Overcrowded housing and homelessness assessed
Last week, Brian Wilson, the Executive Director for the Alaska Coalition of Housing and Homelessness, ACHH for short, visited Nome from Juneau to personally assess overcrowded housing and homelessness affecting the region. With the guide of local Nome Emergency Shelter Team, or NEST, Housing Advocate Sue Steinacher, Wilson toured several homes throughout Nome and Savoonga and visited directly with local homeless people.
Steinacher and Wilson were able to visit a few overcrowded homes and the NEST facility in Nome, and nine different homes in Savoonga during their tour. According to Steinacher, around forty different people from Savoonga and other villages including Gambell, Teller and Shishmaref had contacted her after she announced Wilson’s visit last week, inviting her and Wilson to see their living situations. Steinacher said there was not enough time to get to everyone.
Steinacher told The Nome Nugget that Wilson came to Nome and Savoonga on his own accord, after she had connected with him at the last ACHH conference. Steinacher, on behalf of NEST, has attended the ACHH conferences for the past five or six years, and has become more and more vocal about the housing problems facing rural Alaska. She was also recently elected to the ACHH board of directors.
Steinacher said at the last conference, she felt like the only person advocating for rural Alaska. “All of the discussions were about Anchorage, Anchorage and little bit on Fairbanks,” said Steinacher. “I felt like I was this lone voice.”
Executive Director Brian Wilson is a new hire for ACHH – he just celebrated his one-year anniversary with the nonprofit – which only had an acting director from a rotating board of volunteers in the past. Wilson is also new to Alaska. He arrived from Olympia, Washington in 2015 and brings with him a fresh look on the Alaska housing situation.
Steinacher said she connected with Wilson because he also recognized the lack of focus on the non-urban areas of the state. After months of trying to set a date, Wilson was finally able to come to Nome for a visit to see the situation for himself, and wanted to see at least one of the villages.
“He didn’t come to make suggestions and didn’t come with money,” said Steinacher, who made sure to inform and reiterate to residents in Nome and Savoonga that Wilson wasn’t there to give out money for housing fixes, to build new houses, or to tell people how to fix their problems – he was there to listen and learn, so he could be a better advocate for rural Alaska in the future.
“He’s pretty high up in terms of influence,” said Steinacher of Wilson. “He is a major voice for housing and homelessness in the state.”
In an interview with The Nome Nugget, Wilson said that he had a fantastic, but busy trip to the region. “It was pretty much non-stop from the point I landed in Nome,” said Wilson. “Despite the overcrowding issues, unsheltered homeless issues and challenges that rural Alaska faces, everyone was really welcoming and really willing to share their story.”
Wilson also reiterated that he came to see the situation for himself, not because he has a stack of cash to fix all the problems – he doesn’t – but because he works with AHCC as an advocate and the coalition has the ear of the governor and state legislators. Wilson said they are always in meetings concerning housing and homelessness, but usually at those meetings there are not a whole lot of people in the room who have a firm grasp of the issues.
“Until you see it (the situation) and talk to the folks utilizing the services and hear from the staff and visit the villages – it’s really hard to be that advocate for the entire state,” said Wilson.
He also said that while all the shelter organizations across the state are required to report numbers each year of how many people utilize their services, those numbers do not give a good representation to the actual situation.
“Homelessness looks different across the state,” said Wilson. “It’s a lot easier to be unsheltered in Juneau, Fairbanks or Anchorage because there are a host of services available to you.”
Wilson said that reporting the unsheltered numbers of a community like Nome to a group of legislators does a disservice to the issue – because saying a town like Nome has between 20 to 30 homeless individuals sounds like nothing for a city like Juneau or Anchorage.
“It’s a unique situation that will require outside the box thinking and really a different approach than what traditional methods have been,” said Wilson.
Although both Wilson and Steinacher were clear that there are no quick fixes, or even long term fixes on the horizon for the housing crisis in the region, having Wilson visit gives rural Alaska another chance to be heard. “He is a bigger voice that has access to people that need to hear these things,” said Steinacher.
Steinacher also said that they were able to meet with various leaders and organizations in the community, including Mayor Richard Beneville, Bering Strait Regional Housing Authority, or BSRHA, Alaska Housing Coalition, and also attended the city meeting last Friday covering the persistent inebriation problem on Front Street.
“He (Wilson) got an eyeful and an earful right here in Nome,” said Steinacher, who also said that Wilson was not afraid to chime in. During the city meeting, Steinacher said that Wilson spoke up and asked how much money the current problem is costing the hospital, the police department and the city. Basically, he asked how much not doing anything is costing Nome, and if you could do something for less than doing nothing – would it be worth it?
In Savoonga, the problem was less about people on the streets and more about living conditions. According to a study by the BSRHA, the village of Savoonga has 154 households serving a population of around 700 people – which means that nearly all of those 154 homes are overcrowded.
Steinacher said that they received a warm welcome by the people of Savoonga; everyone wanted to share their story and show their living situation. Steinacher said in all of the houses they visited, it wasn’t just one family per house, but more like a family of five per bedroom with sleeping mats on the floor and no storage or closets.
In a village like Savoonga, where annual housing costs are more than the annual income for most people, overcrowding seems unavoidable. Plus, regional housing authorities like the BSRHA are suffering from stagnated funding over the past two decades, while the cost of living, shipping and building supplies only increases.
At the federal level, the current administration is proposing large cuts to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which would directly affect available funding and grants for state and local housing programs.
Steinacher expressed the need for local and regional housing authorities to come together and join forces with groups like the ACHH to try to form a stronger voice.
Wilson also shared the hope for future partnerships to happen between groups like BSRHA and the ACHH, and said that he plans to attend the quarterly Regional Housing Authority meeting in the future and invited BSRHA to the annual ACHH conference.
“We will be looking into ways we can mobilize and build stronger methods within rural Alaska,” said Wilson. “I heard a lot of great ideas when I was there – but we don’t currently have a great avenue for them to be implemented.”
Steinacher also noted that while they are working on developing a stronger voice for rural Alaska, there would most likely be little change to come in the near future with no quick fixes for the current housing crisis.
“It’s unsustainable and at a breaking point,” said Steinacher. “There’s not a whole lot of hope on the horizon.”