Homeless services in Alaska face uncertain future as state cuts back

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Allan Lamprey had been homeless for almost all his adult life. Struggling with substance and alcohol use, he moved around the country, from his home state of Virginia, to Maryland and then out to California. Eventually, he made his way up to Alaska in 2008.

Lamprey found himself in Fairbanks, the hub city of Interior Alaska with a population of just a little over 30,000, where the average January low is minus 19. Winter hit him hard.

“It was something I had never experienced before,” Lamprey, 60, said. “It’s hard to live when it’s 40 below.”

A worker from a 12-step program found Lamprey in the woods with a 12 pack of beer in his hand, and asked him if he wanted help. Eventually, he got sober and linked up with the Fairbanks Rescue Mission, a local homeless organization, to get shelter and work.

Lamprey started as a cook, became a shelter manager, and now directs the recycling center the mission runs to help homeless people get job experience.

“If it wasn’t for the mission, I’d be dead,” he said.

But stories of rehabilitation and success, like Lamprey’s, might soon become increasingly rare in Alaska, advocates for the homeless warn.

In a vast state that dwarfs California in size and where freezing to death is a very real threat, Alaska faces unique challenges in tackling homelessness. In its few cities, more commonplace homelessness problems are exacerbated by the weather and a lack of statewide infrastructure. But with sweeping budget cuts made this summer across the board by Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy, resources for homeless services have been stretched even thinner. This summer, shelters in Anchorage had to close during the day, putting mothers out on the streets with their children at 8 a.m., with operators having to make the tough decision of who could stay and who had to leave.

In rural areas, building homes is so expensive that the only way to stave off homelessness is by living in overcrowded houses. In the most remote parts of the state, 15 people sleeping in a 700-square-foot home is not uncommon, often leading to health issues.

Advocates and nonprofits have spent years studying and trying to tackle what they call Alaska’s two-pronged homelessness crisis. Put simply, they need more money. But as the state cuts back, they worry about how they’ll continue to hang on to the services they offer and keep the people they serve warm.

‘A war with not enough weapons’

As the country began to crawl out of the 2008 recession, Alaska took an economic hit when oil prices plummeted in 2014. Amid a mounting deficit and an economy in decline, then-state Sen. Dunleavy ran a 2018 gubernatorial campaign saying he would rein in spending. He also promised to “pay back” residents money he said they were “owed” after a few years of cuts to the annual dividend every Alaskan receives from the state’s oil wealth under a law first enacted in 1980.

Dunleavy won last November in a contentious election: a few weeks before Alaskans headed to the polls, Gov. Walker, an independent, dropped out and endorsed Democrat and former U.S. Senator Mark Begich to no avail.

Dunleavy has since tried to stick to his promise. This year, he unveiled sweeping and unprecedented cuts to education, Medicaid, senior services, heating assistance and homeless services that he said were needed to right the state’s budget. According to the governor’s office, Alaska has exhausted its savings since the price of oil dropped.

Initially, Dunleavy proposed to cut $7.2 million from the Homeless Assistance Program, which was later scaled back to $3.6 million, but advocates are worried that these cuts will not only impact current services but also reverse the progress made to Alaska’s vulnerable homelessness infrastructure.

“It feels like we are in a war with not enough weapons,” Rodney Gaskins, who runs the Fairbanks Rescue Mission, told NBC News.

Twelve beds for youths in an area the size of Texas

Gaskins describes being homeless in Fairbanks as “almost like a death sentence.”

In winter or when the snow finally melts, Alaska residents start finding bodies: a teenager walking around without shoes who died in the night, a person in a tent that just wasn’t warm enough. In Fairbanks, there are three shelters: the Rescue Mission, Youth Advocates and the Interior Alaska Center for Non-Violent Living. The three organizations make sure not to duplicate services and strive to fill in as many gaps as they can. But they say the problem is just too big for them to solve alone while serving all of the Interior, a region approximately the size of Texas that often sees snow from September through May.

Marylee Bates founded and runs Fairbanks Youth Advocates. At its youth shelter The Door, Bates has 12 beds and a small budget but a will to help as many kids as she can.

Teens come to The Door for a variety of reasons, some are homeless and others are seeking to leave a dangerous living situation. But in a region that has towns like Fort Yukon with a population of about 540, where the only way to Fairbanks is a one-way flight whose fare hovers around $140, it’s difficult to have access to help.

“In the winter, the youth often just hunker down and put up with what’s going on,” Bates said.

Before she opened the shelter, Interior Alaska went about 10 years with no place to house its homeless youths. Opening the shelter, Bates says, took “a series of miracles.” Now, she says it’s a miracle every time a youth makes it to The Door, looking for a place to stay, hoping to get out of danger, the cold, or both.

When Fairbanks’ homelessness providers found out about the governor’s proposed budget cuts earlier this summer, they weren’t sure how they would go on. Ultimately, providers will lose 20 percent of their state funding — a number Bates and Gaskins said is more dire than it may seem.

Since opening The Door five years ago, Bates has received almost all the supplies and food needed for the roughly 125 youths she helps each year from donations.

“I’m not sure how much more the community can dig in their pockets,” she said. “We can’t cut bread and milk.”

Bates will lose about $37,000 in funding and has to reduce her staff, her main expense, by a position and a half. But requirements mandate she have a 1 to 6 staff-to-youth ratio to stay open during waking hours.

“We have two paid staff on three shifts a day, seven days a week,” Bates explained. “To lose a position and a half is significant.”

Gaskins is feeling the budget cuts too. His organization sheltered more than 900 people last year, served more than 50,000 meals, and helped house about 50 veterans. Now, he has to cut a transitional program staff member, who helps get people out of homelessness, and figure out where else they can make up for the shortfall while staying as effective as possible.

“Alaska is turning its back on the most vulnerable,” Gaskins said. “There already isn’t enough treatment in Fairbanks.”