The Nome Community Center has a strategy to address the city’s ongoing homelessness problem.
It’s called “Housing First,” and it’s an approach initially proposed in the early 1990s. Nome Community Center Executive Director Rhonda Schneider explained the basic concept to the Nome Public Safety Advisory Commission.
“When folks who are struggling and need supportive services around them — by providing stable, secure, safe housing first, then the other issues that are the causes for the homelessness are able to be dealt with,” Schneider said.
NCC wants to build a complex of 15 studio apartments to house homeless people in Nome. But the physical structure is only part of the equation.
“We’ll have a property manager on site, and then we’ll have our clinic that provides medical and physical and mental health and individual counseling. … We’re going to have (a) case manager that will be working with our clients every day … to kind of keep them on track and make sure that they are getting the services that they need to be more successful. … We want them to graduate into independence,” NCC Housing and Homeless Prevention Coordinator Liz Johnson said.
According to Johnson, a large portion of the project funding will come from the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation’s Greater Opportunities for Affordable Living program. NCC is reaching out to local partners as well, including the city, Norton Sound Health Corporation, Norton Sound Economic Development Corporation, Sitnasuak Native Corporation and Bering Straits Native Corporation.
Research shows that Housing First projects help reduce the burden on public systems such as law enforcement and hospital services. Juneau established a Housing First project called the Forget-Me-Not Manor in September of 2017. University of Alaska Anchorage Professors Heidi Brocious and Morgan Erisman published a study on the Forget-Me-Not Manor last year. They found that residents visited the emergency room about 60% less often after moving in and had about 70% fewer contacts with law enforcement.
Juneau Emergency Medical Associates, the organization that staffs the ER at Bartlett Regional Hospital, “contributed $10,000 of their own funding to the expansion, because they felt very strongly that that had improved how things were working out in the emergency room here in Juneau,” according to Brocious.
While Housing First doesn’t require residents to seek treatment for addiction or related issues, Brocious saw many residents of the Forget-Me-Not Manor significantly reduce their alcohol consumption for a simple reason.
“Think about the challenges that come with not having a place to sleep. You know, where do your resources go? Where does your energy go? How much stress that causes you. That’s not an ideal environment to get healthy — physically healthy, substance abuse healthy, emotionally healthy — and so take away the stress of not having a safe place to be at night, and you invite opportunities for people to work on and focus their energies on things that allow them to get healthier,” Brocious said.
This project is the latest in an ongoing effort to address homelessness in Nome, City Manager Glenn Steckman said. The Nome Emergency Shelter Team operates seasonally during the colder months, and the day shelter run by NSHC has expanded into a new building.
While Housing First is a step in the right direction, Steckman cautioned that it’s not a perfect solution to Nome’s homelessness problem.
“But this is a piece of the puzzle that many feel — including myself — is a strategic way of addressing the homelessness issue and the mental health problems, and alcoholism and substance abuse. It’s part of a more comprehensive approach to dealing with it,” Steckman said.
The Nome Community Center plan calls for a design phase to begin in January 2022, with construction starting in May. The facility could be ready for residents in December 2023.
Schneider and Johnson presented the Housing First proposal to the Public Safety Advisory Commission on Dec. 6. The commission members enthusiastically supported the proposal and voted both to provide a letter of support to the project and to recommend the project to the Nome Common Council.
Rhonda Schneider presented the plan to the Nome Common Council on Dec. 13 during a work session. Mayor John Handeland indicated that the council would schedule a vote soon so that the project can move forward.
Image at top: Rhonda Schneider (right) and Liz Johnson (left) present the Housing First proposal to the Nome Public Safety Advisory Commission.