Brother Francis Shelter in Anchorage gives so much more than shelter to the people it serves. It is a place that offers safety and warmth, but more importantly it is a place where people can make the next step forward.
Our focus at Catholic Social Services is moving people from their present circumstances, to permanent housing, employment or activity, and long term sustainability. That involves a myriad of services including showers, laundry, a clothing room, dinner every night donated by Providence Alaska Medical Center, a computer lab and access to case managers and staff who are trained in trauma informed care. Case managers meet guests where they are and support them in moving from homelessness to self-sufficiency and housing. In addition to offering this every night of the year, this summer we began offering more services during the day because people needed a place to connect with services and providers. We are thinking long-term at Brother Francis Shelter, looking at our models of service and our staff organization and training, and working with our guests to build a brighter future for everyone we serve.
Our objective with every staff encounter is connection and hope, and to move our fellow people of this community out of the cycle of poverty and homelessness and into sustainability and success. Our expanded services came at a critical time.
This summer our community saw the impact of homelessness more than ever. There seemed to be more camps on our trails, more people on street corners and in parking lots asking for help, and more stories in the media talking about the incredible challenges.
At Catholic Social Services we saw this firsthand. We experienced — along with our clients — the spotlight on an issue in which we have expertise. Most importantly, Brother Francis Shelter reached full capacity for much of the summer. This is unusual; our numbers are typically below capacity in the summer as more people have seasonal employment, and more people camp.
There were many reasons Brother Francis was at full capacity. We have seen increases in the number of clients using Brother Francis Shelter annually over the past 10 years — more than a 20 percent increase in the population between 2006 and 2016. We also had a summer with very high fire danger. There were forest fires which threatened the lives and property of many people. Additionally, over the past year the municipality has strongly come to the table in terms of addressing homelessness in Anchorage, responding to community concerns about illegal camps across Anchorage and answering to the danger of fires.
With those concerns in mind, the municipality mobilized to keep the woods safe and advised everyone they found illegally camping to go to Brother Francis Shelter. Brother Francis Shelter staff worked all summer to assure safe spaces for everyone seeking shelter. They worked hard, relying on strong training and a focus on housing.
Toward the end of the summer, our numbers inside Brother Francis started to go down, and be below our capacity of 240 people. We had space. We urged and invited people sleeping outside to come in, and some did seek services. Others did not and remained outside. With that in mind, and knowing winter was on the way, we returned to our normal policy of having a closed campus at night beginning August 31.
Managing the parking lot as a camping area took a toll on the staff and resources, and we needed to regroup before winter. For the entire summer and since then, we have partnered strongly with the city and other social service agencies in the city to assure safety and continued services for all those in need.
As we begin our winter, we return to our focus on connection and a bright future. Each step along the path from homelessness and poverty to self-sufficiency and comfort can be challenging. We are working to shape the services at Brother Francis Shelter to support people at every step along the way and motivate future steps and achievement.
The writer is executive director of Catholic Social Services in Alaska. For more information about CSS, call 222-7300 or visit cssalaska.org.