A Look at Homelessness in Alaska

Justice Center, University of Alaska Anchorage. (Summer 2009). "A Look at Homelessness in Alaska." Alaska Justice Forum 26(2): 2–5. Homelessness, and its impact on individuals, families, and society, is an issue of growing concern both nationally and in Alaska. This article provides information on homelessness in Alaska and nationally. On a single night in January 2008, the U.S. homeless population was estimated at 664,000. In 2008, Alaska at 0.24 per cent ranked number 10 among states for estimates of homeless persons as a percent of a state’s total population; a single-night count in January 2009 placed Alaska's homeless count at 4,583

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Homelessness, and its impact on individuals, families, and society, is an issue of growing concern both nationally and in Alaska. In the U.S., about 1,594,000 individuals used an emergency shelter or transitional housing, or both, between October 1, 2007 and September 30, 2008. On a single night in January 2008, the U.S. homeless population was estimated at 664,000 according to this annual Point-In-Time (PIT) count. These figures are part of the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) “2008 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress” released in July 2009. HUD also reports that although the overall homeless rate was down one percent in 2008 from the prior year, the number of people in families using homeless shelters increased by 9 percent, a possible reflection of the effects of the current recession.

“Homelessness” is defined in the United States Code, Chapter 119, Subchapter I, §11302, “General definition of homeless individual”:

… the term “homeless” or “homeless individual or homeless person” includes—

1. an individual who lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence; and

2. an individual who has a primary nighttime residence that is —

A. a supervised publicly or privately operated shelter designed to provide temporary living accommodations (including welfare hotels, congregate shelters, and transitional housing for the mentally ill);

B. an institution that provides a temporary residence for individuals intended to be institutionalized; or

C. a public or private place not designed for, or ordinarily used as, a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings.

In 2008, Alaska ranked tenth among the 50 states in concentration of homeless people, with 0.24 percent of the total state estimated to be homeles (Table 1). Oregon was number one with 0.54 percent, Nevada number two at 0.48 percent, Hawaii was number three at 0.47 percent, and California was fourth ranked with 0.43 percent. Homelessness in the U.S. is concentrated in urban areas. But from September 2007 to September 2008, the number of homeless nationally in suburban and rural areas rose from 23 percent of the homeless population to 32 percent.

It is important to note that most homeless counts rely on homeless agency participation—which varies year to year. Any counts of homelessness are estimates. Each count is a snapshot of a given moment and reflects data collected for individuals at a particular time.

Table 1. States with Highest Concentrations of Homeless People, 2008

Who are the homeless in the U.S.?

Of the 1,594,000 homeless who used emergency shelter or transitional housing between October 1, 2007 and September 30, 2008:

  • 32% were homeless persons in families.
  • 68% were homeless individuals.
  • 64% of homeless adults were male.
  • 62% of the homeless were a minority.
  • 43% had a disability.
  • 40% of all these individuals were between 31 and 50 years old.

Estimates of subpopulations of the homeless based on the nationwide single-night January 2008 PIT count show:

  • About 15% were veterans.
  • Almost 13% were recent victims of domestic violence.
  • Nearly 26% were persons with severe mental illness.
  • 37% were persons with chronic substance abuse issues.
  • 2% were unaccompanied youth under age 18.
  • 4% were persons with HIV/AIDS.

The chronically homeless are another subpopulation. The federal definition of chronically homeless used by HUD states that a chronically homeless person is:

…either (1) an unaccompanied homeless individual with a disabling condition who has been continuously homeless for a year or more, OR (2) an unaccompanied inividual with a disabling condition who has had at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years.

To be considered chronically homeless, a person must have been on the streets or in emergency shelter (i.e., not in transitional or permanent housing) during these stays.

The nationwide 2008 PIT count estimated that:

  • About 19% of the total homeless population (individuals and families) are chronically homeless.
  • About 30% of homeless individuals are chronically homeless.

The number of chronically homeless remained about the same from 2007 to 2008 nationally.

Who are the homeless in Alaska?

Based on the January 2009 single-night count, Alaska’s homeless number 4,583 persons. (The total state population in July 2008 was estimated at 679,200.) This figure includes individuals who meet HUD’s definition of homeless, as well persons temporarily housed in a motel or with family/friends:

  • 93% (4,256 persons) were “sheltered,” which includes living in emergency shelters, transitional shelters, with extended family and/or friends, or temporarily in motels.
  • 7% (327 persons) were “unsheltered,” which includes living in a place not meant for human habitation such as cars, parks, sidewalks, abandoned buildings, or on the street.
  • Among the sheltered, 57.5% were households with children.
  • Among the unsheltered, 23.5% were households with children.

This 2009 count (including sheltered and unsheltered persons) showed the following figures for homeless subpopulations (Table 2):

  • Almost 9% are chronically homeless.
  • Nearly 14% have chronic substance abuse issues.
  • Over 7% are victims of domestic violence.
  • About 6% are veterans.
  • Approximately 11% are severely mentally ill.
  • Nearly 3% are unaccompanied youth under the age of 18.
  • Less than 1% have HIV/AIDS.
Table 2. Subpopulations of Homeless Persons, by Type, Anchorage and Alaska, January 2009

Where are the homeless in Alaska?

In 2009, the January single-night homeless count across the state showed the highest number of homeless was in Anchorage, with 2,962 homeless persons—nearly 65 percent of the state’s total homeless population. The next highest number was in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough with 472 persons, followed by Fairbanks North Star Borough with 428 homeless, the City of Juneau with 403 homeless individuals, and the Kenai Peninsula Borough with 166 homeless. The number of homeless persons increased from 2007 to 2009 in all the above areas, with the exception of the Kenai Peninsula Borough. (See Table 3.)

Table 3. Alaska Homeless Counts 2007–2009

Who are the homeless in Anchorage?

According to the January 2009 count, Anchorage, the state’s most populous city, had 2,805 persons who were sheltered homeless, and 157 who were unsheltered. (Anchorage’s total population in July 2008 was estimated to be 284,994.) The count included households with and without dependent children:

  • Over 25% of all homeless households in Anchorage had dependent children.
  • There was a 49% increase in households with dependent children from 2008 to 2009.

A survey for HUD of Anchorage homeless persons over the period October 1, 2007 to September 30, 2008 showed that of sheltered persons in families:

  • 73% were female.
  • 55% were under the age of 12.
  • 29 % were American Indian or Alaska Native.
  • 20% were White.
  • 18% were Black or African American.
  • 21% were between the ages of 18 and 30 years.
  • 16% were between the ages of 31 and 50 years.
  • 34% stayed in shelters or transitional housing for 1 to 3 months.

Data for individuals in shelters show:

  • 80% were male.
  • 42% were American Indian or Alaska Native.
  • 39% were White.
  • 13% were Black.
  • Over half (55%) were between the ages of 31 and 50 years.
  • 27% were between the ages of 51 and 61 years.
  • 68% stayed in shelters or transitional housing for a week or less.

Anchorage’s homeless subpopulations include sheltered and unsheltered persons. (See Table 4.) According to the January 2009 count of Anchorage’s homeless population:

  • Nearly 9% are chronically homeless.
  • Over 13% have chronic substance abuse issues.
  • Approximately 5% are victims of domestic violence.
  • Close to 7% are veterans.
  • About 9% are severely mentally ill.
  • Close to 2% are unaccompanied youth under the age of 18.
  • Less than 1% have HIV/AIDS.
Table 4. Homeless Persons, by Family Status, Anchorage and Alaska, January 2009

Single-night homeless counts from 2007, 2008, and 2009, both statewide and in Anchorage, show a definite rise in the overall number of homeless. (See Figure 1.) In 2008, more than 20 percent of sheltered and unsheltered individuals in Anchorage, and nearly 19 percent of persons statewide met the definition of chronically homeless. However, the 2009 January count showed a drop in chronic homelessness to about 9 percent both in Anchorage and statewide.

Figure 1. Homeless Persons in Alaska by Year, 2007–2009

Members of the Alaska Coalition on Housing and Homelessness have looked at this decrease in the percentage of the chronically homeless. Coalition members have suggested that factors for the difference in the rates for 2008 and 2009 may include: 1) temporary closure of some supportive housing resources in 2008 which contributed to a rise in numbers for that year, and 2) in 2009, the increasing number of chronically homeless mentally ill persons who are in the judicial and correctional systems, rather than in the community at large. Homeless service providers also suggest that earlier intervention with the homeless may be having an effect and that because episodes of homelessness may be fewer or farther apart in time, fewer number of homeless meet the definition of “chronically homeless” (see page 2 for the federal definition).

The Anchorage School District (ASD) tracks the number of homeless students in grades Kindergarten through 12, and uses the definition of homeless children and youth found in the 1987 McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act which was reauthorized in January 2002 through the No Child Left Behind Act. The term “homeless children and youths” is defined in Title VII, Subtitle B of the McKinney-Vento Act:

[Homeless children and youths include] …individuals who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence…and includes (i) children and youth who are sharing the housing of other persons due to loss of housing, economic hardship, or a similar reason; are living in motels, hotels, trailer parks, or camping grounds due to the lack of alternative adequate accommodations; are living in emergency or transitional shelters; are abandoned in hospitals; or are awaiting foster care placement....(iii) children and youths who are living in cars, parks, public spaces, abandoned buildings, substandard housing, bus or train stations, or similar settings; and (iv) migratory children....

The percentage of homeless students in Anchorage has risen steadily from 3.3 percent in the school year 2006-2007 to 3.6 percent in 2007-2008, to 4.1 percent for 2008-2009. This translates to a total of 2,010 homeless students in 2008-2009. (See Table 5.)

Table 5. Homeless Students Enrolled in Anchorage School District, 2004–2009

Most recently, statistics on the homeless in Anchorage were collected at the July 31, 2009 Project Homeless Connect coordinated by the Anchorage Coalition on Homelessness. Project Homeless Connect is a “one-day, one-stop event to provide housing, services, and hospitality in a convenient one-stop model directly to people experiencing homelessness in Anchorage”(www.anchoragehomeless.org/project-homeless-connect). The day-long event provided services to 646 individuals:

  • 62% were male.
  • 53% were Alaska Native as identified by Alaska Native Regional Corporation.
  • 25% were White.
  • 7% were Black or African American.
  • 22% reported being homeless more than one month and up to six months.
  • 24% reported having slept the previous night in “a place not meant for human habitation.”
  • 21% reported a chronic substance abuse issue.
  • 17% reported a mental illness.
  • 26% had a physical disability.
  • 23% of the females stated they had been victims of domestic violence.

The Alaska Council on the Homeless, the Alaska Coalition on Housing and Homelessness (there are regional coalitions across the state), the Municipality of Anchorage, Alaska Housing Finance Corporation, HUD, and the Anchorage Coalition on Homelessness are among the agencies looking at ways to prevent homelessness and provide assistance to homeless individuals and families. The Alaska Council on the Homeless, a state entity established in 2004, adopted a “10 Year Plan to End Long Term Homelessness in Alaska” in May of this year. To assist regional areas of the state, Alaska Housing Finance Corporation is working with local coalitions to develop their own “10 Year Plans” that will interface with the State Council’s “Plan.”

As part of the State Council’s “10 Year Plan,” a program is in development through Alaska Housing Finance Corporation to provide rental assistance to another group that has been identified as being at risk for homelessness: persons with disabilities who are being discharged from correctional facilities. In addition, the Alaska Council on Homelessness reports data from the Department of Corrections indicating that overall about 8,000 persons are released from state correctional facilities each year with “no identified housing arrangement.”

The Municipality of Anchorage Department of Health and Human Services published an “Overview of Homelessness in Anchorage, Alaska” in July 2009 which includes statistics from specific shelters in Anchorage. In examining shelter numbers from January through June 2009, the report found that AWAIC (Abused Women’s Aid in Crisis) and Clare House were operating over capacity, but other Anchorage shelters were not. The Municipality has also issued a 2008 redraft of Anchorage’s “Ten-Year Plan on Homelessness,” and Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan recently released a “Mayor’s Strategic Action Plan” on chronic public inebriates and related issues of homelessness.

National, state, and local agencies continue to collect data on the homeless, the causes and prevention of homelessness, and explore ways to assist those individuals and families experiencing homelessness.

Table 6. Homeless Persons by Year, Anchorage and Alaska, 2007–2009