Sunday, December 8, 2013

Homelessness in rural Alaska

That is the subject of Kirk Johnson's piece in today's New York Times, "Soldotna Journal:  Alaska's Thin Line Between Camping and Homelessness."  Specifically, Johnson writes of the problem of homelessness on the Kenai Peninsula, south of Anchorage.  Johnson's story highlights the challenges of providing services in an area where the few population clusters--Soldotna, Homer, and Seward--are no more than a couple thousand people each and where natural features--forests, rivers, mountains, the sea--dominates the landscape.  Part of the challenge to service provision, in short, is the spatial challenge associated with rural spatiality--magnified by the Alaskan scale:
In Alaska’s deeply rural villages, where no roads penetrate and many families are interconnected through blood or culture, homelessness is often dealt with in the old-fashioned way, with relatives or neighbors giving shelter to those in trouble. 
Johnson contrasts this situation with Anchorage, which has the the state’s biggest homeless population, but also "the biggest system of help and outreach."

Johnson also addresses some of the reasons for the homelessness problem on Kenai, which are linked to the nature of the economy and the workforce.  While the area features "bounties of nature" like salmon and oil--both of which are accompanied by "upward opportunities and working-wage jobs for people with skills," those bounties "mask a hard reality":
 When someone’s life goes awry, through a misstep or a spousal betrayal, a job loss or an eviction, or just a stretch of bad luck, there is not much of a safety net here.
* * * 
[T]the downward pull of drugs, alcohol and poverty is always there.
He quotes Cathy Giessel, a state senator who represents part of the peninsula, who notes the role that lack of anonymity can play in keeping the downtrodden in that situation. 
This is a great area to raise families; it has wonderful, positive things.  But folks can be shut out of jobs pretty easily by making bad choices.

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