NCC works on Housing First project to combat homelessness
By Julia Lerner
The federal COVID-19 eviction moratorium, which allowed renters to stay in their homes despite financial challenges caused by the pandemic, expired over the weekend, leaving thousands of renters across the country vulnerable to eviction and homelessness. On Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control issued an order reinstating the moratorium.
CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky signed the order determining that evictions of tenants for failure to make rent or housing payments could be detrimental to public health. This order will expire on October 3, 2021.
In Nome, where more than 25 percent of residents live below the federal poverty line, according to the 2019 Bering Strait Community Needs Assessment, the eviction moratorium was the only thing that allowed some individuals to continue to have roofs over their heads and avoid the trap of homelessness. It’s reinstatement is a temporary relief but doesn’t fix the chronic problem of homelessness and the lack of affordable housing in Nome and the region.
“We need to come up with more affordable housing,” explained Nome Community Center Executive Director Rhonda Schneider. “The market is so competitive right now that what landlords are charging for apartments, folks on a limited income or young couples just starting out, just can’t afford.”
Across the region, low-income renters are facing difficult housing conditions, and many opt to “double up” or overcrowd homes in order to survive, but that’s not an option for all residents.
Bessie Mokiyuk, an unhoused resident who has been living in Nome for almost a decade, felt the stress that comes with an overcrowded home in her home village Savoonga.
“At my mom’s, there’s my mom and my sister and her kids, so there’s not a lot of room,” she told the Nugget. In Savoonga, more than 60 percent of households are considered “overcrowded,” the highest of any community in the region, according to the Bering Strait Community Needs Assessment.
Mokiyuk is considered chronically homeless, meaning she has been homeless for at least a year, while struggling with a disabling condition. The Nome Community Center operates NEST and several other homeless services. The organization is exploring options for housing Nome’s chronically homeless population, including a housing first project.
The Housing First concept is an increasingly successful approach to addressing homelessness in communities across the country, and is considered low barrier to entry, meaning that there are no sobriety or criminal background requirements to access housing.
“There’s this concept known as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs,” explained Sue Steinacher, a former housing specialist at NEST and one of its founders. “At the bottom of the hierarchy, you have the four basic fundamental needs: clean air; clean water; food, and shelter. You have to hit the four fundamentals, and we have people here who aren’t getting those four, and it impacts their mental and physical health.”
The Housing First approach is designed to target those four needs by providing a safe shelter where individuals can support themselves without excluding those with criminal offenses or substance abuse disorders.
“The idea is, essentially, that whatever problem is contributing to or is a factor in your homelessness that often leaves you unable to participate in other housing programs, such as alcohol consumption, are not barriers to getting housing,” explained Heidi Brocious, a professor at the University of Alaska, Anchorage who works with ongoing Housing First efforts in other parts of the state.
“The belief is that, once you’re housed, then you can focus on everything else,” explained Nome Community Center housing coordinator Liz Johnson. “Once you’re housed, you can focus on your medical needs, substance use, social and emotional struggles, overcoming traumas.”
Johnson assumed her role at the NCC in early June and focuses her work on a Housing First project: A 15-unit studio apartment building with built-in medical facilities and a 24-hour building manager. “We’re moving pretty fast and furious on this project,” Johnson explained. “We’re currently in the design phase and met with our architect [last week] to finalize a design.”
The next step, she says, is to identify community project partners and funding sources, as well as finding the appropriate property in Nome for the 15-unit building. The Community Center has already applied for federal funding for the project, and Johnson is currently working on several grant applications to fund the construction and operating costs of the facility.
“When we talk about Housing First and getting our homeless folks housed, the impact is almost immediate,” Johnson said. “[In other cities,] there’s a significant decrease in ambulance services and police interactions. It also keeps them safe and out of the harsh elements.”
When chronically homeless individuals have access to housing, the entire community benefits, studies show.
The Housing First approach “has shown to be cost-effective by decreasing service utilization, such as emergency room care, decreasing criminal justice activity that brings people into contact with police and court systems, and increased quality of life in areas such as safety,” according to a research study conducted by Brocious.
“[Juneau] saw a tremendous dip in the use of emergency room, and a tremendous dip in the use of medical transport, and maybe the most significant thing we saw was the decreased need for our sleep-off center,” Brocious said in an interview with the Nugget. The sleep-off center, she explained, is a facility where inebriated individuals could stay overnight, but demand dropped significantly when the city implemented their housing first project. “Lastly, and surprisingly, police contacts dropped. We have a real shortage of police in our community, and to see how many fewer contacts our unhoused had with police has had a substantial impact on our police department.”
Like Juneau, Nome has its own struggles with first responder staffing. Over the last several years, the Nome Police Department has struggled to fully staff the department and has gone as far as offering $10,000 sign-on bonuses for new officers.
“Any time we call the police department, they come down,” explained Nome Visitors Center Director Drew McCann. “But their resources are limited, too. I think for them, to be able to police Front Street or be present, would be really important, they just don’t have the resources to do it right now- the human resources, the capital, I don’t know.”
McCann interacts with Nome’s transient community more than most residents do, and says that more services need to meet folks where they are.
“There’s a lot of good dialogue going on, but a lot of these solutions may be a few years out,” he said. “There has been done very little about immediate solutions or immediate band aids, or temporary fixes to what’s going on here. … I very rarely see services come down to the people here. Often, the people are taken to the services, and that’s sort of a barrier. Is there a way to bring the services to the people?”
In addition to the Housing First approach, the Community Center currently operates several permanent supportive housing units that house around 10 people at a time.
The effects of permanent supportive housing projects are almost instant in Nome and reflect Brocious’ findings.
“I don’t think we’ve ever had a police or ambulance call to any of our permanent supportive housing units,” NCC’s Schneider told the Nugget. Currently, NCC operates just six units, though it has historically operated more. They hope to add a finished, two-bedroom house to their permanent supportive housing stock before the end of the year.
Nome City Manager Glenn Steckman says the City is exploring solutions to the housing crisis, and that they are participating in meetings with other community leaders and organizations to figure out the best approach to solving homelessness.
“I’m just trying to figure out the best avenue to help those individuals, because we really don’t want anybody dying,” he told the Nugget in late June.
The NCC emergency shelter, NEST, only operates during the coldest months of the year, but Schneider describes the services as “a band aid” on the real issues and says the best solution for Nome is permanent supportive housing.
“The first words of our mission statement are ‘improving quality of life,’” Schneider said. “I think this could be exponentially beneficial to the community in more ways than just housing folks, and that’s what I’d love to see happen.”