PUBLISHED: 7:33 PM on Wednesday, November 14, 2007
A new place to turn for Juneauites who can't find an affordable rental
To some they are the invisible homeless. To others they are couch-surfers. They are families with children, and single men and women who depend on other people's generosity. They crash with relatives or friends, living in their homes.

Even though they have shelter, the lives of couch-surfers are usually precarious. Some may need shelter for a few nights. Others may stay for months, straining the patience of their hosts or depleting their financial resources until they depart for another couch in another house.

In Juneau there are at least 800 homeless people, according to the Juneau Homeless Coalition.

It's hard to figure out exactly how many couch-surfers there are in the capital city because people in the position don't always identify themselves as homeless. If it were possible to count all of them, the total number of homeless could be higher, experts said. Regular garage and tent dwellers, too, could push up the numbers.

Last month, a group of nonprofit organizations came together to create a new position to help couch surfers; people living on the streets and others with tenuous living situations find new places to call home.

Stan Marston holds the recently developed housing advocate position. He helps families and individuals find residences to rent and works to keep others from being evicted.

"After somebody comes and talks to me, they know and their landlord knows, I'm here to help. If there's a problem, I'll get in the middle to solve it, before the person is evicted and homeless again," Marston said.

The establishment of the housing advocate came from the realization that not only is it hard for people to find adequate housing in Juneau, some of those who finally do find a place to live face a difficult adjustment. Many homeless people suffer from mental illness, health issues, long-term unemployment or some combination of tough conditions.

If they find shelter, but don't pay rent or fail to adequately maintain their residence, they can lose it. Many housing experts make a good case that addressing poverty and homelessness best happens by providing housing first, then addressing substance abuse, joblessness, mental illness or other problems that may have led to a life on the streets. Marston said it is cheaper for government to subsidize housing than it is to pay for time in jail, treatment centers or emergency rooms, where some homeless people turn up.

Marston has been in the full-time position since mid-October. In his first two weeks on the job, he said he helped about 80 individuals. He shows people how to apply for federal housing assistance.

He also has funds available for Juneauites facing immediate eviction. In the future, he also hopes to have money to assist people with rental deposits. His position is funded by the United Way of Southeast Alaska and other nonprofit organizations. It is managed by the St. Vincent De Paul Society.

Daniel Ungier, who works on housing issues for United Way, said homelessness is worsening in Juneau because of the capital city's high cost of living.

Juneau rents are the most expensive in the state, edging out Sitka and Kodiak Island, according to the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development. The average price for a two-bedroom apartment in Juneau is $1,081 a month, according to state records. About half of Juneau's renters put more than a third of their salary toward rent, points out Ungier.

He believes the housing advocate position is one in a series of steps to be taken to address homelessness and difficulties of finding housing in the capital city. Ungier says some developers argue they can't make money on low-income housing so they don't build it.

"The solutions are in new funding sources," Ungier said.

"One of the proposals on the table statewide is an Alaska Housing Trust Fund. It would create a new pot of funding designated to build new or rehab existing housing units. That's going to help get more projects built."