Our response to the COVID-19 pandemic has rightly dominated the work of United Way of Anchorage and its dozens of partners for the last two years. From rent assistance and restaurant and hunger relief to childcare support and outreach into underserved communities for accurate COVID information and vaccine access, United Way has been a leader, partner and supporter in administering tens of millions of dollars in public and private pandemic response.
During this period of great uncertainty, our ability to act quickly has been tested and has revealed the need for new tools, greater flexibility and new partnerships. We continue to be encouraged by the mobilization and resilience of our communities, who rise to the challenges presented by COVID-19 and the ways in which it puts families and our economy at even greater risk.
More broadly, this global pandemic is revealing, with great clarity, the cracks and chasms that far too many in our communities face. It is highlighting the deficits of systems to be responsive to the basic needs of children and families under extraordinary circumstances like a pandemic, earthquake, or recession, and even more so for those who are already most impacted by inequities.
Signs now indicate that the pandemic’s power may be lessening to a manageable threat. The key word in that sentence is “may.” At any rate, we do know that the massive federal COVID relief that has fueled much of our response is history, and many across Alaska are still in need.
Alaska 2-1-1 reported that while calls for help and referrals dropped in 2021 to less than half the volume of 2020, that number still doubled the number of calls in the pre-pandemic year of 2019. The primary needs, apart from COVID information? Rent and utility assistance, by far. The economy hasn’t fully recovered; thousands in Anchorage still struggle to make ends meet and keep a roof over their heads.
In March, we still had more than 750 people in city shelters. And those figures for homelessness don’t include people living in cars, camps, couch surfing, or otherwise without a stable home. And we’re still facing a chronic shortage in affordable housing.
Add to that the heftiest dose of inflation in more than a generation. If the pandemic is indeed winding down, you could conclude that it means we’ll have the blessing of an uphill climb without masks.
On March 18, I joined Silvia Villamides of Alaska Hospitality Retailers, along with Jason Motyka, co-owner of the 49th State Brewing and Brandi Rathbun, co-owner of Moose a la Mode, at an Anchorage Assembly work session. We spoke of the success of Restaurant and Hunger Relief, the “triple-win” program that helped keep restaurants in business, their workers drawing paychecks and clients of nonprofits, from preschoolers to seniors, fed and healthy with hot meals.
Our pitch was to preserve some version of the program, which had been funded with federal COVID relief money through the municipality and was a hands-down success, with 320,000 meals served, 65 restaurants kept in business and almost 750 workers hired, rehired or maintained who otherwise would have been out of work.
“It was decisive,” Motyka said, adding that the restaurant industry in Anchorage still hasn’t recovered to pre-pandemic levels due to rising costs and wages. And he made a telling point about life post-pandemic, and that’s the shortage of affordable housing in Anchorage, which affects the restaurant industry hard during tourist season, with its influx of seasonal workers who need places to live.
“If we don’t solve the housing problem, we’re not going to be able to grow,” he said, suggesting that the restaurant relief program could include housing money for employees.
How that might work isn’t yet clear, but Motyka’s point about housing illustrates the ongoing, systemic challenges we faced before the pandemic took center stage and commanded most of our attention and resources. As the pandemic wanes we find not that much has changed in terms of those challenges since early 2020 – we’re still working for the health, education and financial stability of everyone in Anchorage.
Except… We’ve learned a lot in the last two-plus years.
We saw that minority members of our community bore more than their share of the economic burden of the pandemic. We recognized that not only the pandemic, but systemic barriers – racism overt or unconscious, language difficulties, ignorance and a baked-in bias that those who didn’t suffer it hardly noticed – imposed that burden. We’ve resolved that those barriers need to come down, for the sake of equity, justice and better lives for all of us.
Stark inequities and divisions may have disheartened us, but we countered with the encouragement of what we accomplished when we pulled together and helped our neighbors with effective initiatives.
Restaurant and Hunger Relief was a prime example. United Way, the municipality, Alaska Hospitality Retailers and dozens of nonprofits joined hands to make the most of pandemic relief money. Restaurant owners got the boost they needed to “weather the storm,” as Brandi Rathbun said. Hundreds of workers kept working. Their work banished hunger at tables graced with restaurant quality dishes. That was plenty. But even more, people in Anchorage who might never have met one another are no longer strangers. The recognition of common need erases bias and strengthens our community.
So, yes, we have the same challenges – education, health, housing, financial stability — we did in early 2020 before the pandemic struck. But with our partners we see those challenges and how to meet them more clearly in April 2022. We’ll have more specifics soon.
Until then, as always, thank you for sustaining the work as donors, volunteers, advocates and partners. As we evolve, our gratitude grows for the care and giving that have been our steady light for more than 60 years.