Alison Kear, CEO of Covenant House Alaska.

Each year, Covenant House Alaska reports it provides services to about 220 young people, between the ages of 13 and 24, who are homeless or at risk of being homeless. Kear says in Anchorage, like elsewhere, it’s hard to determine how many others need these types of services.

“To track the inflow and outflow is really where I think it gets complicated, to say, do we know who the homeless are?” she said.

Both residents and visitors of Anchorage are likely to see people sleeping on sidewalks, standing on street corners and camping in tents, however, those people only represent a small fraction of the overall homeless population. Each year, the federal government requires service providers to calculate the number of homeless it has in a city or large community. It’s known as a point-in-time count, which is taken on a single night in January. That number is then used to estimate the area’s overall homeless population, which in turn, determines how much federal funding the area receives.

In 2022 in Anchorage, the survey showed there were 125 people living outside, or on the streets. 1,369 were found to be living in some type of shelter. Owen Hutchinson is with the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness. The organization’s research found up to 3,000 individuals in Anchorage access some type of homeless service every month. He says those services help a wide spectrum of people.

“The overall population are people with jobs, they are families, they are people who, some serious life event has happened that has caused them to fall into homelessness,” Hutchinson said. He says even more families are just one or two paychecks away from experiencing homelessness themselves, but many don’t want to admit it. “There’s stigma around poverty, there’s stigma around homelessness.”

“On a single night in winter the homeless population looks different than it does in the summer, and it looks different than it does over the course of a month,” Hutchinson said. He maintains the federal point-in-time count doesn’t tell the whole story. He says Anchorage is transient, with people constantly coming in and out.

“You know, I’ve been in a tent for two years,” said Joseph Link, who left his Yupik community in Bethel two years ago to find work in Anchorage. “My family taught me how to survive, but, can’t do it here.”

“I think there’s an impression that in Anchorage housing is easier, job searches are easier and that’s not always the case,” Hutchinson said.

Alaska Natives make up about 15% of the state’s overall population, according to 2020 US Census data. According to numbers compiled by the Institute for Community Alliances (ICA) in August 2022, Alaska Natives represent over 40% of the homeless population in Anchorage.

“We also track, and look at, who are people working minimum wage jobs and renting apartments, and you see a higher number of Alaska Native people in that group and you see a higher number of people with disabilities in that group and you see a higher number of elders,” Hutchisons said.

Data collected by social service agencies throughout Anchorage in August of this year, and reported to ICA, looked at the racial makeup, finding whites made up 40% of the homeless population, with 15% being Black and about 10% being of either Hawaiian, Pacific Islander or Asian descent. The survey also found 8,000 individuals who needed additional housing-related services, whether it was a meal, job assistance or temporary shelter. Research conducted by Alaska’s News Source found that the number has remained consistent over the past six months, which has been keeping the limited number of service providers constantly busy.

“We work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, every day of the year,” Hutchinson said.

Self-reported data in August 2022, data reported by individuals that is not verified by independent sources, shows 52% of the city’s homeless claimed to have a disabling condition. Another 41% reported having mental health issues and 23% admitted to having a substance abuse problem. That data isn’t perfect and can change on a daily basis, due to numbers being constantly updated by various agencies. However, social service workers say it better reflects the face of homelessness in Anchorage.

The government continues using the point-in-time count as a model to assess the needs of a community’s homeless situation. No matter how the homeless are counted, there are those who feel they’ll always be down for the count.

“I’m hoping that I’ll be in a — I’ll be in a home — I’ll be in a home or be in an apartment somewhere,” Link. “But if I die, I die, it don’t matter.”

Hutchinson says there is one small success — in much of the country, homeless populations rose significantly during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. But the Anchorage homeless population remained relatively stable during that time.