IN SESSION – With a bang of the gavel Senator Lisa Murkowski calls into session a field hearing of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee in Savoonga, August 2018.

Alaska Housing and Homelessness Are in the Political Forefront

Housing and homelessness have been at the forefront of political activity on both the state and national level this past week. Senator Lisa Murkowski introduced a bill in the US Senate to give tribes and tribal housing entities access to funding to combat homelessness. At the same time the Alaska Legislature made progress to restore state funds to fight homelessness, which Governor Dunleavy’s severe budget cuts have eliminated. But Dunleavy still has the power to cut off the funding.

Senator Murkowski’s bill, which is co-sponsored by Sen. Tina Smith of Minnesota, is called the Tribal Access to Homeless Assistance Act and enables tribes and tribally designated housing concerns to apply for funding to build housing on tribal lands. It would also help tribes manage homeless assistance grants.

“Inadequate and overcrowded housing are major contributors to homelessness in rural Alaska,” said Senator Murkowski in her statement announcing the bill. “Any effort to promote the safety and wellness of Alaska Natives must include housing for families, homeless youth, and people fleeing domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking.”   

In August 2018 Senator Murkowski traveled to Savoonga and chaired a field hearing of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee to hear about inadequate housing, overcrowding, and homelessness and the complications resulting from these problems. In the session she heard from a panel of six who are directly involved in providing housing or dealing with the issues which are created by the housing shortage. Present were Senate Indian Affairs Committee staff. “Being on the ground and in the homes both new and old to see for ourselves was the important part of establishing a committee record,” said Murkowski at the hearing.

Despite the problem of homelessness in Indian Country tribes and tribal housing entities may not access Homeless Assistance Grants from the Department of Housing. The Murkowski bill aims to change that. “By giving tribes the ability to access funds specifically designed for homeless assistance, this legislation is an important step towards ending the cycle of chronic homelessness plaguing so many Native communities,” said Senator Murkowski.

On the state level the Dunleavy budget cuts doomed a number of programs that alleviate chronic housing shortages in Nome and the surrounding villages. The Nome Youth Facility will be forced to close down if Dunleavy vetoes the line item again. The NEST shelter to protect homeless people during the cold winters will also not be able to operate. Two bills are now on the Governor’s desk waiting to be signed. The two bills restore the funding to these programs. But Governor Dunleavy can still eliminate specific programs before signing.

“A good chunk of that grant money that kept NEST operational is going to be gone if he comes back and vetoes the HB 2001,” said Lance Johnson of NSHC’s Behavioral Health Services. “If that funding goes away I don’t know what the future is for NEST. That’s devastating.” The Nome Community Center administers the NEST shelter. The Nome City Council has not included funding for the NEST shelter in its budget for the coming year. Rhonda Schneider, Executive Director of the Nome Community Center, is working to keep the services in place by finding other sources. “It’s a third of what we need to run all or our NEST programs,” said Schneider of the state money. In addition to the shelter NEST provides permanent supportive housing and homeless prevention services.

“We know what it’s going to do to Brother Francis if these cuts remain,” said Johnson. The lack of adequate housing in rural Alaska drives the Anchorage homeless problem. And many of those people on the streets of Anchorage come from the Seward Peninsula.  “We’re going to have more people out there on 3rd and 4th Avenue that just aren’t going to have a place to go. How Bean’s Café comes out of this is another consideration.”

Johnson expressed his frustration with the word “enabling,” a term used by opponents of social spending who believe the state is only enabling people who don’t want to work and live off government largesse. “I understand people will take advantage of resources,” said Johnson. “We understand that, our eyes are wide open. If we don’t have a shelter those people are driven out onto the street more often and it puts more pressure on the police force and on the ER.”

The governor can still eliminate funding for these social services. While the two bills are on his desk, the services are in limbo.

 

 

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