Alaska nonprofits shrink staffing and services to keep homeless sheltered

David Rittenberg, program director at the Brother Francis Shelter, in the food pantry run by Catholic Social Services. (Photo by Zachariah Hughes/Alaska Public Media)

When Mary Abraham drives to visit the Brother Francis Shelter, people immediately flock toward her car.

“These clients know who I am, because I used to work there,” she said. “So they come to my vehicle, they say, ‘I need to see my case manager.’”

Abraham works for Catholic Social Services overseeing case managers. It’s a position that puts her at the front lines of helping people in the midst of homelessness in Alaska. And for the last few months, the desperation has felt palpable.

“We feel the struggle that they’re experiencing, and it’s hard,” Abraham said.

Now that the dust is settling in the budget battle between state legislators and Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration, homeless service providers are starting to understand the long-term effects from delayed and reduced public funds. Many of the most dire consequences were avoided. But service providers say serious damage has already been done.

Mary Abraham, manager of Catholic Social Services case managers, standing in front of the organization’s mission statement. (Photo by Zachariah Hughes/Alaska Public Media)

Catholic Social Services is one of the main organizations handling homeless issues in Anchorage. And its case managers are the Swiss Army knives of the homeless services tool box. They work as a combination of counselors, social workers and advocates, helping clients navigate all levels of resources, from getting a bus pass to food stamps to housing vouchers.

But funding cuts from the state have caused CSS to eliminate one quarter of its case manager positions. And that has meant pulling all the caseworkers out of the city’s largest homeless shelter. As a result, many of those working in nonprofits worry the system is now missing a crucial resource for helping people getting off the streets and into stable housing.

After Dunleavy’s June budget vetoes, there was a lot of attention on people who might lose housing and wind up on the street if the spending cuts went through. In the short term, those dire consequences have largely been avoided by the partial restoration of funding and shifting around grant money.

“We thought we were losing the kit and caboodle,” said Jasmine Boyle, executive director of the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness. “We thought we were going to lose a little bit more than $12 million.”

According to figures from the coalition, it was ultimately a $1.25 million reduction in direct state money for key programs.

According to Boyle, the cuts that went through fell disproportionately on one group of service providers: homeless shelters.

“It’s essentially the shelters that were hit the most heavily,” she said.

On top of that, shelters are notoriously difficult to fund through private donations, according to Boyle.

“The cuts that did get enacted hit the people that are sometimes hardest for our community to want to support,” she said. “If government won’t fund that, I don’t see a lot of options for alternatives.”

But the impacts of this year’s budget skirmish go beyond diminished resources. They created enormous insecurity among the clients who rely on homeless assistance programs. As well as within the organizations themselves — especially the front-line staff.

At 240 beds, CSS’s Brother Francis Shelter is the largest overnight shelter in the state. On July 1 — the start of the fiscal year, when funding was still uncertain — Brother Francis had to send out 30-day layoff notices to a number of employees.

“Even with some of this funding coming back, we lost a lot of really great case managers when that funding was cut,” said David Rittenberg, program director at the Brother Francis Shelter. “Those individuals that we’d already trained, that have already built those relationships with guests, we’re starting from scratch there.”

Rittenberg and others worry that in the long term, this slice of the nonprofit sector will lose a lot of talent and experience in its workforce, as seasoned employees, case workers and managers decide they don’t want to deal with the financial instability. Especially if the kind of clashes seen this year become an annual part of the state’s budget cycle.

At one point this summer, with funding still unsolved, Brother Francis was staying open by spending its savings, and it got close to closing all together for a few days before reopening at a significantly reduced capacity.

Rittenberg said the discussions among staff and clients about who would be prioritized and who would be turned out were the hardest of his career. Shortly before the closure would have gone into effect, the municipality of Anchorage agreed to shift around $400,000 in budgeted funds to keep the shelter running. Though grateful, Rittenberg said the system in place offers only the most basic safety net.

“Right now at BFS, we are only providing emergency services,” he said. That means a warm place to sleep, one meal, showers, laundry — but not much else.

Brother Francis is hardly the only emergency shelter tying to keep its doors open and sacrificing other programming to do so. Five of seven shelters in Anchorage will have to find ways to reduce capacity, according to the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness.

Beyond Anchorage, shelters in places like Juneau and Nome are struggling to figure out how to close budget gaps.

The shaky funding situation will keep many people sheltered who would otherwise be sleeping on the streets, in camps, or emergency rooms this winter. But, Rittenberg said, that does not constitute progress.

“Case management is the ladder out of poverty. If we don’t have that case management piece, we’re not moving people out. And that’s really what we’re here to do. You don’t end poverty and you don’t end homelessness by simply putting people in a warm, safe building. You end homelessness by taking people out of that building and moving them into their own independent housing,” he said.

To those who say the state can no longer afford to provide shelter and homeless services, Rittenberg said residents pay for it one way or another: either to non-profits, or else to emergency responders, police departments and hospitals.

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