Joaqlin Estus

Republished from Indian Country Today, December 14, 2023,

Anchorage, Alaska – So far this year 49 homeless people have died on city streets, more than twice as many as all of 2022. That's according to the Anchorage Daily News, which is tracking outdoor deaths of individuals with no fixed address.

The 49 included two people who used wheelchairs who died after heavy snowstorms hit the area in what is already expected to be a tough cold season.

The federal count of homeless people reached 580,000 last year, according to the Associated Press. In the Lower 48, cities are cracking down on homeless encampments. At the same time, some homeless Native people in the West have been targets of widespread Medicaid scams. At least two tribes have declared public health emergencies, the Blackfeet Nation of Montana and Navajo Nation in the Southwest.

In Anchorage, Alaska's largest city, about 43 percent of its homeless people are Alaska Native, despite them being only 12 percent of the population.

Melanie Skin, Inupiaq and Cherokee, gets a monthly Social Security disability check but it isn't enough to cover rent and living expenses. She stays in a tent most nights or sleeps on the streets.

That's bad enough but the hardest thing about being unhoused, she said, is, "I have a two-year-old son and I cannot see him at all. I gave him to his dad when he was six months, and ever since I gave my son to his dad, I never see him. So it's been really tough for me."

Experts say homelessness does not discriminate; it impacts people in all age brackets, all backgrounds, all walks of life. Skin's advice for anyone who finds themself in her situation?

"Master yourselves and keep positive. Keep your head up. Don't let anybody take advantage of you, or bully you ... If you're addicted to a drug or alcohol or anything, I advise people to stop and go to treatment, get better and continue going towards your future," Skin said.

Her friend Tony Kahutak, Alutiiq, is sometimes able to pay rent despite not having a steady job. He does day labor when he can get to the job site; he doesn't have a car.

"It's been pretty much an up-and-down roller coaster for me having a place to stay, because the food industry got hit the hardest when the pandemic came. And so I pretty much lost my job and everything else ever since then. But I've been bouncing back and forth ... it's just a hit or miss pretty much."

Skin and Kahutak are among an estimated 3,856 unhoused people in Anchorage as of the end of October. Hundreds were put out on the streets when the city last spring closed a 500-person shelter. That brought the city's supply of beds for emergency shelter to 524.

"We're just really in a situation right now where we would just really need more shelter beds, more emergency shelter beds," said Robin Dempsey, chief executive officer of Catholic Social Services, an agency that runs a number of programs for the unhoused. Those include low barrier shelters, where sobriety is not a requirement, a shelter for women who have children or are pregnant, as well as a center that connects people with resources.

"One of the things that's happened is that over the years, especially since Covid, we've seen the number of people experiencing homelessness grow," Dempsey said. "We've had much fewer vacancies. The rental rates are much higher, so getting into housing has been particularly difficult for people as well."

Gabe Layman, CEO of Cook Inlet Housing Authority, said things are even "worse than they seem."

"We have seen an increasing amount of visible homelessness in recent years, but Anchorage's unhoused population is not fully represented by those who are chronically unhoused. We also have overcrowding; we have people who are couch surfing. We have plenty of invisible homelessness as well," Layman said."