Housing bosses get a close look at regional housing crisis
A group of top federal housing administrators from Washington D.C., Seattle, and Anchorage visited Nome and Savoonga recently to see up close the roots of the region’s and Alaska’s housing crisis. Representatives from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, better known as HUD, and the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness had heard of the housing crisis in rural Alaska, but the conditions the people are living in wasn’t understood until they saw it with their own eyes.
“I have seen a lot of terrible housing situations in the twenty plus years that I have been working on homelessness, but I have not seen conditions this bad,” said Katy Miller, Seattle-based regional coordinator of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness. “I guarantee that their story will be told and we will continue to work with you to find solutions.” USICH is an independent federal agency within the U.S. executive branch created in 1987 by Congress to lead the federal effort to prevent and end homelessness.
“I want the region to know that we’ve managed to bring people out here who might actually be able to acknowledge the problem,” said Nome’s Sue Steinacher, founder and executive director of NEST.
Steinacher felt a boots-on-the- ground look at the critical housing situation, particularly as it is in the villages of the region, was necessary if the administrators of housing programs were going to understand the severity. “There seemed to be a lack of awareness of housing problems in our hubs and certainly in our villages,” she said.
In addition to the representatives of the two federal agencies Juneau-based Brian Wilson of the Alaska Coalition on Housing and Homelessness was included, as were Carol Piscoya and Megan Alvanna-Stimpfle of Nome.
“Day one has been a success and eye-opening for our visitors,” said Brian Wilson. “I had a good dinner meeting with the HUD/USICH folks and they are already shocked at the realities of rural Alaska. Can’t wait to hear what their reaction is tomorrow because they haven’t seen anything yet!”
“I had no idea American citizens were living like this,” said Wilson when he first visited Nome a little over a year ago. Like Steinacher, he was motivated to bring higher-up people to witness the problem on a personal level. He proposed to USICH and HUD that they come to the region and see the situation for themselves. So on May 13 the policy director from HUD arrived in Nome with her West Coast director from Seattle and the two top HUD people from the Anchorage office. After lunch at the NEST shelter they walked down to Front Street and met some of the people on the Seawall. They saw buildings which have been condemned by the city and heard how HUD’s funding cuts to the Nome Eskimo Community was affecting the twenty or so families, who depend on rent subsidies they were about to lose. Then they met with the Bering Straits Regional Housing Authority to hear about their struggle to address housing needs on a severely limited budget. Next, the group went to Katirvik where they met with Kawerak’s Carol Piscoya and heard an hour-long presentation on the cultural and political history of the region from Megan Alvanna-Stimpfle.
Sue Steinacher described to the Nugget how HUD’s policy of determining homelessness numbers is a problem for Alaska. They count people in shelters and people living on the streets. In Alaska most homeless are living with relatives, crowding into houses, which are already crowded. “Culturally and environmentally you can’t put a family out on the street in a village. They’re going to freeze to death,” she said. “So people won’t do it and culturally they wouldn’t do it anyway.” As a result Alaska homeless numbers are lower than they should be.
The group flew to Savoonga on Bering Air the following morning and first visited the tribal hall for an introduction to the village. Then they began to visit homes. While the visit was in the planning stages Steinacher had talked to Delbert Pungowiyi about Savoonga families volunteering to show the visitors how they live. A large number of families were eager to host the visitors.
“Some people might call it poverty tourism,” said Steinacher. “To get somebody high up in DC to see the poorest homes in Savoonga is quite a stretch. It has not happened before. People were stunned, they were shocked. No matter how many times you tell them how bad it is they don’t get it until they see it.”
“This is not just Bering Straits, this is all across rural Alaska. The shelters are the first line of a quick fix. No matter what they do in Anchorage their numbers are going to go up because there’s a problem at the source,” Steinacher said.
“I am confident that this visit will help bring about solutions for rural Alaska,” said HUD’s Colleen Bickford.