Financial needs linger among Alaskans, a year after the start of the pandemic shocked the state’s economy

Byron Corral helps pass out boxes of food at the Food Bank of Alaska’s emergency distribution site at Tikahtnu Commons in East Anchorage on Monday, July 20, 2020. (Tegan Hanlon/Alaska Public Media)

In the spring of 2020, Alaska was seeing the first impacts of the pandemic. That included a huge spike in unemployment as the state asked residents to stay home and imposed restrictions on businesses and travel.

Suddenly, many Alaskans were in need of a lot of help, and organizations worked quickly to provide it. While needs have settled down after that early spike, many Alaskans are still dealing with the financial impacts of the pandemic, which are expected to linger in the months ahead.

Alaska 211 is a hotline run by the United Way of Anchorage. It’s a place residents can turn to when they need help finding resources for things like food, housing, health mandates or information about vaccines.

“The 211 system is a bellwether for any community condition that’s happening,” said Sue Brogan, chief operating officer of United Way of Anchorage. Brogan’s in charge of the 211 hotline. She said the pandemic caused a dramatic increase in the number of calls to the hotline.

“In June of 2019 we had a call volume total for the month of 1,301 calls,” said Brogan. “In June of 2020 we had 8,435 calls.”

While calls have slowed from summer highs, Brogan said she expects pandemic impacts to continue into the months ahead.

Cara Durr, with the Food Bank of Alaska, said the organization saw an average 75% increase in demand for food assistance early on. She said that demand has leveled off some — it ebbs and flows — but Durr said it’s remained high, and it’s not going away.

“Looking at the last six months of 2020, compared with last six months of 2019, Food Bank of Alaska distributed 43% more pounds of food,” said Durr. “Which is a huge, huge increase for us.”

Durr said the food bank expects high demand to stick around.

“We’re thinking very long term,” said Durr. “The need is certainly very elevated right now. But we expect that even as things improve with the pandemic, we’re going to see the economic repercussions of this for quite some time.”

While thinking ahead, Durr said there’s a more immediate concern. Earlier this year, Alaska’s COVID-19 emergency declaration lapsed, and the state has yet to implement a new one. That’s put emergency allotments of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits in jeopardy.

Durr said the increase in SNAP benefits during the pandemic funds about 2.2 million meals a month for Alaska residents, amounting to about 1.4 million meals on top of what the food bank distributes monthly.

“So clearly, this is a huge gap that we would be trying to make up,” said Durr. “And really, it’s just not possible.”

It’s not clear what’s happening with emergency SNAP benefits. The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services said it’s waiting to hear back from the federal government about its request for the benefits for the month of April. According to the department, Alaskans may be able to receive the benefits without an emergency declaration.

Many Alaskans also still need help paying their bills.

In March, just over 29,000 residents applied for rent and utility relief through the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation. That’s up from around 8,000 people who applied for an earlier rent and mortgage assistance program. Bryan Butcher is the organization’s executive director.

“It was early in the pandemic when we ran last year’s program,” said Butcher. “So a lot of people that might have been under more financial distress weren’t there yet. Now it’s been going on for a long period of time. And obviously there’s a difference between having lost your job for a month and having lost your job for nine months or 10 months. The amount of assistance we can give is also different.”

The recent program offers up to twelve months of assistance, and can cover current or past payments.

Major John Brackenbury, divisional commander of the Salvation Army Alaska Division, said while some of his organization’s programs changed, nothing stopped because of COVID-19. In fact, he said, the Salvation Army ramped up its efforts.

Brackenbury said the need among Alaskans is still great, but things are a lot calmer now, and there’s a lot more money available.

“People are becoming more aware of what’s out there, what’s available, how they can get help,” said Brackenbury. “There have been a lot of other opportunities through the CARES Act dollars that have been made available to state and local governments that the Salvation Army has benefited from as well, in being able to provide necessary assistance to individuals across the state.”

Brogan, with United Way, said she’s grateful for the resources that entered the state during the pandemic to help meet the needs of Alaskans.

“Everyone’s been trying to go above and beyond, because the need is still great,” she said.

According to the Alaska Department of Labor, January job numbers were down 7.4% from the same month in 2020 — that’s 23,000 fewer jobs.

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