“I worked at an inner-city church in Redding, Pennsylvania. My wife and I wanted to get our kids out of the rat race in the Mid-Atlantic states. I found this job as executive director at New Hope Compassionate Ministries in Anchorage. Nine months later, we moved our family here and haven’t looked back. I was 11 when I knew I was supposed to go into the ministry, but not just in a church setting. Our church meets people’s physical and emotional needs outside of the worship service. We have a homeless program and a food pantry that serves 150 to 200 families a week. We are all hurting people. If we don’t have needs right now, we are one missed paycheck or accident away from needing help. We have seen families at our food pantry who were doing well but came to the food pantry when they lost their job during coronavirus.
I love people. Everyone has a story and a reason why they are there. I can’t help them all, but I can listen and treat people the way I want to be treated. I want to provide love for the people that most of society deems unlovable. In Anchorage, people see homelessness as a disease. Someone we don’t want to touch or be around. But the people on the streets went to school or had a life and something traumatic happened. They got hooked on something and can’t get off. Or they found a community that I found through other places like church and my kids’ sports. I want to provide a space where they can find rest from the chaos of the rest of the world and a community that is good for them.
Homelessness has been a problem in Alaska for years, but you can feel it even more now. It is the largest city in Alaska and people come here to find a better life. Some come from small villages with less than 500 people and no running water in their houses. They leave for a better life, but the city is so different that it is hard to find a way. People get involved in drugs, alcohol, and finding other ways to make money. It leads to life on the streets. Alaska has never done well with mental health. For a long time, our biggest mental health provider was the prison system. Those compound, leaving people stranded and homeless.
COVID 19 has made things worse. Our main shelter for the homeless was away from downtown and kept them on the far side of town. After COVID, the shelter needed more space for social distancing and moved into the arena in midtown. The homeless shifted there to stay close to where they find food and shelter. That means they aren’t hidden right now and you see them all over town. Another reason that they are more visible is because there is no tourism this year. Tourism provides funding to move the homeless along so they wouldn’t be as visible to tourists. No tourism means funds aren’t available to hide them, so the homeless are much more visible this year. This visibility also puts them on people’s minds. People are responding to what they see and are donating and volunteering more. The city is looking at more transitional and long term housing units. Once we get them housed, we can work with mental health and addictions, get them job training and find employment. The services need to be where they are easily accessible. It is about reaching people where they are. If someone becomes homeless, we try to get them into housing right away. This increases their chances of getting back on their feet. .
It is difficult to be homeless in an area this cold, but a lot of people do it. . By the end of October, we have snow on the ground and it usually doesn’t melt until the end of April. Some take pride in being homeless on the street. This is their community and family. They have connections with people and feel a part of a group, whether it is healthy or not. Others don’t want to be told what to do. It takes a lot to pull someone out of that and put new relationships in their lives. Sex trafficking and human trafficking are big issues in Alaska. We haven’t had the resources to fight it, but more organizations are stepping in to help and get the resources they need. In the ’80’s when oil was booming, Anchorage looked much different and had a different vibe. It was more sexual and a wild west town. It has changed a lot since then.
Alaska is a beautiful place filled with beautiful people. Many of us are transplants and welcome others because we know what it feels like to be alone. People from all over the world come here and live in relative harmony. East High School is the most culturally diverse high school in the U.S. It has the highest concentration of people groups in one school. We live together more smoothly than in other places. We care for our neighbors. Now there are more people trying to show compassion and understanding and advocate for the humanity of people living on the streets. Everyone needs to come to Alaska once in their life.”