The real picture of homelessness can be difficult to see. We often notice homeless people in public spaces, living in encampments and panhandling at the roadside. However, we rarely see the “invisible” homeless, families who are experiencing homelessness out of the public’s view. Anchorage has about 90 families in the city’s homeless system at any given time.
Family homelessness is not an isolated problem. It’s often due to a number of circumstances, many beyond the family’s control like the economy, lack of affordable housing, and access to stable employment and education, and any current crises they are facing. Whether a result of these reasons or others, when a family becomes homeless, the consequences expand exponentially for all family members.
Anchorage’s typical homeless family is a single mother with two young children. How does this happen? One big reason is the lack of affordable housing. In Anchorage, a person earning minimum wage would need to work 78 hours a week to afford a one-bedroom rental at Fair Market Rent and work 100 hours a week to afford a two- bedroom rental.
For many people, specifically families with a short-term need, access to affordable housing or one-time assistance gets them back on track. The Rapid Rehousing Project is a federally funded project through the Emergency Solutions Grants and the Continuum of Care program. The program reduces the time families spend in shelters or transitional housing by helping families find permanent housing quickly. It provides time-limited rental assistance and case management services to help these families maintain housing. These diversion programs help families find stable and permanent housing, which is key to ending family homelessness. Currently, there’s room in the Anchorage rehousing system to serve about 60 families per year.
Ending family homelessness isn’t easy but it can be done. Comprehensive housing and service response are necessary components to any plan. Permanent housing is the first-line response to family homelessness. Numerous studies have shown that housing subsidies are essential. Tenant-Based Rental Assistance (federal funding through the HOME Investment Partnerships Program) helps households afford the costs of market-rate units. The amount of subsidy is based on the household’s income, and the subsidy moves if the family relocates.
Under this program, rental assistance is provided to families for up to two years. Public housing provides subsidized housing to low-income families. Public housing options range from scattered site apartment units to housing projects. Housing Choice Vouchers and Project Based Section 8 vouchers are obtained through Alaska Housing Finance Corporation and allow the household to identify suitable housing as long as it meets program requirements. An ongoing housing subsidy is paid based on the household’s income to the landlord.
There are also options for transitional housing, which provides up to 24 months of temporary housing, usually in a group residence, combined with case management services. This program is intended to give interim support to help families move to and maintain permanent housing. Safe Harbor on Muldoon Road is operated by Rural CAP and provides transitional housing for homeless families with children with the goal of moving them to permanent housing within six months of entry.
While there are programs in place to help, more needs to be done and our views matter. Elected officials pay attention to emails, letters and phone calls from their constituents. A little effort goes a long way to encourage legislative action. Tell members of Congress to continue to support the reauthorization
of the McKinney Vento Act or to increase the number of housing vouchers targeted to homeless families.
Ending homelessness benefits our entire community. People living in stable housing are more likely to have regular employment, improved physical and mental health, and a higher quality of life. Children are much more likely to be successful in school, graduate and go on to higher education. Addressing homelessness in our community means helping people who can’t always help themselves while also making our community a safer place.
AHBA and the Anchorage Home Builders Care Endowment are committed to helping end homelessness in our community. Over the last few years we have donated $50,000 to organizations like the Salvation Army’s McKinnell House and United Way’s Homelessness programs. To help us continue these efforts donations can be made to the Care Endowment through ahba.net.