Columns 2009

The homeless will always be with us

“Summertime, and the livin’ is easy. Fish are jumpin’. And the cotton is high…” Gershwin’s paean to this season contrasts greatly with my current level of whining over the heat, the mosquitoes, the heat, the sun, the heat – well, you get the idea.

On the other hand, there are about 3000 residents of Anchorage for whom the summer does connote easier living in that it’s a guarantee that they won’t freeze to death while living on the streets and in the woods of our fair city. I guess when you have so little, you learn to be grateful for whatever comes your way.

While reading a recent article about the homeless problem in Anchorage, the statistic that jumped out at me was that only 400 of the estimated 3000 homeless are chronic inebriates.  That leaves a whole lot of people who are homeless for a wide variety of reasons that have little to do with addictions and more to do with bad luck, bad relationships and bad timing.

Some are on the streets because as scary as the streets are, they are not as scary as home. These are the homeless kids, women and families who would rather risk a night in the woods than return to the violence and abuse of their home.  Some were on the very lowest rung of the middle class ladder, one paycheck away from disaster, when disaster hit. Forced to choose between shelter and food, they chose food. Some came to Anchorage from outside the state looking to find their pot of gold. To their dismay, they found that the streets of Alaska are not paved with the stuff. And some came from our villages, where disintegrating economic conditions, coupled with rising fuel costs and increasingly dysfunctional family life, left them no option but to flee to a city that has little to offer beyond not being where they came from.

These are the real faces of the homeless in our city.  The drunk you see standing on a corner with a handmade sign does not represent them all.  He is merely the most visible and easily vilified of this substrata of our society.

The other thing that struck me was that so many of the people who work with the homeless speak about years and years of effort that have not lessened the burgeoning number of Anchorage street people.  I think that if we are going to address this problem in a way that does the most good for the most people in the most financially efficient way, we have to first make one very major admission – we have to say out loud a reality that is not easy to face. And the reality is that, as Christ once said, the poor will always be with you.

No matter how many programs we have, how many shelters we have, how many counselors we have, for every person we help there is another one to take his or her place. Even as I write these words there are women being abused who will make the decision as some point in the future to live on the streets rather than go home. There are kids with incipient mental illnesses that will cause them to end up living under a bridge.  There are workers who will continue to make minimum wage while the cost of living rises who will someday have to make that horrible choice between food and shelter.

So let’s be realistic about what we can do for this population and help them because it is the right thing to do, not because we think that there will be some day in the future when we can say, “OK, everyone’s off the street now. Turn the lights off at the shelter. We can all go home.”

That’s not going to happen. Funding to support organizations like Bean’s Café, the Brother Francis Shelter, the Salvation Army, Homeward Bound and Covenant House will be needed for as far into the future as we can see.

So we need to adjust out thinking from solving the problem of the homeless to helping those who are now homeless make a better life for themselves. Because, like the poor, the homeless will always be with us.