Pandemic presents unique challenges and opportunities for homeless service providers

Published: May. 4, 2020 at 10:09 PM AKDT
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The economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic is expected to put many who’ve never experienced homelessness into that system, but homeless service providers around Anchorage say the pandemic has also presented some unique opportunities.

Typically, funding for homeless services will come with a restriction as to who or what the money can be spent supporting, but with the coming of the pandemic, many of those restrictions have been lifted.

“At a national, state, and local level, our policy partners and our funding partners have been really open to removing some of that criteria as we respond to COVID,” said Jasmine Boyle, executive director of the Coalition to End Homelessness in Anchorage.

Less restriction and emergency funds have allowed the municipality and providers to partner together and set up the mass shelters at the Ben Boeke and Sullivan arenas, but it’s also allowed them to set up a resource hub outside.

“The concept of the resource hub was, let’s stage an area where we can identify programs that can take people into housing,” said Nancy Burke, housing and homeless services coordinator for the mayor’s office.

The hub acts as a gathering place for different providers that can connect people with resources to help them get out of homelessness, such as housing or addiction treatment. A team of ‘navigators’ help connect individuals with the right services. Lisa Sauder, the director of Bean’s Cafe, has been leading the navigators, and she said the program has been remarkably successful, housing over 20 people in just over 3 weeks.

“We’re sending people to detox, we’re sending people to treatment, and we’re getting people housed,” she said. “It’s truly making a life-saving difference for many people.”

The contract between the city and providers for the mass shelters ends in July, but with the success of the resource hub, many providers and public officials want to see that portion live on somewhere else. The hub itself fills a similar role to the city’s mobile intervention team.

“We look to replicate smaller versions of that resource hub out in the community with a more, kind of a walk-up model,” Burke said.

A long-term version of the resource hub could be an important tool for providers as more people begin to experience homelessness following the pandemic.

“We anticipate seeing 18 to 24 months of long-term impacts from COVID,” Boyle said. “Specifically, people who have not historically struggled with homelessness, but maybe people who live closer to the poverty line.”

Sauder, Burke, and Boyle all said there’s a lot of uncertainty about the future that could affect how exactly a long-term version of the resource hub comes to fruition, but they also agreed that centralizing those services has, and can do, a lot of good for people experiencing homelessness.

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