More people in need strain Anchorage support system

PAST CAPACITY: At Bean's, the hungry now have to eat in shifts.

By GEORGE BRYSON Published: March 15th, 2009 10:08 PM Last Modified: March 16th, 2009 02:32 PM

Demand for warm meals in the city's largest soup kitchen and safe beds in local shelters have soared, with more Alaskans than ever seeking assistance in hard times, social service officials say.

Meals served at the nonprofit Bean's Cafe, which feeds both the homeless and the working poor, jumped 25 percent this year -- from 18,562 meals served in January 2008, to more than 23,000 meals in January 2009, Bean's executive director Jim Crockett said.

At times this winter volunteers there have ladled out more than 300 food trays per breakfast or lunch, far surpassing the Third Avenue soup kitchen's table capacity, which seats about 200 -- or its building capacity, limited by fire code to 263 occupants, Crockett said.

"So we're almost having to go to a shift-type situation, where we have some people come in and then some go out, because we don't have the room for all of them."

Greater need tied to the economic downturn is also placing stress on the St. Francis food pantry maintained by Catholic Social Services in East Anchorage, officials there said.

"We're seeing a lot more working poor -- in fact we've opened up an evening hour that we didn't used to have for that increased need," said Catholic Social Services director Susan Bomalaski.

The nonprofit also helps families that can't afford to pay rent and are about to be evicted, Bomalaski said. But Catholic Social Services received so many tenant requests for that "direct assistance" in recent months that its phone system crashed.

"And that's never happened before."

Crockett said poor families often choose to pay their rent bill first each month -- assuring a roof over their heads -- knowing they can then rely on Bean's or the food pantry if their refrigerator runs low at month's end.

"But now they're coming to us towards the middle of the month, not towards the end of the month," he said, and more families are falling short on rent regardless.

Bomalaski said the number of people who've lost their apartments and moved in temporarily with friends or relatives -- a practice the Anchorage School District calls "couch surfing" -- has increased sharply, according to district surveys.

"That's the next step before Clare House (the Anchorage shelter for women and children)," Bomalaski said. "Those are the ones who are just one argument away from being on the street."

A growing number of low-income families are already there.

The Brother Francis Shelter, which serves homeless men and women, and Clare House, for homeless women and children -- both operated by Catholic Social Services -- have both exceeded capacity in recent months, Bomalaski said.

Clare House's capacity is supposed to be 45 guests, but for the past five months the shelter has averaged 58 a night, according to Clare House records.

Brother Francis Shelter, with room for 240 people, recently provided a night's stay to 270 people. Attendance there in February was nearly 20 percent higher than a year earlier, according to Brother Francis program director Dewayne Harris.

It's a trend that began last summer, Bomalaski said.

"What we started to see in July was kind of disconcerting because, both at Clare House and at Brother Francis Shelter, July tends to be a low month -- it's just not as cold out and people have other places to stay. But we were at capacity. ... That was unusual."

Need is also up near the Delaney Park Strip at the Abused Women's Aid in Crisis (AWAIC) shelter, which now exceeds capacity more than 50 percent of the time, according to executive director Judy Cordell.

"I can tell you we have 67 (women and children) in here today with 52 beds," Cordell said Wednesday. "We had nine babies this morning -- infants under 12 months -- and we had a newborn."

That doesn't necessarily mean more women are being abused, but it might mean that those who find themselves in "unsafe situations" have fewer financial options due to the failing economy, she said.

"They might not have a credit card or money in the bank. They might not have an extended family here. So we see them seeking shelter here."

Three years ago, the average length of stay at the AWAIC shelter was 18 days. Now it's down to 13 days -- mostly because someone else needs the space, Cordell said. So some women are getting discharged sooner than shelter officials would prefer.

"We take a careful look at lethality issues," she said. "Those are very difficult decisions to make." Still, no one should ever avoid seeking shelter, thinking there isn't any room, Cordell added. The shelter can always find another bed or crib somewhere. "We're just very stretched right now."

Find George Bryson online at or call 257-4318.

Al Wells, Head Cook at Bean's Cafe