Gov. Walker wades into homeless issue with expansion of task force

ANCHORAGE (KTUU) — Gov. Bill Walker waded into the state’s homeless problem Tuesday -- one that defies easy solutions -- signing an order that expanded a homelessness task force to include a Native organization and the head of the state’s labor department.

Even as some homeless people have moved into housing and left their makeshift camps, they’ve been replaced by others. Population counts show about 3,000 Alaskans are homeless, and Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz says the population appears to have changed in a dangerous way.

“You’re seeing more of a criminal element start to be homeless,” Berkowitz said in an interview Tuesday. “You see more of the opioid addiction go up in the homeless population, you’re starting to see elements that go to support opioid addiction, start to fill these camps. We’re going to treat those issues as a part of homelessness but treat them with the criminal component that exists there too.”

Walker’s administrative order added the Alaska Federation of Natives to the Alaska Council on the Homeless, an organization started in 2004 by then-Gov. Frank Murkowski. Then Gov. Sarah Palin expanded the task force, run by the Alaska Housing Finance Corp., the state’s low-income housing developer. Walker signed his order at the AHFC headquarters building on Tudor Road in Anchorage.

In an interview, Walker acknowledged a governor can have little immediate impact on homelessness.

“Just doing a proclamation and suddenly saying homelessness goes away, that doesn’t happen,” Walker said in an interview. “It takes groups, it takes volunteers, it takes the federal government, state government, local government, community task force, faith-based organizations — it’s a team effort. It’s not anyone that’s going to pull a single lever and all of a sudden homelessness goes away.”

The Anchorage Municipality has recently announced new initiatives that include finding homes for people using grants from many sources, including private ones.

“I wish there were simple solutions,” Berkowitz said. “By the numbers, we’re holding steady, maybe even a slight decline in the number of people who are homeless.” But at the same time, other Anchorage residents are confronting the homeless more often. Berkowitz said he has seen homeless camps in his own neighborhood.

“There’s a more visible element to the homeless population than there has been in the past, and that’s what people are seeing and that’s what we’re responding to,” Berkowitz said.

Walker’s order focuses on housing, employment and income.

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