Fairbanks is the regional hub for interior Alaska, an area larger than the state of Texas. The city’s need for supportive housing is amplified by its remote rural and frontier location and extreme arctic conditions. Although the number of people experiencing homelessness in Fairbanks — approximately 250 people at any given time — seems small compared to what other major U.S. cities report, the impact of homelessness in this community is an important factor: Even during bouts of -50° Fahrenheit temperatures, Fairbanks routinely has more than 50 people trying to survive in local encampments. There have been times when dramatic temperature changes caught encampment residents off guard, resulting in numerous cold weather injuries and even some deaths.
Since 2014, TAC has worked with state and local partners on strategies to create permanent supportive housing and rapid re-housing opportunities for Alaskans. Last December, TAC was invited to facilitate the Fairbanks Symposium on Homelessness, with the goal of generating momentum toward a community planning strategy for tackling homelessness in some of the most diverse geography and climate in the United States. As in other cities and towns across the country, both the cost of housing and a lack of available units present significant challenges. But the “must do” attitude of the local Fairbanks community has already resulted in remarkable progress, and can serve as a beacon for those working in other rural communities to prevent and end homelessness.
The Fairbanks Housing and Homeless Coalition is leading the charge, representing more than 20 local organizations that provide shelter, support, and opportunities for community members struggling with housing barriers. Since the Symposium, the city’s housing and homelessness coordinator has brought local agencies together for more planning. Collectively, the group has contributed an estimated $58,360 worth of in-kind donations to initiate a program that can quickly connect families and individuals experiencing homelessness to permanent, private market housing through intensive case management, applicable employment services, and tapering financial support. Just this month, the Alaska Mental Health Trust announced that it will fully fund this local rapid re-housing program!
The Fairbanks Rescue Mission, which is already implementing rapid re-housing for Veterans through a federal Supportive Services for Veteran Families grant, has been designated as the lead agency for the award. The funding provided by the Trust will allow the new program to hire two full-time staff members and assist approximately forty families a year with housing, case management, and landlord support. The Trust has given a further boost to efforts in the region by providing funding for the Alaska Coalition on Housing and Homelessness to hire a rural housing planner who can help build local coalitions in rural Alaska and improve the region’s readiness to apply for funding to meet its needs.
Fairbanks’ challenging environmental conditions and extremely rural setting make providing effective and targeted services to the community’s most vulnerable individuals a high priority. Fortunately, the community’s determination to make life better for its least advantaged members is just what is needed.