Alaska’s homeless suffer spiritual hunger

Anchorage groups see link between needs of the body and soul


The chill of fall is descending on Anchorage, along with bright yellow birch leaves – signs of a disappearing summer. But for the hundreds of city residents without a home, these are harbingers of their own dying season.  This year, 11 men and one woman have died — living homeless in Anchorage. As winter looms, Mayor Dan Sullivan is rushing to stem the tide, while advocacy groups and the public chime in with ideas, too.


But largely missing from the discussion is mention of the deep spiritual problems that often lie at the heart of chronic homelessness.


Hundreds homeless


Based on the city’s annual, snap-shot survey, on one day this past January, there were at least 755 homeless people — including 147 with chronic substance abuse issues — in temporary shelters, like Brother Francis Shelter, which is run by Catholic Social Services. At the same time, the city identified at least 209 unsheltered people, including 52 who were chronic substance abusers.


Across a year, Brother Francis Shelter provides temporary shelter to more than 3,000 people. Roughly 300 of those are chronically homeless, and most have substance abuse problems.


The proposals


Mayor Sullivan plans to combat homelessness by coordinating with community nonprofit groups to identify solutions. Also, using the state’s involuntary commitment law – Title 47 – Sullivan wants to move the chronically inebriated homeless temporarily off the streets and into rehabilitation programs. And under a new city ordinance in the works, the municipality plans to quickly shut-down homeless camps, where drinking and deadly violence go hand-in-hand.


Some have proposed establishing a “tent city” where the chronically homeless could legally camp in the city. The Cook Inlet Tribal Council suggests sending social workers into the camps and the downtown bus station. Others support first providing the homeless with permanent housing, then helping them grapple with substance abuse.


Source or symptom?


But often, substance abuse is just the tip of the iceberg of chronic homelessness, said Catholic Social Services’ executive director Susan Bomalaski in an interview with the Anchor.


“A lot of times, it’s a symptom of a deeper problem.”


“Behind some of these behaviors is a hopelessness and meaninglessness,” she explained.


And many times, “that hope is tied with something bigger, deeper — a more spiritual look at how you fit into the cosmos,” Bomalaski added.


So, in November, at the direction of Anchorage Archbishop Roger Schwietz, Brother Francis Shelter is bringing in newly ordained Catholic Deacon Mick Fornelli to help address some of these spiritual issues.


The first step, Fornelli said, is to develop trust and a relationship. He plans to wear his clerical collar, which he believes will bring a “little quicker level of acceptance” among the homeless than would jeans and a T-shirt.


“I just want them to develop a sense of comfort,” he continued, and to know that God is close to them. That’s important, he said, because when one allows God in, “miracles happen.”


Recognizing Christ’s presence and power gives a person – including the chronically homeless – the ability “to take the next step, to go beyond what we feel we can do, knowing that Jesus is walking there right beside us,” Fornelli explained.


Needing Christian hope


Holly Lawson, executive director of the nondenominational Christian Downtown Soup Kitchen on Fourth Street, has seen the homeless find spiritual hope – and then homes.


The Soup Kitchen’s motto is “a full stomach and a hand up in the name of Jesus.” Daily, it serves 350 cups of soup with sandwiches to the hungry – including many homeless.


As to how some become homeless, “there’s obviously some spiritual warfare in their lives,” commented Lawson, who has a background in counseling.


Being displaced from family, losing a job, missing mortgage payments are like “arrows” in life, she said.


“The only thing I know about life is that it’s a battle – everyday, in some way,” Lawson said.


When hard times hit those who are not so well braced by faith or family, the struggles can “consume them, they lose themselves in them,” she added.


Spiritually-speaking, “without a shield, without a sword, without a helmet,” Lawson said, one is vulnerable to addictions, homelessness and a paralyzing hopelessness.


So beyond a hot meal, Lawson said the homeless need Christian hope — specifically, to know that “one, this is temporary and two, you have a better home waiting for you that’s eternal, so in the meantime, hang in there, you are loved, you are cared for.”


Lawson said that by embracing that well-founded hope, clients are freed to work on a new future and pursue sobriety.


For instance, she said, one man, who had been homeless through several Anchorage winters, has just secured an apartment with Alaska Housing Finance Corporation. “Last week, he moved in.”


“For him, it was recognizing that he had too much on his shoulders as a man,” Lawson explained. “He needed to let go and let God.”


Body and soul


The conversation on homelessness must begin with the truth about the human person, explained Dominican Father Dominic DeMaio of Holy Family Cathedral, a parish where many homeless attend Mass.


“As Christians, especially as Catholic Christians, we always consider the human person in his full dimension – mind, body, spirit and emotion,” explained Father DeMaio. “Those are always going to be completely interconnected.”


For years, every Sunday, after Mass, 50-70 homeless people have come to the Catholic cathedral for coffee, doughnuts, companionship – and occasionally, spiritual songs in Yup’ik.


According to parishioner Tim Walsh, who serves the coffee, these homeless are from “every village,” like Barrow and Point Hope. Having worked in the Bush for three decades, Walsh knew some of these men “when they were kids.”


Each work day, about a dozen homeless people visit the church office.


“It’s the candy that brings them in – and the fellowship,” explained receptionist Teri Perez with a smile. She keeps a dish full of sweets at her desk – along with a resource list for food, shelter and clothing.


“I hope they come for the fellowship,” she added earnestly, “because I like their friendship.”


Food, housing and blankets aren’t enough for the homeless, explained Father DeMaio. He believes any approach that does not address “the fullness of the person is never going to completely address the problem.”


There is a need to heal the core spiritual problems, he said – self-hatred, the fear of being unlovable and alienation – that come from broken homes, abuse, disinterest from the world.


“We’re seeking, as Christians and Catholic Christians, communion with one another and communion with God,” Father DeMaio explained. Many of the homeless are “deeply hungering” for that, he added.


The solution, he said, is in “primarily, the encounter with the living Christ in his members.”  For instance, Mother Teresa, he said, lived as “Christ to those people who are untouchable.”


 “When they start to become touched by others,” he said, “they may start to awaken and realize, ‘Oh, okay, there is the warmth of love. There is God. God does reach out to me.’


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