In the winter of 2007-2008, seven people froze to death in Fairbanks. Six of them were known to be homeless. Some were members of TCC tribes. Richard, Julie, Carleen, Suzy, Cheryl and Jeff died because there was no available shelter for them. There are gaps in the in array of services for people with alcohol addiction, including the lack of an emergency shelter. This is not a new problem or just a problem for Fairbanks. People are still freezing to death across our region.
Before the creation of the Housing First program, Fairbanks community leaders were investigating the creation of an emergency shelter for those who had been drinking. Eventually, it was decided the Housing First model created a permanent solution to housing the homeless with alcohol addiction. But there is still a need for an emergency shelter.
We know this because currently there are some 400 homeless persons with applications to Housing First, a program with only 47 units. All applicants are screened and almost all qualify for Housing First. A disproportionate number of the applicants are Alaska Native.
Even with the creation of Housing First, the community still looked to develop an emergency shelter for homeless, chronic inebriates. Without such a shelter, many people were being placed at the Fairbanks Correctional Center or misusing emergency services to obtain shelter even for a few hours. This does nothing to break the cycle of misuse or connect them to services such as treatment.
A community partnership came together several years ago, meeting regularly, to try and address the ongoing issue. Meeting together were representatives from the Fairbanks Native Association, Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, Fairbanks Correction Center, City of Fairbanks, Fairbanks North Star Borough, City of North Pole and Tanana Chiefs Conference. In 2017, the State of Alaska Department of Health and Human Services put out a grant notice, funding three year projects to address emergency shelter or opiate addiction. The group decided to apply and eventually asked TCC to take the lead, given our work experience with Housing First. This grant was funded and all partners are still involved in making this a sustainable project. The Hospital Foundation donated $100,000 to the Sobering Center. The City of Fairbanks has pledged to coordinate the services of the Community Service Patrol with the center, providing transports to the center. Fairbanks Native Association has pledged to coordinate Detox services with those exiting the Sobering Center. Together, the community is creating a stronger network of support to help get people off the streets into a safe place to sober up. Once sober, guests may work with staff to be screen for other services.
The TCC Sobering Center is required by the grant to be modeled after the Bethel Sobering Center, a program that has been successfully operated for some time. Their model works. TCC has also worked with others, most notably Fort Yukon tribal leaders, to see if we can’t develop something that will work for our entire region.
As TCC President Victor Joseph stated to the Council in December 2017, the Sobering Center is a part of the Reclaiming Our People initiative. Its mission is to do just that – save lives.