Op-Ed by Les Gara
It’s good that recent debate has sparked a more active conversation about Alaska’s homelessness problem. We need that conversation.
A decade ago Alaska had the beginning of a plan that would have done what the evidence says works. Today we’re seeing the effects of not passing it.
Homelessness doesn’t end without a plan to get people, including the many homeless children of homeless parents, into real housing. Since 2016, the number of students grappling with homelessness, just in Anchorage, has exceeded 1,000.
Governor Parnell put seed funds in the budget at the urging of our independent Mental Health Trust Authority. When that plan came to the Finance Committee I supported it, and was out-voted by legislator’s who chose the failing same-old instead.
This is a public safety problem for you, and a daily crisis for those willing to better themselves and the lives of their kids with a little help.
The plan that was rejected would have begun the creation of a strong Housing Trust model (not to be confused with Housing First efforts, which can work for people who continue to engage in substance use).
Housing Trust policy, done right, gets people, including children with homeless parents, into stable housing. It’s cheaper in the long run. It costs money at the outset, and that’s the rub.
This requires leadership from the Governor on down to agree that when you don’t have enough money to put police on the street, teachers in the classroom, students in our university, and say you’re out of funds to repair our Port or put needed construction money and jobs on the street, it’s time to pass a fiscal plan. That should be a fair plan that includes revenue from the thousands of corporations, like the oil and gas company Hilcorp, current law fully exempts from Alaska’s Corporate tax.
A real plan to address homelessness involves working with the homeless person, not just sticking them in a van, jail cell or shelter. We can do what’s right for those willing to work on the problems they face. The Trust model provides temporary rent so people can live in real housing, while receiving job training, mental health, substance abuse and other treatment and support they may need to get on their feet, work, provide for their families, and then pay their own rent.
I like free. But on this issue, free gets you what we have — homeless people who go to a 30-day overcrowded shelter, then end up on the street or in camps, which we pay to clean up. When the person leaves the shelter the whole camp and camp clean-up cycle repeats itself.
Not every homeless person will agree to treatment or a plan like this. But many will and want to.
Over time, with federal help, we’ve designed a skeleton of this plan, but with far too little support.
As a result, today’s system makes us less safe, grows the number of homeless children, and leaves us all in a cycle that is both undignified for homeless youth, veterans and other adults, and unsafe for the rest of us.
That’s a problem, not a plan.
Les Gara served in the Legislature from 2003-2018. You can contact him at email@example.com