Friday, Oct. 1 was like any ordinary First Friday. Find a parking spot downtown, walk around the crowded streets finding lively galleries and speak with a number of artists. The third gallery I visited that evening was the International Gallery of Contemporary Art, and the exhibition that had just opened was titled “Shelter: Contemplating homelessness in Alaska.” I wasn’t thinking about it at the time, but I must have passed a handful of Anchorage’s homeless on my zigzagged walk to the gallery.

I have a safe and secure shelter of my own. My home is my haven. I do not have to worry about my home not being there after a long day of work. I have clean clothes hanging in the closet, a down comforter on my bed, a laptop sitting on my desk… The list goes on. Sometimes I think that perhaps I have too much, that I ask for too much, that I want too much.

I want to feel as comfortable as humanly possible every waking moment of the day. The homeless do not have such luxuries. Given the opportunity I believe many of the city’s homeless would do almost anything to obtain a safe haven. Growing up in Anchorage I was witness to such events as a vagabond entering a store only to be arrested for petty theft, which was often times on purpose. I place no blame on these individuals. I would do the same if I had nowhere to go during Alaska’s cold winter months. There is much to contemplate while considering the difficulties of being “on the street.”

A very personal foreword by contributing artist Chad Taylor began “Shelter.” Three years ago, Chad had spent Thanksgiving in New York City on the corner of 27th Ave. and Madison Ave. Across the street a man was finding his rest in a vacant vestibule. Chad willingly offered the man his leftovers from dinner, and returned from his hotel room with a sleeping bag and sleeping mat to give to the man as well. Chad stayed and chatted with the man for “several hours of wondering conversation.” Upon departure, the homeless man pulled the cover from his cart of belongings and retrieved a shoebox from the bottom. Inside was a pristine pair of plush house slippers, which he proceeded to offer Chad. This story is astonishing to me because, by and large, people in this city, in this state and in this country strive to obtain the newest in consumer products. And here was this man, offering his most prized possession to a stranger for a few hours of conversation and some basic amenities.

If only the homeless problem—the shelter problem—was that easy to fix.

Mike Mense, another contributing artist, had secured a door to the wall at the south end of the gallery. Above the door, letters cut separately from construction paper informed the viewer, “This is not an exit…Nor is this an entrance.” Black paint spread unevenly across the wall gave the door a
dark aura. The door was white and featured a horizontal rectangular window within its frame. In the window were scattered daily newspapers, often synonymous with a vagrant’s bedtime accommodations. Posted on the door were the words, “Homelessness is not a building problem, an architecture problem, or a shelter problem.
We cannot build our way out of a homeless problem.”

It has proven to be impossible to find the origin of this problem. It may be that people, especially those from our state’s copious amount of rural villages, are not given enough opportunities. The suicide rates in those villages have been rampant as of late. Many Alaskan Native adolescents see no hope in the future of a white man’s world. To them, it is easier to drown their sorrows away in a bottle of Rich & Rare. Reality can be hard to take, and escape can be easily attained with inebriation. I think the difference is the youth living in Anchorage have much more outlets for support than can be found in Ruby or Alakanuk. So, where do all of Anchorage’s homeless come from? Perhaps they came through the looking glass. Anyone who has interacted with a number of the city’s homeless can attest to certain vagrants’ frequent use of literary nonsense. Many neologisms come from Anchorage’s homeless. Galumphing through the streets, their important contribution to the literary world goes largely unnoticed.

Staring at the door, wondering if I should take the chance and see if Wonderland lye on the opposite side, I heard a voice off to my right. A speaker hanging from the ceiling was telling heartbreaking tales of the down-and-out. “Your eyes, your smile, your embrace,” the speaker projected. “Please invite me in.” Honestly, most self-centric residents of town with a decent home would quickly slam their door in the face of any dirty homeless brave enough to ring their doorbell. Then they would triple-lock their door. Then they would call the police.

Along the back wall of the exhibit an old bed frame atop a topographical map of Alaska was placed. What does it mean to be homeless in rural Alaska versus urban Alaska? Rural homeless are hunters and gatherers while urban homeless survive off nourishment obtained through handouts and department stores that forget to lock up their Listerine. The piece was titled “Drift.” It would be much harder to be a drifter in rural Alaska than in Anchorage. The drifting would not last long in the wilds of Alaska.

All of my insensitive jokes aside, I want to help. Through my education, I have learned to appreciate the finer things in life. I don’t give two fucks about what type of car you drive or what brands you prefer to wear. I enjoy friends, conversation and good beer. By those standards, I should soon be homeless.

When a homeless person asks me for a dollar I often ponder if the money will go toward food or an alcoholic beverage. Honestly, if I received a ton of free money, some of it would go toward booze. Unfortunately, my American-manufactured SUV needed a new transfer case, so my PFD went toward vehicle expenses. Capitalism prevails once more.