Thursday, April 21, 2011

Brother Francis Shelter-Anchorage

I had the opportunity to tour the Brother Francis Shelter in Anchorage last week, one of the only homeless shelters in Anchorage (some provide shelter for only women, are transition housing as opposed to a homeless shelter, or participation in religious services of some sort are required). It was an interesting place to visit, and the need is great as 200-300 people a night are housed at the shelter and Beans Cafe.

The shelter is on 3rd Avenue, and when we pulled into the parking lot of the modern building, there was a crowd of men hanging out in the parking lot in front of Beans Cafe, across the parking lot from the Brother Francis Shelter. Free breakfast and lunch are provided daily at Beans Cafe, while a hot dinner is offered each night at the Shelter. Anyone could walk in and eat there, though each person has to sign in to keep track of numbers for grants.

The Brother Francis Shelter was built in 2005 and has a new, modern feel to it. The parking lot is paved, and the first smell upon walking into the building is bleach. A wide open reception area acts as the hub of this facility, with the dining area and kitchen beyond it to the right. After the evening meal the benches are folded up and sleeping mats are put down. Also off of the entryway are a computer lab and a laundry. Computers are for those staying or working in the shelter; people are allowed to play games with the logic that they need to become comfortable using technology and playing games facilitate this comfort.

Off the common area/dining room a clothing room was stacked with shoes, sweaters, pants, jackets, etc. The administrative assistant of the shelter who gave us the tour said the greatest need for clothing was hats, socks and undergarments, and they are always accepting donations. The clothing room is open for certain hours each day and visits are limited to 5 minutes.

A doctor's office/exam room is near the entrance as well, with shots being one of the common uses of this area. Behind that are the administrative offices. Ironically, no grant money is provided for homeless shelters, but monies are available for staffing them and providing assistance to people who walk in the doors. Thus, there were cubicles for about 8 support staff, not all who are necessarily full-time or employed by the shelter.

Lockers are available for workers at the shelter. Homeless people who come in can apply to work at the Brother Francis Shelter for 4-6 months. If they get a job there, they sleep there each night, but they also can receive mail, get a locker and stay in the building during the day. All other people must be out of the building by about 9 am each day (if my memory serves me right). Without these unpaid workers, the facility would not be able to keep its doors open. It is a win-win situation, with the people using the facility helping keep it running, and it provides a base for those people who are motivated to improve their situation.

There are women's and men's dorms, which are cleared out each morning. Another section of the shelter has apartments where people who are getting off drug or alcohol dependency can stay. There are specific requirements for these people to stay, and they are checked on regularly by paid staff. A storage room is also provided for people who cannot take their belongings with them each day.

This shelter is run by Catholic Social Services (See their website at, but the faith component is not 'pushed' as it is at some other local shelters. Some people end up at the shelter because they come in out of the bush, thinking there are plenty of jobs in Anchorage. Others come from the Lower 48, drawn by the allure of Alaska, also thinking there are plenty of jobs here. Yet others find that they cannot afford the exorbitant prices of housing when working on low wages. Life happens to others. No one under the age of 18 can stay at this shelter; a women's shelter provides housing for women with children (one had better not be a man with children, otherwise they will have a difficult time finding a place to go).

It gave me pause to visit the Brother Francis Shelter and contemplate the difficulties of being homeless in Alaska. I've seen plenty of people living out of their cars or in the parks around Anchorage; the Brother Francis Shelter provides a system that can help those who want to get out of that cycle of homelessness. There are opportunities available for food, shelter, mail, health care, clothing and more, all centered around this one building that is operating on a shoestring budget. I think a donation there could go a long ways.

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