The Door Teen Shelter

The Door teen shelter operated by Fairbanks Youth Advocates Thursday afternoon, July 25, 2019.

As the state tightens its belt, so, too, do the people who provide a safety net in Fairbanks. The veto of $3.6 million to the Homeless Assistance Program has local homelessness programs stretching their already tight budgets to meet the needs of the city’s homeless — a population they anticipate to grow.

The city of Fairbanks made an announcement last month stating that the Department of Housing and Homeless remained committed to helping the Fairbanks’ homeless, mentioning three organizations specifically: The Fairbanks Rescue Mission, The Door and The Salvation Army.

The Basic Homeless Assistance Program is a grant that lost $3.6 million from the state’s capital budget under Senate Bill 2002. The comments, or justification, for the veto read simply, “Step down the reliance on state funds for these programs.”

The Alaska Housing Finance Corp. agreed to pay 80% of the grant’s amount to those who were awarded the grants this year. All of the mentioned organizations expressed gratitude to the corporation for this help. Still, the cuts mean a large loss of funds for each agency. The Fairbanks Rescue Mission will lose $62,000; The Salvation Army will lose $29,325; and The Door will lose $36,000.

Mike Sanders, Housing and Homelessness coordinator for Fairbanks, pointed out that the city has little overlap in services. Fairbanks Rescue Mission is the only shelter in Interior Alaska that serves men, women and children. The mission provides a variety of services, including programs for veterans and their families, substance abuse services, rapid rehousing services, a recycling center and Twin Bears Camp. The Door is the only shelter in the Interior that serves unaccompanied minors ages 12-18. The Salvation Army provides rental and utility assistance.

Sanders worried that the programs that help the homeless regain independence or prevent homelessness in temporary crises would suffer the most. The emergency shelters are permanent structures that Sanders didn’t anticipate losing, but programs such as those that provide rental assistance during short-term financial difficulties were less stable. Those programs prevent people in trouble from becoming homeless.

“The system is so delicate,” Sanders said. He said he worried that the loss of funding could derail the progress made by those fighting homelessness in Fairbanks over the past years. The rate of homelessness in Fairbanks dropped. Sanders worried that it would rise again.

Morale is low in the two shelters, though officials at both are working to make cuts where necessary. Rodney Gaskins, CEO of Fairbanks Rescue Mission, said the mission intends to cut a key position from its staff to bridge the gap.

The position — “transitional manager” — met with each person who came to the mission, learned what caused them to seek shelter and helped connect them with the services they needed to leave homelessness.

The mission is required to collect data about its clients to remain in compliance with its funding services. These duties will be spread among the shelter’s employees, rather than relying on one employee to track this information.

The shelter gets funding from the Homeless Assistance Program grant, individual donors and Veteran’s Affairs. But the biggest source of income comes from the shelter itself, from the recycling center, the camp and fundraisers, Gaskins said.

The mission’s staff has been helpful in the goal to lower expenses, Gaskins said. “It’s hard to do even more than we’re already doing. This has been our process all along, to be really frugal. So there’s not a lot of fat to cut, if any. Fundraising is a great idea, but it’s almost like expecting emergency room doctors to fundraise to be able to provide emergency services,” he said.

Gaskins said 83 cents of every dollar that comes into the organization goes to direct service.

The assistance from the Alaska Housing Finance Corp. bought The Door a year of grace, said Director Marylee Bates. The Door cannot cut staff, because its licensing requires a certain number of adults to be present when children are in the shelter. As with the Fairbanks Rescue Mission, The Door’s utilities and other expenses are essentially static.

Last year, The Door sheltered 125 minors. Half of them stayed fewer than three days. The other half stayed from three days to a year. The Door provides the youths shelter, food, and advocacy with state organizations. They make reports on behalf of their clients and refer them to social services where appropriate.

Funding for The Door comes from individual donors, church donors, grants and an associated counseling service, Clearwater Counseling.

To keep costs down in the face of a tighter budget, Bates cut her own salary in half.

“That was an easy, quick decision — I’m not a direct service provider. We didn’t want to cut any of our direct service providers,” she said.

Lessa Peter, communications manager for the Salvation Army’s Alaska Division, said she didn’t anticipate the cuts would affect the level of services provided by the Fairbanks office. However, she said she felt there may be an increased need for those services going forward.

The Salvation Army uses its Basic Homeless Assistance Program grant to provide rental assistance and utilities. The programs were designed to keep those in need off the streets when they need emergency assistance.

“Although it’s never good news when critical services receive a funding cut, The Salvation Army will stand ready to help those in need, as we have in Alaska since 1898,” said Maj. Shevaun Malone, a Salvation Army Fairbanks Corps officer. “We hope the Fairbanks community will help us fill in the gap to help our neighbors in need stay safely sheltered year-round.”

While these agencies continue to work to reduce costs, they are calling on the community for help. 

Sanders said Fairbanks residents needed to step up more.

“The need is there, and they will continue to decrease funding over the next couple years. Just because the funds are going away, doesn’t mean the need is going away,” he said.

Bates said Fairbanksans should speak out more.

“I want them to realize they have a voice. I don’t think the governor would have restored any funding if he hadn’t gotten so much feedback from the community and those advocating for the ‘least of these,’ so to speak,” Bates said. She said concerned residents needed to continue to advocate for the homeless, because “the governor has made it clear this is just year one.”

Contact Cheryl Upshaw at cupshaw@newsminer.com.