Housing Crisis in Nome: Homeless, not hopeless
By Julia Lerner
As the housing crisis worsens, The Nome Nugget plans to explore different aspects of homeless and low-income life in the community. Regularly, the Nugget will include an article addressing addiction, the housing crisis, profiles of homeless residents, and different approaches and solutions to the crisis. This article, titled “Homeless, not Hopeless”, is designed as an introduction to Nome’s unhoused population. We will dig much deeper into each aspect of homelessness, as well as solutions, over the coming weeks.
Robert “B Boy” Lincoln loves to cook. He’s currently learning how to pickle and has practiced by pickling several pounds of vegetables in the last few weeks. His next project, he says, is sauerkraut.
“I want to learn how to make something light and fresh,” he said. “And I still need to learn how to bake.”
Learning to bake, though, can be challenging while living in a truck, like Lincoln has since early May.
Lincoln has been homeless in Nome for almost two years, spending his time on Front Street, sleeping on friend’s couches, working for the Nome Emergency Shelter Team (NEST), and, for the last two months, living in his truck. “Housing access has been the biggest challenge,” he said. “We need more affordable housing here in Nome. Big cities like Anchorage have housing for the homeless, but there’s just nothing here.”
No access to housing
In Nome, homelessness and the town’s housing crunch go hand in hand. With a limited housing stock and sky-high rental and utility prices, escaping homelessness can be challenging for the almost 30 unhoused Nomeites.
“Our folks that are on the streets, that are unhoused, are not the problem,” explained Nome Community Center Executive Director Rhonda Schneider. “The problem is really access to housing, not enough employment, mental health issues, physical health issues, poverty, historical trauma. All of those things are why people are in the situation that they’re in.”
One paycheck from disaster
Across the region, one in five people live in poverty, according to U.S. Census data, meaning there are more than 2,000 people in the Nome Census Area struggling to afford food, shelter, electricity, education, bills and more.
The same is true across Alaska, where a minimum wage worker must work 76 hours per week to afford a one-bedroom apartment.
“We are all potentially one paycheck from being there, too,” Schneider said. “We’ve been having this same conversation for at least 12 years. We need to reframe the conversation. We need mental health support, housing, a public restroom.”
In Nome, there are 27 chronically homeless individuals, including Lincoln, according to NEST Director Shoni Evans.
Chronic homelessness, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, means any individual who “lives in a place not meant for human habitation, a safe haven, or in an emergency shelter; and has been homeless and living in one of these places continuously for at least 12 months or on at least four separate occasions in the last three years.”
NEST operates under the purview of the Nome Community Center, which manages and maintains several homeless and low-income services around the community, including the food bank. Currently, NEST is available throughout winter months, offering a safe, overnight sleeping shelter, typically from November 1 through April 30. “At NEST, our simple mission is to keep people alive,” Schneider said. “Most of the folks that we work with generally fit into three or four categories, and those are unemployment, poverty, mental health and physical health.”
In addition to the emergency shelter, the Community Center is exploring how to provide long-term community housing for Nome’s unhoused population through a “Housing First” project.
“Housing First is what we call a model of permanent supportive housing, meaning that it’s intended to be a slow transition program so residents can live there long-term, much in the way that you might live in some other kinds of housing projects,” explained Heidi Brocious, a professor at the University of Alaska, Anchorage who works with ongoing Housing First efforts in other parts of the state. “The idea is, essentially, whatever problems are contributing to your homelessness… such as alcohol consumption, are not barriers to getting housing.”
Several other groups around the city, including the Nome Common Council, are exploring how to address issues facing the homeless community. City officials have met with the Norton Sound Health Corporation, as well as other community groups, to discuss issues with alcoholism and addiction amongst the homeless residents.
“We’ve had two meetings, and our third is coming up in August,” explained Nome City Manager Glenn Steckman. “The goal is to pull the resources together to work together to come up with and address the issue of alcoholism, sexual assault, sexual abuse, homelessness, mental health, and more, because they’re all interrelated in many ways.”
Part of the problem, Steckman explained, is that Nome lies in an unincorporated borough.
“Typically, these services would be provided by a borough, and some of these issues are outside of the city’s typical responsibility,” he said. “My approach and the mayor’s approach is to start looking at addressing these issues and creating some type of path forward. But it’s not going to be resolved in a year. It’s not going to be resolved in two years. This may take a decade or more.”
Across Alaska, there are almost 2,000 individuals experiencing homelessness on any given day, according to HUD estimates, though this number doesn’t account for the thousands couch surfing or temporarily living with friends and family.
Bessie Mokiyuk, who grew up in Savoonga, has lived in Nome for more than nine years and has only returned to her village for funerals. Though her mother still lives in Savoonga, there’s often not enough space in her family home.
“At my mom’s, there’s my mom and my sister and her kids, so there’s not a lot of room,” Mokiyuk said. Several generations of family living in one home is common, and often referred to as “doubling up” at the federal level.
Mokiyuk and her brother served in the military for more than a decade. She was deployed to Afghanistan during her service. These days, she stays with friends and family when she can, and gets most of her food from Nome’s day shelter.
Of the 27 homeless persons who live in Nome, alcohol and substance abuse is common.
“The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration estimates 38 percent of homeless people were dependent on alcohol, and 26 percent abused other drugs,” according to the National Coalition for the Homeless.
While the NSHC Liitfik Wellness Center, an outpatient clinic supporting individuals with behavioral health and substance disorders, hopes to address these issues, some of the homeless residents don’t know about its services.
“A rehabilitation center in town is a huge need,” said Bryan Ayek. “Being homeless is really rough, and a lot of folks are here because they have no other choice.”
Ayek, a 29-year-old Nomeite, has been homeless for several years, and continues to struggle with addiction.
While several of the chronically unhoused residents come from neighboring communities and villages, most were born and raised in Nome, like Ayek. Many are also employed around the community, working in restaurants, grocery stores, NEST and the Norton Sound Seafood Products fish plant.
“I’ve worked since I was 12-, 13-years-old,” Ayek said. “My first job was at a McDonalds.” Since returning to Nome, Ayek has worked at AC, but struggled when his biological mother passed away.
He finds support and solace with the other unhoused residents in Nome.
“We’re like a family here,” he said. “We try to help each other, feed each other, take care of each other. We’re not bad people, we’re just in a bad situation.”
“If someone needs clothes to stay warm, they can take them off my back,” said Andrew “Gimpy” Ozenna, another individual struggling with homelessness in Nome. Ozenna has lived in Nome for almost two decades, and shares everything he has with his unhoused friends. Several of them share a phone, food, blankets, coats, alcohol and cigarettes.
We are human, too
Olaf Walters was born and raised in Nome and can be seen around town smiling and chatting with other homeless individuals, tourists and local dog walkers. He says he tries to take care of himself and his friends, but it can be challenging.
“I’ve been homeless all my life,” he explained. “Some people here have just lost all hope, and it’s hard for me to help others when I’m just trying to take it day-by-day with my own struggles. We’re still human, and we’re still trying. We’re part of the community, too.”
Many of the unhoused residents around Nome spoke of how disconnected they feel from the community.
“Some people won’t even look at us,” Ayek said. “They won’t acknowledge me or anything. They just need to get to know me and understand me.”
Geoffrey “Guff” Milligrock, another homeless individual born and raised in Nome, shared similar sentiments. “We’re still human,” he said. “People treat us like we’re not.”
Often, lawmakers at local, federal, and state levels don’t understand the issues facing homeless individuals because of that disconnect, Schneider said. “They all have a story, and they all deserve respect,” she said. “They all are maybe in a cycle that they can’t quite figure out how to get themselves out of, but individually they are unique and many of us are probably just one step away from being in the same situation.”
A lot of the unhoused residents around Nome want to sober up, but struggle without a support system.
“It’s tough, because once you sober up, there’s always the chance of going back to the bottle and losing everything,” Lincoln said. “It eats at your soul. It’s really tough at the bottom. There are others that want to sober up, too, but they just don’t have the support.”
Lincoln has friends and family in town, and considers everyone in his home village White Mountain to be family. He stayed in Nome for the opportunities in town.
“There’s more housing, more jobs, more people here,” he explained.
Lincoln has been sober for almost a month now and is looking into going back to school.
“I want to go back to school for cooking,” he said with a smile. “I’m going to try culinary school.”
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