A group meeting this year over homelessness in Petersburg is hoping to get a better idea of the scope of the problem. They’ve been meeting monthly and are fine tuning a survey to determine some of the causes and solutions.

“What I would like to talk about is the survey,” said Annette Wooten of the local domestic violence advocacy group Working Against Violence for Everyone. Wooten was leading the third meeting of a group on homelessness in the community.

“So we tried to word some of the questions so that it wasn’t coming from a standpoint of judgment but also gathering information that might be important for us as we’re gonna move forward and trying to provide housing to people and what types of housing we need,” Wooten said.

Wooten and others have been meeting on the topic since June. It’s a mix of representatives from local organizations, churches and concerned citizens. They’re planning to have volunteers taking a survey around in the community asking about a person’s housing status, difficulties in finding or maintaining a permanent living space or making utility payments.

The group’s best early guess is that there may be around 40 people in Petersburg who are without a permanent home or rental or other living space, but they’re trying to get a more informed picture of the homeless population.

Chelsea Tremblay, another one of the moderators of the discussion, explained the need for the survey. “These are numbers that we basically have to have before we can go to any next level of developing an emergency housing situation, developing long-term housing situation, like all those kinds of conversations of well how many beds do we need? What type of space do we really need, do we need full kitchenette, we can’t have any of those discussions until we the survey done,” Tremblay said.

Over the summer the volunteers have identified list of short and long term goals. In the short term along with the survey, they’re hoping to create a housing resources list, identify more jobs for people with a criminal record and start investigating possibilities for a supervised warming shelter. Long-term goals are increasing rentals and low-income housing, as well as a housing-first model. That’s providing housing or rental assistance without preconditions for treatment of mental health problems or substance abuse.

It’s clear from the discussion of the group that the difficulty finding a place to rent or buy in Petersburg is not limited to people on no or limited income. Many of the participants say they had trouble finding a place to live when they first came to town.

Don Jones, a retired social worker, said he had trouble finding a place when he moved back here over a year ago. “Something that’s puzzling to me is I lived and worked here 20 years ago and at that time apartment rentals were very available, readily available, in homes as well as apartment buildings,” Jones said. “And now today, coming back here in June, I was surprised to find that there’s a lot of housing units south of AML, down Mitkof Highway, which were not there 30, 20 years ago. And the population of Petersburg is said to not have changed. There’s lot of housing in this town there. What happened to all the rental units? I just don’t get it.”

Group members thought some rentals have shut down or changed to bed and breakfast businesses. Petersburg’s 2016 comprehensive plan noted the community’s limited supply of low-income and affordable housing and set a goal of expanding the range, affordability and quality of living spaces, including seasonal and senior housing.

The monthly meetings on homeless are expected to continue in September. The group is hoping to have a visit from the executive director of Alaska Coalition on Housing and Homelessness. Once the survey is completed, volunteers plan to start conducting that survey at weekly free meals and other locations around town.