Hank Wentz

Hank Wentz





Summertime is near, if not here, school is out, and missionaries are getting geared up to take the word of the Lord to foreign countries. My mission is in Spenard, and since I am born and raised in Alaska having relatives I’d never met from Barrow to Metlakatla, all of Alaska is rightfully my stomping ground.

People are not born racists, nor are they born choosing to live a life of poverty. I recently attended a 2-day symposium, courtesy of Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness Executive Director Jasmine Khan. This had 59 entities comprising of federal, state, local, regional, rural, urban, tribal entities, and I can only assume that I am the only experienced participant that had suffered from homelessness, incarceration, trauma, and addiction. An experienced voice of authority in this area, but over my head in others. So, I understand deeply when overcrowding is mentioned.

In one of the villages, there is a three-bedroom house with 18 people in it. As it is with Native Americans, Alaska Natives claim fellow Natives as “relatives,” because we are spiritually, culturally, symbolically, historically, and communally. We will not let someone sleep outside in life threatening situations. Nor will we let a family go hungry. Alaska Natives help their own. To build a house in a village, one has to consider material cost, shipping, housing the workers, paying per diems, and Davis Bacon wages. Just to build a three-bedroom house in rural Alaska during a two-month building season will cost upward of $600,000. Workers come from out of the community, but I know if this were another culture, it would be a “State of Emergency.”

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In rural Alaska, it is not their forte to do construction, but when it is break-up season, fish on. We live by the season, not by a time clock for the “monarchy.” Hunting, fishing, subsistence gathering, visiting, and heritage is our strong points. Rural Alaska has extremely high poverty rates, low job skills, no jobs, and overcrowding.

Enough dearth of hope to drive someone to drinking, no?

Men usually outnumber the women in rural Alaska, and if you are in an overcrowded house, there can be consequences. My friend, Warren Jones, talks about traditional Yupik, and Inupiaq Men’s Houses, but that is a story for another time, another column.

Sexual abuse runs rampant, as does alcoholism, and suicide. How can you escape a relative who targets you? National statistics show 1 out of 3 girls will be sexually assaulted by the time they are 18, and for boys 1 out of 5 will be sexually abused by 18, but I know the numbers in Alaska are much higher in the villages thanks to the fear, shame, distrust and the fact that there’s really no one to turn to if you have been victimized. Schools do not bring up Native colleges or alternatives nearly enough. Desperate to get out of the village, many go work in canneries in the summer time, as all they need in a cannery is a warm body.

Summertime comes in Anchorage, the leaves grow, and it covers up things we don’t notice. I loved the spring, as then you could not follow my tracks in the snow in winter and knife my tent up as one homeowner did, nor steal my weather-proof bag, like another homeless person did. It is not cold and depressingly dark. Many of the homeless are more senior, or after years of sleeping on roots, rocks, or concrete can’t move around as much. Many of those who stayed at the Brother Francis Shelter, or the Rescue Mission start camping again, or go work in canneries, where you can earn up to $8,000 in a good season. These are up to 18-hour days gutting fish, which are not as easy as you might think. It’s frustrating work and pays minimal wages. But they feed you and you don’t have to pay for room and board. Hilary Clinton did it one year before she married Bill, in fact.

It gets too expensive to stay at Youth Hostels anymore, because of the tourists, thus you have more campers if they cannot afford an apartment. Cook Inlet Tribal Counsel General Assistance is tapped out by this time of year. A lot of people cannot work though, so you see them flying signs, but not as many. By June, a lot of the homeless will be in canneries. But what about the ones still here? What does a homeless person do and where can they go on a holiday, on Memorial Day?

Bean’s Cafe is open 365 days a year, and people who live in this vicinity will attend their holiday feast. Matter of fact, more than usual, everything is closed, but this is for the downtown area. You will have perhaps people from the three RuralCap housing sites attending, people who will reside at Brother Francis Shelter, those who usually hit the Soup Kitchen, and the Bean’s regulars. The bus isn’t running, so that doesn’t help.

There is the Anchorage Gospel Rescue Mission, and they usually are not as bound by “rules and regulations” staying open for holidays. I know they do for Christmas, and they do serve the best dinner in town for homeless people, but even their numbers go down for overnight guests in summer.

Not much of an option for other places to go if you are broke with no job, no home, no hope to go to: the “unwanted and untouchables.” But there is the Anchorage Mental Health on 13th and Gambell, affectionately known as the “Web.”

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