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Committee formed to examine substance abuse, mental illness among homeless

By Hope Miller 10:14 AM August 15, 2014

Particularly during the summer, it’s not uncommon to see homeless people on the streets in pockets of Anchorage.

A few blocks away from Brother Francis Shelter Thursday evening, a young man in tattered jeans with a windbreaker draped over his head could be seen pummeling a light post. He stood alone, seemingly unaware of his surroundings. He could have been been inebriated, mentally ill or both.

Not far away, dozens of homeless people congregated in front of the shelter.

Substance abuse, chronic homelessness and mental health are interrelated issues a group of Anchorage Assembly members are hoping to tackle with a newly formed committee.

The group, which met for the first time Thursday afternoon, has a multifaceted mission: Work with the community to pinpoint the causes and effects of substance abuse among the chronically homeless and examine mental health issues within the population. The Assembly members also want to look at the impact of homelessness on municipal and private sector resources, and educational programs and possible funding sources to deal with problems surrounding Anchorage’s homeless population.

According to a 2014 report, 117 out of 709 people surveyed said the main reason they became homeless was because of substance abuse or a mental health incident. More than a quarter of people surveyed said substance abuse made it difficult to retain housing while 20 percent of people said a mental illness made it hard to find permanent shelter.

Assembly members Bill Evans, Amy Demboski, Elvi Gray-Jackson and Pete Petersen don’t want to just talk amongst themselves, they said. They aim to involve groups known for taking on similar issues, such as Catholic Social Services, and said they want to hear from the public.

No idea is off the table, Evans said.

“If we’re going to be successful, I think we’re going to have to draw from all sides,” he said. “I think we have to be very courageous on this committee and not be afraid to do or say anything,” he later added.

At the meeting, Petersen proposed that the Alaska Legislature put more revenue collected from the state’s alcohol tax toward substance abuse treatment and prevention. At the moment, the former legislator said, state law encourages lawmakers to allocate half the money to alcohol and drug abuse programs.

The municipality has tried to address some of these issues already, said Demboski, referencing the Anchorage Safety Patrol.

“But we recognize that we have a fundamental issue that isn’t necessarily being tackled head on,” she said.

According to the four, this is the first Assembly committee that will take a closer look at the connections between the chronically homeless, mental health and substance abuse.

“I think we have a different makeup on the Assembly and there’s multiple members who are passionate and want to focus on this,” Demboski said.

Comments from the public about disruptive behavior among the homeless also helped fuel the committee’s creation, Petersen said.

The Assembly members plan to meet next month and invite the public and local organizations to share their ideas.

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