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Bethel’s survey and service event provides a helping hand to area homeless

Dean Swope
The Yupiit Piciryarait Cultural Center in Bethel, Alaska.

Every year, housing and homelessness advocates in Bethel canvas the community to get a count of how many people are experiencing homelessness or living in substandard housing. It’s called the point-in-time count, and it’s a nationwide program that is supposed to provide a snapshot of the scale of need in a region.

“That count has to happen sometime in the last 10 days of January,” said Alaska Coalition on Housing and Homelessness Director Brian Wilson.

So on Jan. 31, Bethel police and community housing and homelessness advocates visited three campsites and a couple of abandoned houses not fit for human habitation.

There’s no definitive number of how many homeless people are in the region because it’s hard to pinpoint exactly who is homeless and when. At least 72 people in Bethel filled out surveys saying that they are experiencing homelessness.

Wilson, who is based in Juneau, said that those numbers don’t tell the entire story of homelessness and housing instability. Some advocates in the state say they don’t really use them.

“There's a couple nuances in the point-in-time count data,” Wilson said. “And we don't typically like to use point-in-time count data to describe the overall need in our state because it's just a literal snapshot, but it's restricted by federal definitions of what they consider somebody experiencing homelessness.”

It’s also restricted by the ability to count people, especially in rural Alaska where many communities do not have housing or homeless service agencies.

“There's a whole lot of communities that were sending numbers saying 'there's nobody experiencing homelessness here,' when we know that's not true. We just don't have the capacity to count them,” Wilson said.

There’s another catch to this data as well: it doesn't capture anything about the overcrowding problems experienced in rural Alaska. Nor does it adequately reflect people who are enrolled in permanent supportive housing or rapid rehousing programs.

“So you'll see our statewide numbers every year usually float around 2,000 or so total,” Wilson said. “But we know from data we collect every day of the year that typically we'll serve over 15,000 unique Alaskans in some way over the course of the year.”

Despite the flaws of the count, many communities use it as a way to make contact and offer services to people they find.

In Bethel, the count was paired with Project Homeless Connect, which took over the Yupiit Picirayarait Cultural Center on Feb.1.

The center’s multipurpose room was partitioned into sections. On one side there was lunch: moose chili, sandwiches, and moose goulash. On the other side, 16 agencies and organizations waited to help people who showed up. They tried to cover all of the bases from job services, to food assistance, to churches, to vocational rehabilitation.

The Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation (YKHC) offered flu shots and checked people’s blood pressure. The Windy Willows salon set up a barber chair to offer free haircuts. A local psychologist offered mental health services, along with local churches for those struggling with addiction. The event has been held in Bethel for the last five years.

“So, it’s fairly recent,” said Jesuit Volunteer and Kuskokwim Consortium Library Adult Services Coordinator Olivia Stemkowski. She led the Project Homeless Connect efforts. “But it seems to work out and help a lot of people who do need it.”

Stemkowski said that the homeless shelter, Bethel Winter House, can only stay open for so long due to staffing and funding. During the winter months, she sees a spike in homelessness, especially in the library, due to the increased traffic. As the adult services coordinator, she aims to provide more accessible services and assistance to those experiencing homelessness. And she said that she could use some help.

“I’m always looking for donations for Project Homeless Connect,” Stemkowski said.

Useful donations would include winter clothes, backpacks, socks, and hygiene products.

Francisco Martínezcuello was the KYUK News Reporting Fellow from November 2022 through January 2024. He is a graduate of UC Berkeley School of Journalism. He is also a veteran of the United States Marine Corps.
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