Anchorage, Alaska: Shawn Steik and his wife were forced from a long-term motel room onto the streets of Anchorage after their rent shot up to $800 a month. Now they live in a tent encampment by a train depot, and as an Alaska winter looms they are growing desperate and fearful of what lies ahead.
A proposal last week by Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson to buy one-way plane tickets out of Alaska’s biggest city for its homeless residents gave Steik a much-needed glimmer of hope. He would move to the relative warmth of Seattle. “I heard it’s probably warmer than this place,” said Steik, who is Aleut.
But the mayor’s unfunded idea also came under immediate attack as a Band-Aid solution glossing over the tremendous, and still unaddressed, crisis facing Anchorage as a swelling homeless population struggles to survive in a unique and extreme environment. Frigid temperatures stalk the homeless in the winter and bears infiltrate homeless encampments in the summer.
A record eight people died of exposure while living outside last winter and this year promises to be worse after the city closed an arena that housed 500 people during the winter months. Bickering between the city’s liberal assembly and its conservative mayor about how to address the crisis, and a lack of state funding, have further stymied efforts to find a solution.
With winter fast approaching in Alaska, it’s “past time for state and local leaders to address the underlying causes of homelessness — airplane tickets are a distraction, not a solution,” the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska said in a statement.
About 43% of Anchorage’s more than 3,000 unsheltered residents are Alaska Natives, and Bronson’s proposal also drew harsh criticism from those who called it culturally insensitive.