Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Alaska group provides 'one-stop shop' for homeless

By Pam Bailey, NeighborWorks America blogger

Homelessness has many causes and spawns many needs, making it difficult to coordinate the multiple visits and services required to stabilize these individuals and put them on the road to “recovery.” That challenge is what inspired the San Francisco Department of Public Health to host its first “Project Homeless Connect” event in 2004, and today, more than 260 other organizations have been trained to follow suit – including NeighborWorks Anchorage in Alaska.

The organization, which recently celebrated its 20th year as a member of the NeighborWorks network, will participate for the seventh year in the Anchorage Project Homeless Connect on Jan. 29. During the event, more than 125 companies, other nonprofits and government agencies provide on-the-spot services such as dental care, eye exams (complete with glasses, if needed), HIV and other types of medical testing, haircuts, application for housing and medical-care programs, employment counseling, legal advice and wheelchair repair.

“Because we never know if they will stay in touch, it’s our goal to actually ‘close the loop’ as much as possible for every service we provide at the event,” says Vickie Dodge-Pamplin, community engagement specialist for NeighborWorks Anchorage, adding that every person is given a hot lunch and a bag of groceries to take with them. “For example, if they need to replace their ID, which they need for just about every benefit program, we’ll drive them to the closest DMV office and get it taken care of right then and there.”

A volunteer (right) shares information on
services for pregnant and at-risk women
with an attendee.
Held in the city’s convention center, last year’s event attracted more than 700 participants, with sponsorship from companies such as ConocoPhillips and nonprofits such as United Way. To spread the word, the event team goes to camping areas, soup kitchens, bus stops and churches – wherever the homeless often congregate. It has proven so effective in drawing these individuals into the network of care that organizations in Juneau and Fairbanks also are participating.

This initiative and others that target homelessness are coordinated by the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness, formed following a mayoral task force focused on the growing crisis in 2004.  The coalition has made significant progress since then, but much work remains in order to reach its goal of ending homelessness: From 2011 to 2012, Alaska’s overall homeless rate declined 10 percent, according to a report last year from the National Alliance to End Homelessness. But the number of chronically homeless people rose almost 21 percent, giving Alaska the ninth-highest increase in the country. The largest percentage of participants in the 2013 Anchorage Project Homeless Connect (25 percent) reported becoming homeless primarily due to job loss. The second-most-cited causes were mental health problems and substance abuse (14 percent). More than half (56 percent) reported being homeless one to three times in the previous three years, with 19 percent saying they had been without shelter more four or more times. The New York Times wrote about the persistent problem in a Dec. 7 article titled, Alaska’s Thin Line Between Camping and Homelessness.

“A lot of people come to Alaska from out of state, because they’ve heard about the oil-subsidy program,” says Dodge-Pamplin, explaining that oil companies operating in the state are required to contribute money to a fund that in turn pays Alaskan residents an annual stipend that can range from $800-$1,200 or more (depending on how many people qualify in a particular year) – a nice benefit, but not much of a cushion for a large family. “What they don’t realize is that it takes a year to become an official resident, and in the meantime, both rents and jobs are not that plentiful.”

"Ben" and a co-worker go out into campsites
frequented by the homeless, to connect them to
services and care.
The coalition supporters and members, including NeighborWorks Anchorage, also participated last year in a program of the 100,000 Homes campaign, designed to better find and document the needs of the most vulnerable homeless in cities across the country. A team fanned out across greater Anchorage, offering $5 McDonald’s gift cards to homeless individuals willing to be interviewed and have their picture taken. Each was entered into a database, categorized by their level of vulnerability.

“Being in a permanent home, not just temporary shelter, is so central to everything,” says Dodge-Pamplin. “I particularly remember one woman named Mary who came to town to have surgery for breast cancer. She had to stay in the area to have chemotherapy, but couldn’t afford any place to stay. A case worker brought her to us, and we found her shelter until we could arrange something longer-term. Today, she is living in one of our apartments for seniors and makes quilts for babies in the hospital. Her treatment is going well. Now, that’s why I get up in the morning.”

Want to organize a similar “connect” event? In addition to visiting San Francisco for observation and training, Dodge-Pamplin offers a few tips:

  • Make sure that all participating agencies understand that it’s not enough to distribute brochures. They should be ready and equipped to go as far as possible to provide the actual service on the spot, or at least that day.
  • Practical services such as foot care (toenail clipping is very much in demand!) are just as important as medical care and counseling.
  • Treat each person with respect, one-on-one, no matter what their background or track record.