Cathy Carlson stands outside the Sitka Laundry Center, where she volunteers weekly as part of a Sitka Homeless Coalition program to provide laundry and showers to people facing housing insecurity. The program also helped Carlson connect with services when she was homeless herself, and she still uses it to do her own laundry. (Photo by Erin McKinstry/KCAW)

Before last year, Cathy Carlson never imagined she could end up homeless.

“I was born and raised here. And I was kind of in shock that I was homeless. I didn’t have a car. I didn’t have anything,” she said.

She’d lived in public housing but was evicted for failure to pay her rent. She said she didn’t have an income, and she didn’t know where to turn.  

“‘Cause I was not on my medication. I’d had three strokes. And I have to be on antidepressants and I wasn’t, and I couldn’t say two words without crying,” Carlson said.

Eventually, the Sitka Homeless Coalition and the SOS: Lifeline group helped her find and rent a room in someone’s house. She said she’s back on her medication, and she’s re-applying for disability and public housing. All of that has been a lot easier with a roof over her head.

“I got my place, and I was able to see my doctor. I mean, I could have when I was homeless, but they always ask you where you live and it was embarrassing to say in my car, Crescent Harbor usually,” she said.

Still, Carlson was homeless for a year. If Sitka had a local homeless shelter or temporary housing, she could’ve gotten back on her feet a lot sooner. But despite decades of efforts by various organizations, Sitka has no homeless shelter. In Sitka’s 2020 Point-in-Time Count, 17 people identified as experiencing homelessness, although the number is likely higher if you include people sleeping in their cars or on friend’s couches. Gayle Young, who heads up the Sitka Homeless Coalition, puts the number of people who are chronically unhoused at around 15.

“And I think other people are probably fascinated by the fact that we’re just looking to house around 15 people when they have thousands to house,” Young said.

After trying for years to open a shelter in Sitka, the Sitka Homeless Coalition is now turning to a possible tiny home community to help tackle chronic homelessness, a project that could provide crucial support and shelter for people like Carlson who’ve faced housing insecurity. Agnew Beck Consulting completed an initial planning report for the Coalition in August, but there’s still a lot of work to be done before the project gets off the ground.

So far, Young said, there hasn’t been any pushback.

“I feel like we’re doing it in a way that’s helpful to our town, like slow enough and low enough,” she said. “We have a little thing where we say ‘enough, not more than what is needed.’ That’s what we want for the men: enough, not more than what is needed.”

Housing First

Sitka Homeless Coalition volunteers Hannah Green, Cathy Carlson and Gayle Young stop at a possible spot for the tiny home project in a lot at the end of Jarvis Street. (Photo by Erin McKinstry/KCAW)

Back in 2017, Young and a friend started working to open a winter night shelter in Sitka. During her frequent walks around town, Young had gotten to know many of the people who are chronically homeless. 

“We actually fell in love with them. That’s the basic stuff, we fell in love with them,” Young said. “They tend to be humble, grateful, appreciative of anything that’s done. It’s pretty hard not to love those kind of people.”

Young started the Sitka Homeless Coalition, and went looking for a space. But the going wasn’t easy. At one point, the Coalition partnered with the Presbyterian Church but faced pushback from the neighborhood and then the church closed. Other times, it secured grant funds to lease a space but had to return the money when the place fell through.

“And no one would allow us the use of their building. They wouldn’t rent to us. They wouldn’t rent to us for just two weeks trial,” Young said. “Every answer was no.”

Young was determined not to give up. So the Coalition started a laundry and showers program to help anyone in Sitka facing housing insecurity. And as they continued building relationships with those they serve, Young started to realize that a shelter might not be the right solution anyway.

Many of the people the Coalition serves are older men. They have disabilities and substance use disorders. A lot of them are constantly in need of basic supplies because they don’t have a place to lock up their things. 

“As we got to know them more, we realized that a winter shelter would not solve the problem,” Young said. “They needed the whole home situation, not just a night six months out of the year on the floor.”

Young and Coalition volunteer Hannah Green started scouring the web and making phone calls. 

“And we were looking at big cities, small cities, rural communities like–How did you start? How did it work? What doesn’t work?” Green said.

Two pieces of advice stood out. The first was to implement a Housing First model. The idea is to get someone into housing as quickly as possible and then offer them supportive services onsite. There’s no time limit to how long someone can stay and very few requirements.

“What they found is that after someone has a place and maybe a lock on the door and all their stuff in one spot, then they can start thinking about other things in their life like a job and sobriety and reconnecting with their families and all of that,” Young said.

A handful of Alaska cities are already using the model. A 2011 University of Alaska Anchorage study of Anchorage and Fairbanks Housing First projects found that the programs had significant health benefits to people who otherwise would’ve been sleeping in shelters or on the street. The programs reduced alcohol consumption, kept previously unsheltered people housed and increased consistent use of important medications. Another study of a Juneau facility found that people’s use of emergency services reduced dramatically once they moved in.

Mariya Lovishchuk is the Executive Director of the Juneau Housing First Collaborative, which owns 64 units of permanent supportive housing for people facing chronic homelessness.

“Housing first is a model that I really like a lot because it provides housing to people, regardless of where they are in life, so no barriers to housing, and they are also no strings attached,” she said. Lovishchuk said a big part of what’s made their project successful is bringing all of the stakeholders to the table.

“It just so happened that Juneau had really the right combination of stakeholders, who really cared and also had really amazing statewide partners, who also were funders, and who really understood what was needed, and were willing to work with our community to make sure that this project succeeded.”

A possible design for the tiny home project that the Sitka Homeless Coalition is hoping to build to help people facing chronic homelessness in Sitka. The simple design is meant to provide “enough, not more than what is needed,” Young said. (Design by Agnew Beck Consulting)

The second main piece of advice was to build individual units rather than group housing, so everyone has a space of their own, which can alleviate safety concerns. Young and Green envisioned a community of 12 tiny homes. Each one would have a small kitchen and bed. There’d be a communal shower and laundry facility, and an employee onsite to help connect people with services, if they want them.

The next question was where to put it.

The Land

Young, Green and Carlson dodge branches as they hunt for pink flagging in a wooded lot at the end of Jarvis Street. This undeveloped land belongs to the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority. The Trust recently sent a surveyor to mark a section for the potential tiny home project.

“You see the pink ribbon?” Carlson says when they reach a flat spot. Young and Green scour the woods for the bright flagging. “Oh! There it is!” Young says. They all look around with excitement.

“That gives us an idea,” Green says. “I mean, it’s a good sized plot.”

They’re hoping to use just 1 to 2 acres of the 16-acre lot and expand later if needed. After struggling to find a good location for the project and earlier iterations, Young says she thinks they’ve finally found the right spot.

“This land traditionally has been where homeless people have had camps,” she says.

Hannah Green, Gayle Young, and Cathy Carlson hunt for flagging on the Jarvis Street property to help visualize the potential tiny home project. (Photo by Erin McKinstry/KCAW)

Young first set her eyes on this land when she was looking at a map in the city planning office. “On this piece of property it said ‘MH,’ and ‘MH’ to me means mental health,” she said. “And I thought, bingo, that’s it.”

The Trust serves people with mental illnesses, substance use disorders, developmental disabilities, Alzheimer’s and traumatic brain injuries. That’s why the organization has been supportive of the project, said CEO Mike Abbott.

“Although homelessness itself is not a qualifying condition, you know, in terms of qualifying you to be a trust beneficiary, it is highly likely that if you are in fact chronically homeless, that you suffer from one or more of those conditions,” Abbott said.

The Trust’s million acres of land is typically used to generate revenue for Trust programs–things like logging, mining or oil and gas development. But when Young approached them about leasing land for a project that directly benefits those they serve, they thought, why not?

“So that’s a little bit different, but it’s a welcomed difference as far as we’re concerned,” Abbott said.

Nothing is finalized. Abbott said the Coalition will need to demonstrate a feasible financial plan before they’ll consider a formal grant proposal. The Trust-funded planning report puts start-up costs at just over $1 million dollars. That doesn’t include ongoing operating expenses.

They’ll also want to see strong community support, which City Planning Director Amy Ainslie said has been an issue in the past.

“You know, sometimes finding an ideal location can be difficult. Because it’s one of those things that people can support in abstract but might have strong opinions about where is the appropriate place,” Ainslie said.

She said they’ll also need to bring utilities to the lot and meet any building code and zoning standards.

“I think this will be an interesting case from a zoning perspective because I don’t know that it neatly fits under any of our pre-defined uses that we have in our code. So, to some extent, there might need to be some interpretation about, you know, what do we classify this type of use as,” Ainslie said. “That will probably take a little bit of work, but I don’t anticipate that it would be an insurmountable barrier.”

The planning document also recommends building partnerships, securing long-term funding and creating policies and procedures for the tiny home community. The challenges are endless, but Young is unfazed. She hopes to raise the money and build the houses locally.

“Things have just worked out just in an amazing way. So I’ve learned to just not go there until it’s time to be there. And then see what’s going to happen for a particular situation,” Young said.

She said eventually they could add more services like a community garden, life skills classes, and employment opportunities. But the first priority is to get people out of the rain and sleeping on mattresses. 

Housing first.

Throughout April and May, Raven News will be bringing you stories about affordable housing solutions every Friday as part of our “Building Solutions” series. Erin McKinstry is a Report for America corps member.