Senator Begich apologizes for controversial and ‘poorly written’ homelessness letter

Sen. Tom Begich. (Photo by Alaska Senate Democrats)

When it hit the news this week, the letter signed by a group of mostly Democratic Anchorage legislators urging the city take a tougher approach to homelessness drove a wedge between Anchorage’s progressive leadership and its progressive legislative delegation.

The letter, which suggested shipping people off to Chugach State Park, has been widely panned with the ACLU of Alaska calling it “horribly inhumane and un-Alaskan” and called “heartbreaking” by the head of the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness.

Now one of the letter’s nine backers says he regrets the division created by the letter, which he called “poorly written.”

“The letter was poorly written and created an unnecessary rift between all of us who are working on the issues of homelessness, criminal activity, safety in our parks, mental health, and substance abuse,” said Sen. Tom Begich, D-Anchorage. “As a life-long advocate for mental health and substance use prevention and treatment and a leader in a multi-prong effort to address our homelessness issues, I regret that and apologize for the tone of the letter.”

Begich’s mea culpa came in a letter sent to constituents on Wednesday as the community continues to grapple with the delegation’s letter.

The letter was signed by eight Anchorage Democrats (Reps. Fields, Tucks, Tarr, Drummond, Claman and Sens. Begich, Gray-Jackson and Wielechowski) as well as Anchorage Republican Rep. Sara Rasmussen.

Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz responded to the letter on Wednesday to defend the city’s response to homelessness, telling the Anchorage Daily News that the city has been left to fend for itself on issues that the state typically had helped with.

“Unfortunately we’re having to contend with a retreat from Juneau,” Berkowitz told the paper. “A lot of issues we’re dealing with now are the state’s failure to get things done in the past with mental health, drug and alcohol treatment.”

While camps have built up during the winter, the city has taken an active approach to clearing them out once the snow melted. Berkowitz told the ADN there more plans for bike patrols and camp cleanups soon.

Assemblymember Meg Zaletel responded to the letter in a post to Facebook, explaining the same concerns about the state’s involvement.

“I appreciate your efforts in Juneau,” she wrote, “but cannot stress enough that we need well-funded and coordinated mental health and substance abuse treatment strategies to address the underlying issues for a lot of individuals experiencing homelessness. I am working with my colleagues to see how we can have a more coordinated approach within the municipality, but we do rely on state funding to ensure adequate treatment services are available.”

Begich’s constituent letter suggests support for a resident-run homeless camps, an idea that has gained some traction in cities like Oakland.

“Recently I and my staff have been working with Rose Hubbard, a homeless advocate on her concept for a resident-run homeless option. I think this idea, or the tiny house concepts that have been pioneered in other localities around the country, offer opportunities for positive solutions to part of this issue,” he wrote. “The letter reflected our frustration in not being able to move fast enough to address these issues effectively. But good solutions take time and I hope we can move past the hard feelings the letter has generated toward a community with housing for all who desire it, mental health and substance use services for all who need it, and a safe, and clean city park environment for all our residents and visitors.”

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2 Comments on "Senator Begich apologizes for controversial and ‘poorly written’ homelessness letter"

  1. It is good to see that there is some consideration as to the fundamental problem that is driving homelessness. Mental health which is often coupled with substance abuse and addiction.
    But even if we got these people help to recover there isn’t a lot of hope for them to thrive because of the state of our current economic construct.
    Workers in non-technical employment and entry level positions don’t get the wages or the hours to be able to afford an apartment or home. They would likely have to share an apartment.
    In that regard tiny homes would be a great alternative.
    The real fundamental problem, IMO, is that the vast majority of the profits that the workers generate with their labor goes to the top 1%. That needs to change or we will never solve these problems.
    With economic despair comes increased drug use, mental problems and little hope of a truly happy future.

  2. The apology can not undo the damage that was done by sending an ill conceived letter. Address the root causes and provide funding. The Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness is working very hard to address issues and asset those in need. The mayor isn’t to blame for this chronic problem. Let’s not ignore the facts that life’s events and traumas, poorly paid employment, expensive housing helps to put people on the streets that funnels out of control. Throw in ill-health and mental illness and they become a liability to landlords. Look to all government to solve these social issues not just one person, not just one political party. It’s everyone’s problem.

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