SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska


Homeless in Alaska have it tougher than most
Anchorage Daily News


April 04, 2007

ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- Linda Spencer was trying to focus on her most immediate problem: Her mattress on the floor at Brother Francis Shelter was good for only two more days. Then she had to find another place to sleep.




It was 25 degrees outside and snowing.

For an hour, she'd been meaning to catch the bus to somewhere she could get on the Internet. But the blind man next to her at Bean's Cafe was singing hymns and the sound soothed her, taking her mind out of the humid soup kitchen, away from the shuffle and the smell of bleach. She decided she'd catch the bus later, maybe after lunch.

Her shelter time was almost up, she told the others cupping mugs at the table. They nodded. They knew the drill: Spend 30 days in the shelter, then you have to leave and you can't come back for 30 more. There's an exception for people who are making serious progress getting a place to live. But Linda's time had run out and she wasn't getting more.

Maybe she could sleep outside on layers of cardboard, suggested the blind man.

Or camp out in that van with the bad transmission, someone else advised.

"I just love singin' " said a child-size grandmother in a spotty kuspuk. She smiled, showing her pink gums, and launched into "I'll Fly Away." Linda and the blind man joined in.

Linda, 59, doesn't drink or do drugs. She's never been in trouble with the law. She was married once, has a daughter and worked as a jeweler. But in the '80s, she suffered a head injury and her life began to fray. Like many at the shelter, an overwhelming list of troubles trails behind her.

A few years back, she hurt her Achilles tendon running for the bus and that put her in a wheelchair for a while. Then there was a diagnosis of colon cancer. Then surgery. Was all that before or after the fight with her family, and the mistake with paperwork that made her disability payments quit coming? It's hard to keep the dates straight. While she was in a homeless shelter in Washington state, there was a flood in her house in Alaska. Mold moved in.

In December, she locked her belongings in a storage unit in Eagle River and took a bed at the Rescue Mission. Now life is the bus schedule, the meal schedule, the rules of the shelter and all the lines to stand in; the paperwork for housing, disability payments and health care. Misplaced forms. Faxes that never make it.

"Sometimes I get lost. Sometimes I get sidetracked. It's part of my problem," she said.

Some days she gets desperate and frustrated. She has difficulties with her doctors and her social workers and the women in the shelter who complain about her snoring. She wants to protest or sue. On the day she was trying to catch the People Mover bus, she had government paperwork in her breast pocket along with some toilet paper.

"People say that everybody has choices, but sometimes the choices suck," she said. "Sometimes there are no answers."

Finally, she got the bus, but it was late arriving at the transit center, so she missed her connection. She took a place on a bench to wait for No. 13. A man next to her swayed forward, his eyes glassy.

"Sometimes I think about it, you know?" the stranger said. "I'm a drifter. I haven't really found my place yet."

"You're still looking," Linda assured him.

She was thinking about her daughter who just had a baby in Washington. You can tell a lot about a tree by the fruit it bears, she said. She keeps a neat folder with a copy of her girl's birth certificate. And pictures of her prom. They're 20 years old.

"My daughter. I love her dearly. She's been the greatest joy in my life. Be sure to put that in the paper," she said.

Just then, a black-haired woman breezed in. She was keyed up and chewing gum. Linda had met her at the Rescue Mission. She calls her "The Raven," because she's usually up to mischief.

"Got kicked out of the hostel," The Raven said. She was carrying a garbage bag and a wad of cash. "I owe you a dollar."

"No you don't, you owe me 25 cents," Linda said, adding that she was getting kicked out of the shelter too.

"They said I wasn't making sufficient progress," Linda said.

A woman on a neighboring bench butted in.

"And, you can't go to AWAIC because you're not abused, right?" she said.

"Want me to beat you up?" asked The Raven, half-joking.

"Could you do it where it doesn't hurt?" Linda said.

The bus rolled up. It was too late to get to the Internet place, but Linda got on anyhow. So did The Raven. The bus pulled onto Sixth Avenue. Scenes of Fairview scrolled past the windows: gritty snow, the iron fence around the downtown cemetery, a woman with a case of beer in the parking lot of a store. The Raven pieced through a stack of pictures someone left. She laughed too loud and snorted.

The bus slowed. Linda stood and took a few steps forward, like a woman walking upriver.

"I love you!" The Raven called, yelling the digits of her phone number.

The doors sighed open and let Linda out into the street.

"I love you, too," she called back, repeating the numbers to herself so she wouldn't forget.


Contact Julia O'Malley at
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Stories In The News
Ketchikan, Alaska