The Nicest Place in Alaska: Anchorage

NICEST PLACES IN AMERICA 2020 FINALIST
"Housing Alaska's Homeless"

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A city known for its cold warms hearts by ensuring its homeless are safe during the pandemic.

Anchorage has always been a welcoming place. It has to be. “It’s made up mostly of transplants of the Lower 48, and when you move here people are so excited to show you their city and introduce you to others,” says Molly Cornish, community engagement director at the local Catholic Social Services. “It’s great.”

And that goes for everyone in the remote city of nearly 300,000. When Alaska issued its “Hunker Down” order due to the novel coronavirus, the staff at Catholic Social Services knew they needed to act quickly to get the homeless population of Anchorage off the streets and out of crowded shelters to stem the disease’s spread. That meant finding private places for as many homeless as possible.

“We knew that getting these individuals into their own residences was going to be the safest option,” says Cornish—and CSS staff worked around the clock to find hundreds of homes. But their success created a new problem: those being rehoused often lacked the necessities that so many take for granted. Soap, toothpaste and—of course—toilet paper.

A call for help on social media was picked up by Coronavirus Days of Caring, a quickly assembled Facebook group of Anchorage residents. They collaborated with a local business that has an ongoing partnership with CSS, the Hotel Captain Cook, to start a drive. Residents could drop necessities off with the hotel bellmen to be distributed to a newly housed person. Not only that; for every selfie taken during the drop-off, the hotel would give a $10 tip to staffers who had temporarily lost their jobs due to the pandemic.

loading the truckCourtesy Catholic Social Services Alaska (3)
Catholic Social Services collected truckloads of supplies with the help of Hotel Captain Cook.

When the drive concluded, two massive box trucks full of household items had been gathered. Catholic Social Services now had everything they needed for anyone who walked through their front door with a basic need.

“People were so generous,” says Cornish. “It was so wonderful to see.”

Sandy Cannon, the resident who submitted Anchorage’s story to Reader’s Digest, says that’s the kind of thing locals do automatically. She credits the generosity of her 70-something neighbor, Charlotte, with making sure she and her husband—both in very high-risk groups—survived the quarantine. Cannon is a 65-year-old with asthma and high blood pressure, while her husband has Crohn’s disease, pre-diabetes, and lung issues.

“I would say something offhand, like ‘Oh, I need flour,’ and magically the next day flour would arrive on my doorstep,” Cannon says. “It was like the flour fairy had come! Flour, sugar, toilet paper—the surprises kept coming.” Charlotte repeatedly picked up their medications whenever they were ready at the pharmacy. “She’s just always there, when there’s no payoff in it for her. She does it out of the kindness of her heart,” Cannon says.

A peaceful march on June 5 to protest the death of George Floyd inspired similar steps to protect each other. As 1,000 residents gathered, a local gallery launched an art show featuring photos of the protests. “The turnout was fantastic,” says Jovell Rennie, co-owner and founder of Akela Space, which raised $23,000 for groups serving Black and Native residents. “We were careful to follow social distancing guidelines and required masks, and the people just kept coming to support and donate.”

The Nomination

My neighbor and good friend Charlotte is in her 70s. My husband are vulnerable adults for several reasons — he’s in his 70s also and suffers from Crohn’s disease, is pre-diabetic and has lung issues, and I’m over 65 and have asthma and high blood pressure. When the Coronavirus hit, even though she was in a vulnerable age group, she would constantly leave us surprise items on our porch several times a week. Hard to find items like flour, toilet paper, sugar, meat, etc. Once I needed a special ingredient for a cake and she went to several stores to find it. She would don her mask and do our shopping for us. Every single time she left her house, she would text and say, “I’m out what can I bring you?” Without this special person in our lives, we would have had to depend on grocery delivery (more expensive) or ordering and picking up at the stores, and not getting the things we wanted. She also picked up prescriptions when ready and made sure we had everything we needed. Friends like these are hard to come by and she is certainly cherished.

I think our community was falling apart a year ago. We have a lot of crime and that was the focus. Businesses were starting to close down, as the economy is not doing well at the moment. Since covid our community has come together. It has been an amazing transformation! People are supporting local businesses and the homeless population is finally being cared for. It’s a transformation that I never thought I would see. The city leaders are stepping up and making us all proud.

When Anchorage began to hunker down in light of COVID-19, Catholic Social Services knew it was of utmost importance to house those experiencing homelessness quickly so that they may have the safest shelter possible, as well as provide support to those at risk of losing housing. Since the Hunker Down order, Catholic Social Services Alaska Homeless Family Services Program has housed over 155 individuals and helped over 262 remain in permanent housing. We are continuing to rapidly rehouse families and individuals, and this number is always increasing. Case managers and staff at CSS were working around the clock to provide support, and are continuing to do so.

However, there was one challenge. CSS lacked the goods and household items needed for those being housed in new apartments. Because CSS was housing individuals at such a rapid rate, there was a high demand of things like dishes, soap, toilet paper, and other household goods.

Catholic Social Services Alaska put out some Facebook posts, and sent out emails to supporters and volunteers. A local Facebook page, “Coronavirus Days of Caring,” is a group of community members committed to providing help in response to COVID-19. The group saw CSS’s need. They collaborated with Hotel Captain Cook, and organized a drive to collect the household goods needed for CSS. Community members could drop off items with the bellman at Hotel Captain Cook, and they would store the goods until it was pick up day. Even better — if the donor took a (socially distanced) selfie, and included a hashtag, Hotel Captain Cook would provide a ten dollar tip to one of their restaurant and service staff who were currently laid off or lacking hours.

donations filling a room and being loaded onto the truckCourtesy Catholic Social Services Alaska (2)
The community’s generosity filled an entire room before the truck from Catholic Social Services came to pick it up.

When pick up day came, the community donated over two box trucks full of household goods. The response was overwhelming! CSS now has these items stored at their building and case managers can use these goods when housing clients.

Anchorage, Alaska is a very tight knight community. We are now out of the hunker down phase of the COVID Response plan. However, CSS continues to house individuals and families.

The existing shelters in Anchorage could not accommodate the extra space required between sleeping spaces for guests. In response, the municipality opened a large shelter for those experiencing homelessness that could accommodate the extra space needed between sleeping guests. The large shelter could also accommodate guests to stay hunkered down inside all day.

Outside the shelter, they have created a resource space. Here, many service organizations have case managers stationed each day for individuals to receive support and services.

Anchorage has always been a place where people come together and lend a helping hand. COVID-19 has shown just how supportive and kind our community is.

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